Ralph Koltai ~ Stage Designer

Ring
Ralph Koltai's designs for the Sadler's Wells Opera production of Richard Wagner's 'Ring' Cycle at the Coliseum in the 1970s.  Lighting by Robert Ornbo.

Date: ca1975
Photographer: Unknown.  ©Ralph Koltai and Sadler's Wells Opera.
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Ralph Koltai's designs for the Sadler's Wells Opera production of Richard Wagner's 'Ring' Cycle at the Coliseum in the 1970s.  Lighting by Robert Ornbo.

Date: ca1975
Photographer:Unknown. ©Ralph Koltai and Sadler's Wells Opera
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Methuselah
Ralph Koltai's designs for the National Theatre production of George Bernard Shaw's 'Back to Methuselah' at the Old Vic 1968-9. Directed by Clifford Williams.  Lighting by Robert Ornbo.

Date: 1968
Photographer: Unknown.  ©Ralph Koltai and The National Theatre
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Much Ado
Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing' (1982) by theatre designer Ralph Koltai for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford.
    Production and Lighting Design by Terry Hands.   Costume Designs by Alexander Reid.

Date: 1982
Photographer: Donald Cooper.  ©Donald Cooper, Ralph Koltai and the Royal Shakespeare Company
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Ralph Koltai CBE RDI
Koltai
Ralph Koltai CBE RDI, Stage Designer.

Date: 2013
Photographer: National Theatre, Prague.

Ralph Koltai is Britain’s senior and most celebrated Theatre Designer. Apart from his freelance work, he was closely associated with both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. As one of the many London-based designers working with Sadler's Wells, he also contributed work to early productions by Scottish Opera, notably their Boris Godonov and Otello. Material from each of these projects came to Ayr and was reused in a variety of setting devised, for the most part, by Bill Grierson.

Koltai was the subject of the first touring exhibition originated by the Maclaurin Trust.  A close collaboration with the designer, this exhibition concentrated on Koltai's work with the RSC and National Theatre in the late 1970.s and highlighted work submitted to the 1975 Prague Quadrennial International Exhibition of Scenography where he, and a group of fellow designers gained the premier award.

1963 – 1966 Associate Designer with the Royal Shakespeare Company
1965 – 1972 Head of Department of Theatre Design, Central School of Art and Design
1967 London Drama Critics’ Award: Designer of the Year for As You Like It and Little Murders
1975 Gold Medal for Stage Design, Prague Quadrennial International Exhibition of Scenography
1976 – present Associate designer with the Royal Shakespeare Company
1978 Society of West End Theatres’ Designer of the Year Award: Brand
1979 Golden Triga National Award, Prague Quadrennial International Exhibition of Scenography

Born Berlin, 31 July 1924.

British stage designer of Hungarian descent.

Work with Scottish Opera

Designer - Sets

Otello 1963
Carmen 1963
Volo di notte 1963
Otello 1964
Don Giovanni 1964
Boris Godonov 1965
Don Giovanni 1965
Carmen 1966
Samson and Delilah 1967
Otello 1967
Rake's Progress 1967
Boris Godonov 1968
Elegy for Young Lovers 1970
Don Giovanni 1970
Don Giovanni 1971
Rake's Progress 1971
Duke Bluebeard's Castle 1972
Otello 1972
Götterdämmerung 1972
Tristan und Isolde 1973
Elegy for Young Lovers 1974
Boris Godonov 1974
Elegy for Young Lovers 1975
Otello 1975
Don Giovanni 1975
Rheingold 1976
Macbeth 1976
Valkyrie 1976
Don Giovanni 1976
Otello 1976
Don Giovanni 1976
Götterdämmerung 1976
Siegfried 1976
Otello 1977
Macbeth 1977
Dalibor 1998
Genoveva 2000

Designer - Costumes
Volo di notte 1963
Don Giovanni 1964
Don Giovanni 1965
Rake's Progress 1967
Samson and Delilah 1967
Rake's Progress 1971
Duke Bluebeard's Castle 1972
Götterdämmerung 1972
Siegfried 1976
Rheingold 1976
Valkyrie 1976
Götterdämmerung 1976

Information in this section and the various links draw on material published at Opera Scotland.com


Much Ado 2
Model of set design for Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing' (1982) by theatre designer Ralph Koltai for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford.     Production and Lighting Design by Terry Hands.  Costume Designs by Alexander Reid.

