Johan Engels

Born in Scottburgh, Kwa-Zulu Natal on 4th April 1952, Johan dreamt of working in the theatre from a very young age. He went on to study fine arts, specialising in theatre design, at the University of Pretoria. Little did he know how far his ambitions would take him: the Royal Shakespeare Company, Vienna State Opera, Broadway, Opéra de Marseille, National Theatre of Norway, Bregenzer Festspiele …

He joined the Performing Arts Council of Transvaal (PACT) in 1974. He initially worked as resident designer and then as freelancer on numerous projects such as The Barber of Seville, Die Fledermaus, Major Barbara, Macbeth and The Sound of Music.

Johan first worked with PACT’s Ballet Company in 1975 when he designed the company’s productions of Romeo and Juliet and Vespri. The following year he designed new costumes for Swan Lake and in 1979 the costumes for Cinderella, a new Romeo and Juliet and the company’s first production of La Sylphide. AT PACT he worked with local designers such as Aubrey Couling, Neels Hansen, Raimond Schoop and Richard Cook.

For the Market Theatre he designed Lysistrata, Mother Courage, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of Bessie Smith, Children of a Lesser God and for the Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB), Die Fledermaus, Sweet Bird of Youth and The Merchant of Venice.

In 1979 Johan left South Africa for an extended study tour at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bayreuth, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden. He subsequently settled in London where his projects included Martha (New Sadler’s Wells Opera), Faust (Royal Opera House), Guistino (Handel Opera), Custom of the Country (RSC), Hay Fever (Royal Exchange, Manchester) and a new West End production of The Boyfriend. While in Europe he also designed the costumes for a new production of Rigoletto at the Maggio Musicale in Florence and was a member of the British stage design team represented at the Prague Quadrennial in 1983.

Whilst living in London he returned to work in South Africa, notably for PACT Opera’s productions of Andrea Chénier and Tristan und Isolde, as well as Elektra and L’elisir d’amore.

He returned to South Africa in 1986, where he again worked on several productions at the Market Theatre with Janice Honeyman and Robert Whitehead (As Is, Entertaining Mr Sloane, I’m not Rappaport), as well as the controversial production of Othello, with Janet Suzman directing John Kani in the title role. Johan was awarded a Vita Award for Best Design for As Is and for I’m not Rappaport, both directed by Honeyman.

In 1989 Johan accepted an invitation from The Royal Exchange Theatre for a series of plays and throughout the nineties he worked on a wealth of projects, most notably The Seagull, directed by Terry Hands for the RSC. Career highlights during this period include Wagner’s Ring for Opéra de Marseille, Beethoven Ballet and Spartacus for the Wiener Staatsoper Ballet, Aïda for the Cagliari Opera and Turandot, directed by David Pountney, for the Bregenzer Festspiele.

Never one to shy away from artistically demanding, sometimes controversial, and technically complex productions, Johan accepted the challenge of designing eight simultaneously running productions for Opera North’s 25th anniversary called Eight Little Greats: The Dwarf, La vida breve, Il Tabarro, Djamileh, Francesca da Rimini, Pagliacci, Love’s Luggage Lost and The Seven Deadly Sins. It was an outstanding accomplishment for the production team who had to ensure that each opera could be built or struck within a 30-minute interval.

On the lighter side of the performing arts scene, Johan was a trusted favourite of popular soprano Sarah Brightman. In 2000 he designed her costumes and set for for her La Luna World Tour as well as the hugely popular Harem World Tour in 2004. He was the production designer for her 1999 One Night in Eden World Tour and the 2008 Symphony World Tour.

During 2009, Johan designed the critically-acclaimed production of Artaxerxes for the Royal Opera (directed by Martin Duncan), L’elisir d’amore for Los Angeles Opera (Stephen Lawless, director) and Chorus! with David Pountney for Houston Grand Opera.

2010 saw productions in Poland and the Bregenzer Festspiele (Die Passagierin; with Pountney), New Zealand (Macbeth; Tim Albery), Germany (Les Troyens; Pountney), Sweden (Thaïs, with director Nicola Raab) and South Africa: The Boys in The Photograph, with Janice Honeyman, for which Johan was awarded the Naledi Theatre Award for Best Theatre Set Design.

The Passenger travelled to the English National Opera in 2011, in which year Johan designed Faust for Opéra National de Paris (director Jean-Louis Martinoty) and ORF TV’s Vienna New Year’s Day Concert.

2012 was another busy year: Mathis der Maler with director Keith Warner for Theater an der Wien (winner of the Golden Schikaneder Austrian Music Theatre Award 2014); Von Heute auf Morgen, Sancta Susanna, Il Tabarro, Gianni Schicchi, Suor Angelica (all for Opéra de Lyon; directed by John Fulljames and David Pountney), as well as director John Caird’s Don Carlos revival for Houston Grand Opera.

In 2013, Johan designed Opera North’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Martin Duncan, the sets for Lulu in a Pountney co-production for Welsh National Opera and Prague National Opera (awarded the Theatrical Management Association’s “Achievement in Opera” award); Parsifal for Lyric Opera Chicago and director John Caird, Pountney’s acclaimed production of Die Zauberflöte for Bregenzer Festspiele and a revival of Nicola Raab’s Thaïs for Finnish National Opera.

With 2014 came Janice Honeyman’s Show Boat for Cape Town Opera, Raab’s Thaïs for Los Angeles Opera, The Passenger for Houston Grand Opera and Lincoln Centre New York, as well as a revival of the Bregenzer Festspiele Die Zauberflöte.

Johan’s untimely death on 7th November 2014 occurred while he was working on a series of productions, amongst which Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre’s West Side Story and the Ring for Lyric Opera Chicago.

Past productions

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