An opera director who once staged "Antony and Cleopatra" in a swimming pool is now portraying the main character of Richard Wagner's opera "Tannhaeuser" as a fallen television evangelist.

Peter Sellars' production of "Tannhaeuser" was set to open Monday at the Chicago Lyric opera."I want people to realize that `Tannhaeuser' is about Wagner's own fleshly struggles and his invention of his own morality," Sellars said.

In Wagner's opera, Tannhaeuser is a German knight in the Middle Ages who is in love with a virtuous woman, but who also indulges in orgies with the pagan goddess, Venus. He eventually achieves salvation through a miracle.

Sellars' "Tannhaeuser," is set in a Nevada motel room with the hero modeled after televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who made a tearful televised confession last February that he had committed an unspecified sin against God and his family.

"There were a lot of parallels between Jimmy Swaggart and Wagner - both were cult figures who cloaked themselves in public religiosity and promoted themselves shamelessly," Sellars said. "We admire them, sure, but we also, in a strange way, distrust them."

Sellars, 31, says he wants to shock people into a greater understanding of Wagner's opera.

"I want to give people something profound and sad and beautiful to think about," he said.

Sellars, whose recent operatic triumphs include last year's acclaimed production of "Nixon In China," was invited to Chicago to do "Tannhaeuser" so audiences could get a taste of contemporary opera, says Ardis Krainik, general director of the Lyric Opera.

"Peter Sellars is, without question, one of the present-day musical theater geniuses of America," Ms. Krainik said. "There's always a lot of controversy surrounding Peter."

Sellar's production credits range from the odd to bizarre. He once set Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutti" in a diner and set the same composer's "The Marriage of Figaro" in the Trump Tower. His only previous experience with Wagner was a condensed version of "The Ring of The Niebelung" - done with puppets in a Denver shopping mall.