Herbert Wernicke, the German opera director and designer, died on April 16, having collapsed in the street in Basel, Switzerland, where he was working on a production of Handel’s Israel in Egypt. He was 56.
Best known for his work in Europe, Wernicke had recently enjoyed a major triumph at the Metropolitan Opera with his staging and design (scenery, costumes, and lighting) for Richard Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten, which was one of the best-received Met productions of recent years.
Born in Auggen, in the Black Forest, in 1946, he originally studied to be a musician, learning the piano and flute, as well as conducting techniques. He turned to design, beginning his career in opera with Handel’s Belsazar in Darnstadt in 1978. He was well known for his work in Baroque opera, had designed a Ring Cycle in Brussels and was working on a new production of Ernst Krenek’s Johnny Spielt Auf in Vienna. He was also a familiar figure at the Salzburg Festival, Covent Garden and opera companies in Paris, Brussels and Aix-en-Provence.
About Wernicke, the writer Gerhard Rohde wrote, the designer’s “analytical style combined with his exceptionally visual imagination, keen sense of magic and exacting observations of the sheer complexity of reality outside the theatre repeatedly enabled him to uncover in opera the secret interrelationships between past and present.”
This is second death of a major European design in as many weeks, with the passing of Joseph Svoboda being marked by theatre professionals around the world. Wernicke was in the middle of designing a new Ring Cycle for the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.