Obituary: Ralph Koltai – ‘the most influential stage designer in British theatre in the latter half of the 20th century’
Ralph Koltai, who has died at the age of 94, was the most influential stage designer in British theatre in the second half of the last century. In a career spanning seven decades, he designed more than 250 productions for ballet, opera and theatre in which he wrenched stage imagery away from moribund domestic pictorialism towards a modern and often controversial abstract aesthetic championed by European theatremakers.
“Design is about ideas. It is not a matter of being able to make or draw models. You can always find someone to do that for you,” he pointedly told The Stage in 1987. In a later interview, he summarised his approach to design by declaring its guiding aim was “to make the space belong to the characters”.
Born in Berlin of Hungarian descent, he fled the mounting threat of Nazi violence to London in 1939 where, before the Second World War ended, he volunteered for military service. After serving as a translator at the Nuremberg trials, he was transferred to the Intelligence Corps to investigate war crimes.
Returning to civvy street in 1948 “with no idea of what I was going to be doing”, his thoughts were steered towards the theatre by his then ballet dancer-girlfriend and memories of pre-war evening classes at the Epsom School of Art.
After studies at the Central School of Art and Design – to where he returned as head of the theatre design course from 1965-72 to excite and inculcate a new visual boldness in successive intakes of young designers – he began to attract attention with designs for the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, the Covent Garden Opera Company and Ballet Rambert.
In 1958, The Stage admired his “sordid street-scene decor, which was yet a thing of beauty” for Norman Morrice’s Two Brothers for Ballet Rambert. Soon after, he began a long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company (later becoming an associate artist) when he designed the first West End staging of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Aldwych Theatre in 1962.
The following year, again with the RSC at the Aldwych, he caused something of a stir with his starkly unambiguous set for the British premiere of Rolf Hochhuth’s The Representative, in which a Nazi gas chamber metamorphosed into the Vatican’s plush, art-filled Papal throne room.
He was also making inroads into transforming design for ballet with his “stunning molten abstract” setting for Australian Ballet’s Raymonda starring Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn at the New Victoria Theatre in 1965.
In 1967, Koltai provided a forest of hanging plastic tubes extended by mirrored walls for the RSC’s controversial all-male As You Like It directed by Clifford Williams, for whom he went on to design more than 20 productions.
Featuring large white geometric shapes silhouetted against a black void and mirroring the seating of the Chichester Festival Theatre, his 1968 collaboration with David Jones on The Tempest proved to be Koltai’s own favourite design.
By then, he was an established international figure known for designing the opening production at the Sydney Opera House – Wagner’s Tannhauser – in 1973 and English National Opera’s historic 1974 Ring Cycle conducted by Reginald Goodall.
His 1978 design for Henrik Ibsen’s Brand at the National Theatre was that rare thing: a spare but symbolically rich setting that mastered and transformed the forbidding scale of the Olivier stage – its “fissured, frozen-snow setting, made to heave and writhe in cataclysmic fashion, is audaciously inventive”, wrote Peter Hepple in The Stage. It won him the first of two Society of West End Theatre (now Olivier) awards. The second followed in 1983 for his “glitteringly handsome” designs for Derek Jacobi’s Cyrano de Bergerac with the RSC.
The same year, his collaboration with Ken Russell on Les Soldats (a reworking of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten) for Lyon Opera prompted a provocative, sexually charged set featuring giant casts of intimate female body parts.
In 1987, Koltai designed English National Opera’s British premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, a gargantuan work that required 102 scene changes. “By the time you’ve worked all that out, you might as well direct the damn thing,” he told The Stage at the time.
The RSC’s critically reviled staging of Stephen King’s classic horror novel Carrie followed in 1988, after which Koltai designed what was reputed to be the UK’s first stage set to cost £1 million at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1989. His meticulously engineered sets for the musical version of Fritz Lang’s iconic expressionist film Metropolis were described by the Times as an “astonishing array of metallic pipes, glass lifts and suspended spheres”.
Working prolifically into his 90s, a notable late design was Samuel West’s first revival of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain at the Sheffield Crucible in 2006: an ancient oak-tree root (fashioned from the garden in France to where Koltai had moved in 1989) surrounded by water.
He took his leave of the theatre with Welsh National Opera’s touring Figaro trilogy – featuring operas by Rossini, Mozart and Elena Langer – in 2016, producing a kinetic assembly of revolving, semi-translucent panels that managed to prove eloquently adaptable to three productions and satisfy three very different directors.
His few ventures into television included his blood-spattered bullring for Christopher Bruce’s ballet Cruel Garden (1982) and Bill Alexander’s 1985 production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Moliere.
Koltai was married to the costume designer Annena Stubbs from 1954-76, collaborating with her frequently throughout the 1960s.
In 1975 he co-founded the Society of British Theatre Designers with John Bury and published a book, Ralph Koltai: Designer for the Stage, in 1997.
He was appointed a CBE in 1983 and in later years developed a reputation as a metal sculptor, his work being exhibited at the National Theatre in 2010 and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2016.
Ralph Koltai was born on July 31, 1924 and died on December 15, aged 94. He is survived by his second wife, Jane.