Date: 1982
Photographer: Donald Cooper.  ©Donald Cooper, Ralph Koltai and the Royal Shakespeare Company
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Much Ado
Model of set design for Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing' (1982) by theatre designer Ralph Koltai for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford.     Production and Lighting Design by Terry Hands.  Costume Designs by Alexander Reid.

Date: 1982
Photographer: Donald Cooper.  ©Donald Cooper, Ralph Koltai and the Royal Shakespeare Company
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Cyrano Act 5
Stage design by Ralph Koltai for the fifth act of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Cyrano de Bergerac.  Directed by Terry Hands wurg Costume Designs by Alexander Reid.

Date: 1983
Photographer: Unknown.  ©Ralph Koltai and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
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Much Ado
Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing' (1982) by theatre designer Ralph Koltai for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford.
    Production and Lighting Design by Terry Hands.   Costume Designs by Alexander Reid

Date: 1982
Photographer: Donald Cooper.  ©Donald Cooper, Ralph Koltai and the Royal Shakespeare Company
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Stage Designer with a Poet's Palette

Thirty years ago, Kenneth Tynan wrote of British set- design that 'Decor for us means decoration; something imposed on, instead of arising from, the dramatic organism.' That is not true today. Drawing-room prettiness (how many ways are there of designing French windows?) has been replaced by genuine visual interpretation: witness John Napier's skeletal Victorian stairways in 'Nicholas Nickleby' or John Gunter's cool Edwardian summerhouse in All's Well That Ends Well.' But no one has done more to rescue British design from chocolate-box sweetness than Ralph Koltai, whose sets for the Royal Shakespeare Company's Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac, currently on Broadway, offer an imaginative vision of what the plays are about.

Mr. Koltai himself is a puckish, thoughtful 60-year-old Berliner who came to England as a boy of 14. First classified as an 'enemy alien,' he wound up working for British Intelligence at the end of World War II. Having taken up set designing because he had a friend who was a ballet dancer, he made his debut in 1950 with an opera by Ibert. Since then he has designed 140 shows (divided equally into plays and operas), worked all over the world and become famous for a style that seeks to find the right metaphor for each work. His set for Rolf Hochhuth's Soldiers in 1968 was dominated by a huge radar saucer. He conceived a space-age Ring cycle for English National Opera in the early 70's with an anthracite floor covering. And for a National Theater As You Like It, he designed a forest of tubular glass.

'I try,' says Mr. Koltai, 'to reconcile two things: my own development as an artist and the requirements of the play. In the case of 'Much Ado' I had lunch with the director, Terry Hands, who said something about transparency and about abolishing the distinction between indoors and outdoors. I thought about it and came up with Plexiglas floor and walls to convey a narcissistic society. I then had trees painted on the walls in silkscreen printers' ink to suggest an artificial world. People think one has long, in-depth conversations with a director, but often designs stem from a hint. I don't respond well to being told what is wanted. I like to make a conceptual contribution where you half need to direct the play yourself.'

Mr. Koltai says he thinks of himself as a painter who, instead of working on canvas, treats the play as an art object once he finds the right language for a particular work. He cracked the problem of 'Much Ado' in a week, but Rostand's opulent 'Cyrano' took a good deal longer. 'The director, Terry Hands, felt very strongly that the play was really an opera,' he said, 'and I wanted to create a set where each of the five scenes would be quite different and yet arrive in full view of the audience. I found out years ago that you could get away with minimal statements if you let the audience watch you doing it. So for the big fourth-act battle scene we had nothing but a tent and a flag; and I took my inspiration for the latter from the statue of American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima. In the play the Gascon flag is 27 feet high and has to be put up by eight men and I suddenly thought of that astonishing American sculpture and its sense of physical struggle.''

Mr. Koltai's sets for Cyrano are both spare and eye-grabbing: one thinks, for example, of the huge, burning-red chestnut tree that catches the elegiac flavour of the fifth act. But the real stumbling-block was the set for Ragueneau's bakery in the second act; and Mr. Koltai's solution is a good indication of the way he interprets a text. 'I didn't want goats, chickens and geese running about because that would have been banal, and mountains of loaves and pastry would have been equally obvious. Then I analysed what the scene is about - Ragueneau the poet. The bakery was incidental to his preoccupation with the arts.'

