In October of 2007, I traveled to Milan to join the directing team of the production of Tristan und Isolde that Patrice Chéreau was to direct at La Scala, under the musical direction of Daniel Barenboim. I had met Chéreau as a student at Columbia University, when he accepted an invitation for an informal talk in Anne Bogart’s class some years earlier. Chéreau was perceived as a legend in European theatre, an enfant terrible who had done everything. He had discovered new meaning and emotional extremity in classical drama; he had transformed opera productions by infusing the music with actual dramatic action; he had created a new and radical space for contemporary theatre while being artistic director at the Theatre Nanterre-Les Amandiers. And, like Visconti or Bergman, the directors whom he admired the most, he had an equally successful career in cinema.
Chéreau had an early start as a director—he began as a teenager at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where his aesthetic ambition was already evident. The son of a painter and an illustrator, he took obsessive care of every visual detail, designing both sets and costumes. He quickly rose to fame and was offered the artistic direction of the Theatre de Sartrouville in the outskirts of Paris at age 22. In Sartrouville he met Richard Peduzzi, who was to become his only set designer and lifelong collaborator. Led by Chéreau’s sharp visual sense, the two were able to forge a new theatrical style, while continuing to explore the classics. But the financial difficulties of the theatre pushed them both toward Milan, where Paolo Grassi had invited the young Chéreau to join the Piccolo Teatro in 1970.
It was fortuitous that I was meeting him there, in Milan, the city that adopted him as a young director, and where he was returning 40 years later to direct Wagner. Upon my arrival he asked me to meet him at the Trattoria Torre di Pisa, a traditional restaurant he knew from his Milan days. It was Sunday. The streets were empty and the city was covered by fog. I found the place. Chéreau was sitting at a table with Peduzzi. They both smiled warmly and asked me to join them for dinner. We did not talk about work. They shared anecdotes about their time at the Piccolo.
Milan had been instrumental to his early development. While at the Piccolo he worked under the tutelage of Giorgio Strehler, whom he referred to in a memorial speech in Paris after Strehler’s death in 1997 as “the only mentor I chose for myself. He was theatre in its entirety; he believed theatre had a responsibility for the world and for society; he taught me everything—the theatrical space, the sense of meaning, how to tell a story with the poetry of theatre, how to find lightness and gravity.”
In Italy, Chéreau also began his career in opera. His very first production was Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri at the Spoleto Festival. He frequently told the story of how Anna Magnani walked out during opening night of the production, at which Luchino Visconti was also present. Later that night in a restaurant, Visconti was to tell the young Chéreau: “Young man, I think you have realized that it is very difficult to direct opera!” He laughed, making it clear that he never liked Italian opera.
After Milan, Chéreau returned to Paris to join Roger Planchon at the Théâtre National Populaire in Villeurbanne. In 1976 he was summoned by maestro Pierre Boulez to join him in the centenary production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth. He was 31 years old. Chéreau had never seen the Ring, but he accepted the challenge. When Wolfgang Wagner asked how much time he would need to direct the full 16 hours of operatic action, he responded “one month and a half.” He had no idea what he had signed up for.
Barenboim had asked Chéreau in subsequent years to collaborate on Tristan, butChéreau rejected the offer, claiming that a young director could not understand a mature love affair, in which desire could only be consummated by death. In 2007, at 64, he was ready. He was interested in the notion of Freud’s death drive, but he was not aware of the proximity of his own death.
Chéreau passed away in September 2013 in Clichy. Following the death of his friend and collaborator, the playwright Bernard Marie Koltés, in 1989, he had taken a step back from the theatre. He devoted his time to film and opera, and directed only a few plays. In the U.S. he is most remembered for his films Queen Margot and Intimacy, the only film he shot in English, with Mark Rylance as a leading man. I will remember him, indelibly and intimately, sitting across from me at a restaurant table in Milan in the fog.
Theatre and opera director Pedro Salazar lives in Bogotá, Colombia.