Josef Svoboda, considered by some to be one of the most influential scenic designers of the 20th century, died April 8 of natural causes. He was 81.
A native of Czechoslovakia, he trained as an architect, then became principal designer at the Czech National Theatre in 1948, a position he held for more than 30 years. He became internationally known in 1958, when he and director Alfred Radok created two multimedia productions, Polyekran and Laterna Magika for the Brussels Worlds Fair. These shows combined live actors and filmed projections, a technique that he continued to explore in the following years. Among his more than 700 credits are Insect Comedy (Czech National Theatre, 1946); Rusalka (Teatro Le Fenice, Venice, 1958); La Sonambula (National Ballet, Amsterdam, 1964); The Storm (National Theatre, London, 1966), Pelleas and Melisande (Royal Opera House, London, 1969); Idomeneo (State Opera, Vienna, 1971); Carmen (Metropolitan Opera, New York, 1972); The Firebird (Royal Theatre, Copenhagen, 1972); I Vespri Siliciani (Metropolitan Opera, 1974); Jumpers (Kennedy Center, 1974); Tristan und Isolde (Festival Theatre, Bayreuth, 1974); Mahagonny (Grand Theatre, Geneva, 1975; Queen of Spades (National Arts Center, Ottawa, 1976); Faust (State Opera, Berlin, 1977); The Bartered Bride (Metropolitan Opera, 1978); Don Carlos (Zurich Opera, 1979); The Dream Play (State University, Albany, NY, 1980); Josefs Legende (La Scala, Milan, 1981); Queen of Spades (Houston Grand Opera, 1982); Blue Angel (New York City Opera, 1985). He left the Czech National Theatre in 1992. Earlier, in 1973, he became artistic director of the Laterna Magika Theatre; one of its productions, Magic Circus, has been performed 5,000 times.
Svoboda chose to describe himself as a sceneographer rather than a designer, reflecting his holistic, architectural, non-naturalistic approach to design. According to Theatrical Designers: An International Biographical Dictionary, edited by Thomas J. Mikotowicz, “Svoboda’s opera productions evidence his ingenious use of technology, as well as his use of all manner of modern materials, such as plastics, hyrdraulics, and lasers. In Tristan und Isolde, performed in Wiesbaden in 1967, Svoboda created one of his best-known effects, the three-dimensional `pillar of light’ with an aerosol mixture through which shone low-voltage luminaires. In Richard Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, performed in London between the years 1974 and 1976, the central unit was a platform that raised, lowered, tilted, and transformed into stairs that leveled no matter at what pitch the platform was. In addition, its underside had a large mirror to reflect performers who were below stage level.”
His many honors and awards include honorary doctorates from the Royal College of Arts in London, Denison and Western Michigan Universities in the US, and awards from USITT and International Theatre Institute. He was also made a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in Paris in 1976, and received the French Legion of Honor in 1993. According to Variety, American designer Ming Cho Lee, at the last Prague Quadrennial, mentioned Svoboda’s work as an inventor, including the Svoboda Ramp, a low-voltage lighting ramp.
Svoboda’s casket was displayed in the lobby of the Czech National Theatre, in Prague, on April 15.