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Wolfgang Tillmans turns set designer, creating the backdrop for a Benjamin Britten production at English National Opera

The Turner prize winner will unveil a sculptural piece and projections during the War Requiem oratorio

Wolfgang Tillmans © Anders Clausen, 2013

The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans follows in the footsteps of artist David Hockney, designing a stage set for a major opera. Hockney turned his hand to Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, creating the set for a production at Glyndebourne in 1975; Tillmans has designed a production of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem for English National Opera (ENO) opening in London this week (16 November-7 December) to mark the centenary of the armistice.

The oratorio, composed by Britten in 1961, was made for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in May 1962. It combines the Missa Pro Defunctis (Latin Mass for the Dead) and the poetry of Wilfred Owen who was killed during the First World War.

“It was really important to me to respect the fact that this piece of music was conceived, written and composed as a requiem, not an opera,” Tillmans told The Times newspaper. “Opera takes such liberties. I felt that it was important to stay close to circumstances that can be visually recognised as having something to do with the piece.” His design incorporates projections of moss-covered stones and swamps.

A huge bubble-like sculpture will be the centrepiece, which Tillmans describes as “an abstracted form, a primordial shape a bit like a great bulbous root, but painted silver to give it the feel of molten magma”. Tillmans writes on Instagram that “it’s been a steep learning curve and a rollercoaster of experiences in theatreland”, adding that he is not allowed to share images until opening night.

Tillmans was one of the most vocal members of the British art world to oppose Brexit, setting up his own campaign to support the pro- European vote in the 2016 EU referendum. On social media, he wrote last month that “whether you voted leave or remain, nobody voted to make this country worse off, to harm jobs, to damage the National Health Service”.