Neuenfels studied at the Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna in the 1960s, and in the 1970s he quickly established himself as a leading exponent of German Regietheater. Being invited to prominent venues, such as the Burgtheater, his productions were often controversially received, but he worked at the same time with well-known actors such as Klaus Maria Brandauer, Bernhard Minetti and Anne Bennent (de).
His opera productions were often accompanied by heated discussions and scandals. In particular his version of Aida in 1980 for Frankfurt, conducted by Michael Gielen, in which he portrayed Verdi's Ethiopian slave as a cleaning woman in a contemporary setting, or his Fledermaus in 2001 for the Salzburg Festival, which provoked angry reactions and resentment.
Neuenfels has been criticised for creating extremely sexually explicit opera scenes. Soprano Karita Mattila criticised Neuenfels in 2000 for the Salzburg Festival production of Mozart's Così fan tutte, where huge insects and background videos (some of which were erotic) distracted attention from the singers. Furthermore, during Fiordiligi's fiery aria, "Come scoglio", she arrived onstage walking two men, in leather and chains, as if they were dogs. She called it the worst experience, and believed he crossed the line in such productions.
Later in 2003, Neuenfels' production of Mozart's Idomeneo which premiered in December at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, there is a scene in the epilog in which Idomeneo staggers on stage carrying the severed heads of Neptune, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad. Following a warning by the police that the production might present a security risk, the opera house cancelled performances planned for September 2006. Following protests that the opera house was engaging in self-censorship, the director of the opera house, Kirsten Harms (de), subsequently announced that the production would be presented in December 2006. On this subject, see also 2006 Idomeneo controversy.
In 2010 Neuenfels debuted at the Bayreuth Festival with Wagner's Lohengrin, conducted by Andris Nelsons. This new production presented the opera in a laboratory setting and included chorus members costumed as lab rats. The production's premiere on 25 July 2010 provoked a mixed reaction from the audience in attendance, ranging from enthusiastic applause to irate booing. According to Der Spiegel, Neuenfels merely smiled and shrugged after taking his curtain calls.
While studying in Vienna, Neuenfels became acquainted with Austrian actress Elisabeth Trissenaar, whom he subsequently married. Their son, Benedict Neuenfels, is a cinematographer. They live in Berlin and own a summer residence in Altaussee.
- Poems (1960)
- Mundmündig (1963)
- Isaakaros (1991)
- Neapel oder die Reise nach Stuttgart (2001)
- 1983: Heinrich Penthesilea von Kleist
- 1983: Die Familie oder Schroffenstein
- 1984: Die Schwärmer
- 1988: Europa und der zweite Apfel (TV)
- 1990: Das Blinde Ohr der Oper
- 1999: Die Entführung aus dem Serail (TV)
- 2001: Die Fledermaus (TV)
- Tommasini, Anthony (13 October 2000). "Karita Mattila: A Soprano Takes a Dramatic Turn". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-01.
- "Neuer 'Lohengrin' in Bayreuth: Wie man den Schwan rupft", Der Spiegel, in German, 26 July 2010.