'So I conceived the idea of a tatty, rundown place with a couple of prized emblematic possessions: a golden Cupid and a golden chair. It's always worried me that, in the production, Cyrano stands on the chair to describe how he duelled with 100 men, because I feel that, for Ragueneau, the chair would have been, literally, a sacred seat of composition.''

But how do Mr. Koltai's sets come about? Sometimes from a directorial hint. Sometimes from close analysis of the text. Sometimes even from a sudden inspiration. He cites Shaw's epic of creative evolution 'Back to Methuselah', which he designed for the National Theater in 1969 and turned into a futuristic mixture of radar-screens, black Plexiglas chambers and delicate golden planets. All this, he says, stemmed from a conversation with the then director of the National, Laurence Olivier.

'I went to see Sir Laurence who asked if I knew the play and I said 'No.' He offered to tell me the story, which he did in 25 minutes. By the time he'd finished and before I'd read the text, I knew what I was going to do with it. I decided it was to do with the cosmos, and so I had these huge planets revolving round a central burning-disk. What sparked off the set was purely Olivier's description.'

Mr. Koltai's significance is that he has brought British set-design into contact with the second half of the 20th century. But although he thinks stage design has got beyond the bandbox prettiness of his youth, he feels there is a long way to go.

'I think basically theater design lags behind developments in the visual arts,' he says. 'What happens on the stage is not as exciting or forward-looking as what happens, say, in photography. I still think we have a habit of treating scenery like scenery rather than helping the actor and director to make a statement. I try and find ways of introducing art into theater and occasionally I get somewhere near. I think the theater has to get beyond the empty space - we've done that - and explore what artists like Warhol and Liechtenstein are doing. The theater hasn't even caught up with them yet.'

Michael Billington, New York Times: December 16, 1984


Much Ado
Model of set design for Shakespeare's 'As You Like It'(1967) by theatre designer Ralph Koltai for the National Theatre at the Old Vic.  Lighting by Robert Ornbo.

Date: 1967
Photographer:Unknown. ©Ralph Koltai and the National Theatre. .

‘the mirrored floor and walls reflecting the narcissi nature of the characters’
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Cyrano Ralph Koltai's designs for the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1983 production of Edmonds Rostand's 'Cyrano de Bergerac.'   Directed by Terry Hands wurg Costume Designs by Alexander Reid.

Date: 1983
Photographer: Unknown.  ©Ralph Koltai and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
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The Cherry Orchard (Queen's) Let's All Go Down the Strand (Phoenix) Clifford Williams's As You Like It has much in common with the Duke of York's garden. Here, too, many a dangling apricot, fair flower and wholesome herb is choked by weeds, or rather by the noisome designs of Ralph Koltai. Mr Koltai has set the play among fussy clusters of tubes and, for his costumes, has taken the boyish theme—for this production uses men only—all too literally. One can only suppose that as a youth he was smitten with an equal passion for schoolboy Puritanical (short cloaks, short reeks and tight boots) and for Dan Dare and his quaint spacemen from Eagle—who, as I remember, wore spangled polythene bags. The second influence is so strong that one constantly expects a Mekong with dropsically head and tiny warped green body to float out from behind one of Mr Koltai's lurid globular clouds; and it is particularly unfortunate in his PVC ladies' garments. Rosalind, for instance, arrives for her wedding hung with plastic petals in the kind of hygienic, high-necked, surgical gown which Dan Dare's lady wife would have worn, supposing he had taken a bride: even down to the elbow-length white gloves, for Eagle was nothing if not genteel.

The whole, in short, suggests that strain of bourgeois vulgarity, at once cheap and over-dressed, which we have learnt to associate with visiting productions from Eastern Europe. And here, however much Mr Williams may disclaim his influence in a programme note, one cannot help discerning the hand of the Pole, Professor Jan Knotty. Not that Professor Knotty goes in for this ponderous socialist-fantasist whimsy. But it was his book, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, which planted the seed of this production at the Old Vic; and, if the book has a fault, it is that the Professor has no sense of humour and is sometimes sadly misled by Shakespeare's.

