By Tom Heneghan
PARIS (Reuters) - The French theatre, opera and film director Patrice Chereau, who mounted one of the most famous productions of Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle in Bayreuth in the 1970s, has died at the age of 68.
Chereau, who was preparing a production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" when he succumbed to lung cancer, was a restless innovator who began directing at high school in Paris and never looked back.
His last work, a production of Richard Strauss's opera "Elektra" in Aix-en-Provence, France in July, won wild plaudits and critical acclaim for the way it brought out new depths in the tragic characters.
"One of the greatest French artists has just died," President Francois Hollande said of Chereau after his death was reported by newspaper Liberation. "France has lost an artist of universal proportions who made it proud around the world."
The Paris daily Le Monde said: "Few men and few artists have lived as intensely and left such a towering legacy. There were all the directors in one category, and then Patrice Chereau."
The son of struggling artists, Chereau began his career in the mid-1960s directing a Paris theatre with a strong left-wing political bent. In 1969, he went to work at Milan's Piccolo Teatro with the Italian director Giorgio Strehler.
By 1971, he was back in France, this time in Lyon, where his "violent, virulent and sumptuous theatre" presentations, as the Paris daily Liberation put it, built his reputation further.
Then in 1976, when the French conductor Pierre Boulez asked him to direct Wagner's "Ring" cycle of operas at the legendary festival in Bayreuth, Chereau made his unforgettable debut on the international opera scene.
His adaptation of Wagner's Nordic myths as a 19th-century drama of capitalist exploitation of workers met with raucous boos at its debut. But at the end of its final presentation in 1980, the audience saluted him with an hour and a half of exuberant applause.
"We always worked together with a lot of passion," Boulez said after learning that Chereau, whom he called "the only director I wanted to work with", had died.
"What made his work stand out was the extreme precision with which he created a character out of the slightest figure," he told Le Monde. "I always felt confident with Chereau - when he wanted to try something out, I always told him 'yes'."
Chereau also turned his talents to the cinema, producing films while he also worked in theatre and opera. His first efforts in the 1970s were not critically acclaimed.
But he won a Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscars, for best screenplay in 1983 for "L'homme blesse" (The Wounded Man).
In 1994, his film "La Reine Margot" (Queen Margot) won the Jury Prize and best actress prizes at the Cannes festival. Five Cesars followed the next year.
His 2001 film "Intimite" (Intimacy) won the Golden Bear for best film at the Berlin Film Festival.
Chereau credited his parents with stirring his interest in art, especially drawing. "I knew at 15 I wanted to do theatre," he once said. "It came from drawing. I read texts and I drew."
At high school, he designed sets for the plays he directed. He also studied German and classical literature, two influences that showed through his career as he chose both modern German and ancient Greek dramas for his productions.
Reflecting on his tendency to try his hand at various forms of his art, he said: "I'd go crazy if I thought I was doing three different jobs. I know I'm only doing one."
(Reporting By Tom Heneghan; editing by Michael Roddy and Tom Pfeiffer)