In 1989, the pair returned to Krakow and enrolled at the Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts. There, Mr. Warlikowski studied with Krystian Lupa, a towering figure in Polish theater who makes long, slowly unfolding works based on literary texts.
In an interview, Mr. Lupa said that a student production by Mr. Warlikowski, drawn from the writings of Proust, marked him as a rising talent. “I felt there and then that Krzysztof Warlikowski was going to be a distinguished director,” he said.
This potential was not always seen by Polish critics, many of whom found Mr. Warlikowski’s early work too strongly influenced by his teacher. “The umbilical cord of our student-pedagogue relationship had not yet been severed,” Mr. Lupa said. But, he added, the first inklings of Mr. Warlikowski’s mature style were already clear in those 1990s shows, particularly an enduring fascination with “perverse, unobvious, not straightforward situations, where one person inflicts pain on another.”
His stark, bloody 1997 staging of Sophocles’s “Electra,” his Warsaw debut, was poorly reviewed. Looking back in 2004, however, the critic Maciej Nowak wrote in the theater journal Notatnik Teatralny that, in that production, Polish theater “made contact with what was happening on the stages of Western Europe.”
By the time Mr. Warlikowski staged his first important opera — Verdi’s “Don Carlos,” in its French version, at the Polish National Opera in 2000 — he was beginning to be celebrated as an original voice, though still a provocative one. The 2001 “Hamlet” in which Mr. Pondiezialek (pronounced pon-ya-JOW-ek), in the title role, took his clothes off, was shocking when it played in Poland, and many audience members walked out, said Piotr Gruszczynski, a dramaturg who works with Mr. Warlikowski.
“A naked actor onstage was something totally new,” he said.
But this was Mr. Warlikowski’s international breakout: It was rapturously received when it traveled to the Avignon Festival in France, and an offer to work at the Paris Opera followed.