Remarks like the description of Ariel, which he quotes with approval, as 'archetypal spy; the embodiment--if and when made flesh—of the Perfect and unspeakable secret police' have fostered the current nonirritating Knotty cult to which Mr Koltai has fallen a victim. And even Mr Williams is not above indulging the odd spurious thrill: witness his attempts to turn Duke Farina's admittedly treacherous and spy-ridden court into a sinister Kremlin antechamber, with thugs busy practicing third degree on Oliver de Boys. The same insensitivity lurks throughout the production—to spoil, for instance, Marc Wilkinson's exquisite counter- tenor song which Hymen sings for the sophisticates in Arden; Hymen here wears a grotesquely ill-fitting, imitation-Lurex suit which suggests nothing so much as a commissionaire's uniform from some flashy Soviet Wedding Palace.

And which, unhappily, is a pretty fair sample of the level to which the influence of Eastern Europe has been reduced in this production. Mr Williams's men dressed as girls, far from adding new and subtle tensions, have considerably simplified the text. What emerges is a sense of the sobriety and intellectual strength of Shakespeare's discussion of love in the play. No trace of bawdy here, much less of that ambiguous erotic excitement kindled between desire and frustration, which Professor Kott discusses and which Mr Williams made the basis of his ravishing Renaissance Twelfth Night for the Royal Shakespeare Company last year. On the contrary, Ronald Pickup—in costumes which cruelly emphasise cropped hair, large feet and a baritone voice—plays Rosalind with a studious, sweet simplicity that ignores whole areas of the character: not simply her tart, self-punishing irony, but also the sensuous passion to which it is the curb.

Charles Kay's Celia, on the other hand, is perhaps the richest, most complex and delicately humorous study of this lady—whom Shakespeare treated somewhat shabbily—that one may hope to see. The same goes for Derek Jacobi's Touchstone, an archetypal, disconsolate Londoner sadly unimpressed by the wastelands beyond the metropolis, and for Jeremy Brett's engaging and powerfully imagined Orlando. Even with a second troupe away in Canada, this company still has brilliant youth running out at its ears—Frank Wylie's usurping, suave and treacly Duke, Neil Fitzpatrick's shifty Oliver, Richard Kay, a strapping flirt as Phoebe, and Anthony Hopkins's impassive, monumental and eternally feminine Audrey. Robert Stephens's Jaques casts a small shadow here—an excellent notion spoilt by the cramped monotonous note which seems to have crept recently into Mr Stephens's playing. But the production as a whole, wherever it steers clear of its monstrous wraps, has an uncommon delicacy; and Mr Wilkinson's music, especially his pop 'Under the Greenwood Tree,' should sweep the charts on a record or I'm a Dutchman.

Hilary Spurling
Spectator Archive 12 OCTOBER 1967, Page 21

Butterfly
Ralph Koltai's design for Puccini's Madam Butterfly, Tokyo, 1995.

Date: 1995
Photographer: Unknown.  ©Ralph Koltai
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Madama Butterfly in Tokyo

David Pountney and the conductor Hiroshi Wakasugi were jointly responsible for the first production in Japan of the Milan version of Madama Butterfly, and the performance on April 22 at the Orchard Hall, Bunkamura was nothing short of revelatory.

Wakasugi conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra expertly, giving a scintillating, imperiously taut and superbly structured account of the original final act, making one realize what has been missing in so many other interpretations of the work given here and elsewhere. The Ricordi edition by Julian Smith was used.

Pountney brought remarkable insights to Butterfly; for him the opera is not a picture-postcard view of Japan, complete with the cherry blossoms so often encountered on local and Western stages. He moved the characters around with pointed effect, and made good use of a mobile, almost-transparent screen (sets were by Ralph Koltai). It was a pity that Kei Fukui's Pinkerton was so wooden, but Ikuo Oshima (Sharpless) and Kazuko Nagai (Suzuki) contributed positively, both vocally and histrionically, to the proceedings.

Though all major Japanese sopranos have tackled the role of Cio-Cio-San, on this occasion it was taken by the Chinese Chen Sue, and she gave an astonishing performance. She grew with the role, singing her arias with complete involvement. In moments of serenity she created a Noh-like apparition, and she reigned supreme on the stark stage during the final act of self-sacrifice.  .  .   .

Jason Roussos
The Spectator Archive. Page 44 , September 1995



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