Opera and theatre designer

Born: July 31, 1924;

Died: December 15, 2018

The designer Ralph Koltai, who has died aged 94, had a fundamental influence on design in the theatre and opera house for over fifty years. His vivid imagination shaped the way that plays, operas and ballets are presented today. For a production Koltai sought to create a single image which would encapsulate what the author/composer was saying. Koltai searched for fresh visual images which grabbed the attention of the audience from the moment the curtain rose. He once said, “I always try and make discoveries, to find out something new. I want to ensure the space belongs to the characters.”

Koltai was born into a middle class family in Berlin, his father a successful doctor who found his son in 1939 a place on a kinder transport train to Brussels and then to safety in Scotland. He worked on a farm in Perthshire then lived with a couple of elderly ladies in Edinburgh. He went south in1944 and volunteered for the Royal Army Service Corps joining the ranks. However they found he could speak German and type, “I was posted to Essen and finally to Nuremberg to create a law library at the war crimes trials. I was able to attend the hearings and watch the Nazi leaders. He recalled “[Julius] Streicher, the ‘Jew-baiter’, was an absolute moron but [Hermann] Goering was no fool and wiped the floor with some of the prosecutors.”

After the war he returned to London and was transferred to an intelligence interrogation unit tracking down war criminals. He was naturalised in 1947 and demobilised in 1948.

He applied to the Central School of Art and Design and designed for a variety of small companies but after designing Carmen at Sadler’s Wells he was widely recognised. Not least at Scottish Opera where he made a huge impression in the early years of the company. His work had been seen in Scotland on tours by the Sadler’s Wells Company from 1963 – notably segments of the famous ENO Ring Cycle conducted by Reginald Goodall. In 1964 Koltai designed a beguiling and dramatic set for SO’s first Don Giovanni – two large panels of masonry, one black, one white, with varied patterns which reacted differently to the fall of the spot lights. In 1965 Koltai delivered a stunning set for Boris Godunov which captured the grandeur of Tsarist Russia – a huge map of Mother Russia spread out on the floor during Boris’s mighty monologue - magnificently sung by David Ward.

But it was the sheer invention that Koltai brought to opera in Scotland that made his productions visually so vital. Especially the 1970 production of Elegy For Young Lovers which the composer, Hans Werner Henze, directed and Alexander Gibson conducted the difficult score superbly. But for many, what remained in the memory was Koltai’s enormous set of scaffolding and thick plastic squares which, when lit, cast beguiling and atmospheric images.

Other outstanding designs for SO included Otello, Rake’s Progress, Macbeth and Dalibor. That final production typified Koltai’s desire to seek new challenges. Smetana’s opera is not well known but in David Pountney’s production Koltai’s Sixties designs included on-stage high tension wires built around an hydraulic surf board. It certainly commanded the attention of the audience.

All his work for SO gave the company an early and valuable identity. Koltai is included in a list of around ten eminent artists listed in the book , 50 Years of Scottish Opera, who, “in the 1960s gloriously paved the way for half a century of treasured operatic memories.”

Koltai first worked the Royal Opera in a challenging new production of Wagner’s Tannhauser. He returned to design the world premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Taverner (1972).

He worked on over twenty productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company including Clifford Williams's epic production of Rolf Hochhüth's The Representative in 1963. An international scandal broke on the first night principally caused by Koltai's set rather than by the play’s subject – the Vatican’s relationship with the Nazis. Koltai, daringly, set the play in a gas chamber that was also the Pope's study.

At the National Theatre Koltai did the costumes and sets for the famous all- male production by John Dexter of As You Like It (1967). Anthony Hopkins was resplendent in a blond wig and frilly dress. Ronald Pickup who played Rosalind remembered Koltai “as one of the all-time great designers. Ralph’s set was a series of white plain surfaces very dependent on lighting. It was utterly magical.”

Koltai was awarded the CBE in 1983. In 1956 Koltai married Annena Stubbs who often designed the costumes for his productions. They divorced in 1976. Before he married Jane Alexander in 2008, who survives him, he enjoyed the company of a series of lovers. He had no children.

Alasdair Steven