Robert Ornbo (1931-2008) ~ Lighting Designer

The National Theatre's producion of George Bernard Shaw's 'Back to Methuselah' presented at the Old Vic in 1968. Stage design by Ralph Koltai, lighting by Robert Ornbo.

Date: 1968
Photographer: Unknown ©Ralph Koltai/National Theatre Archive

Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, the 1972 revival by Sadlers Wells in Glasgow

Date: 1972
Photographer: Unknown

This staging by Michel St Denis was first produced at Sadler’s Wells in 1960, during the Colin Davis years. It was something of a landmark at the time, and an excellent recording was produced by EMI. However it was only given rare revivals after the move to the Coliseum. Designs by Abd 'Elkader Farrah and lighting by Robert Ornbo.

Lighting designer Robert Ornbo.

Date: ca 2000
Photographer: Unknown

Robert Ornbo, lighting designer, 1931 - 2008

Robert Ornbo was born September 13th 1931 in Hessle, England to Karl Gerhardt (a shipbroker) and Gwendoline Cicely Fenner. He was educated at Hymers College, Hull (1942-1949).

National Service in the Far East gave Robert opportunities to indulge in his theatrical inclinations.  As well as performing at the Little Theatre in Singapore he was seconded to Radio Malaya, where he wrote and performed in plays, alongside his contemporaries Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse.  

He returned to England in 1951 and entered his father's ship-broking business, but the lure of the theatre called and he joined a group of touring actors playing one-night stands. Returning to London he landed a job as a linkman at The Talk of the Town, before moving to the Princes Theatre becoming 2nd Dayman, Ist Dayman and then Chief Electrician.


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: ©Ralph Koltai and Sadler's Wells Opera

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

Date: ca1975
Photographer: ©Ralph Koltai and Sadler's Wells Opera

Robert Ornbo, lighting designer, 1931 - 2008

Robert Ornbo was a brilliant and prolific lighting designer, whose work on over 300 productions ranged across drama, musicals, opera and ballet to events such as the Edinburgh Tattoo, the Royal Tournament, the naming ceremonies of ocean-going liners and events at Buckingham Place for the Royal Family. His influence has had a profound impact on all sectors of theatrical lighting while influencing practice in the small theatres used by amateur groups.

Ornbo joined Richard Pilbrow in the fledgling company: Theatre Projects in 1960 becoming Managing Director of Theatre Projects Lighting during its heyday when its team of lighting designers, who included Robert Bryan, John B. Read, David Hersey and Andy Bridge. He worked at the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet, Glyndebourne, the English National Opera, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare, and across the West End.

Richard Pilbrow and Robert Ornbo met at the Princes Theatre (now the Shaftesbury) in 1960. Theatre Projects, was then in its third year.

In those far distant days, an assistant lighting designer had to double as production electrician, rigger and as a vital source of support. Ornbo quickly moved from being a most indispensable assistant to a designer in his own right.

In 1961, when Pilbrow devised a new system of large-scale scenic projection, Ornbo performed all the mathematical calculations necessary to compensate for angular projection and supervised the photography. Their first show One Over the Eight was a great success and - thanks to the scene designer Tony Walton - led to designing the projections for the Broadway hit: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Subsequently, Ornbo’s career as a designer took off.

Among his notable successes were The Merchant of Venice directed by Jonathan Miller at the Old Vic (1970), Hal Prince’s Cabaret (1968), Pelleas and Meliscande at the Royal Opera House, (1969) with designer Josef Svoboda, Back to Methusalah (at the National Theatre at the Old Vic) and The Ring Cycle at the Coliseum 1971-1973), both with designer Ralph Koltai.

In 1973 the Sydney Opera House opened, with Ornbo called in to remedy a shortage of lighting facilities. After solving the problems he stayed to light the opening season starting with the opera War and Peace, again with designer Ralph Koltai. Thus began an extraordinarily international career, lighting productions in Amsterdam, Beirut, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Dublin, the Hague, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Oslo, Oman, Malmo, and elsewhere. One of his last productions in 1999 was a large-scale musical in Moscow, proving as he remarked: 'You don’t need to speak the language provided they have the same colour book.'

[Text draws in an appreciation written by Richard Pilbrow.[


Much Ado
Model of set design for '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’
As You like itShakespeare's 'As You Like It', directed by Clifford Williams, starring Ronald Pickup, Anthony Hopkins and Derek Jacobi.   Design by 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 first public performance at Sydney Opera House - War And Peace.

Marriage of minds

I don't imagine that Sir Michael Tippett would have dreamed back in 1955 that twenty-one years later the most marvellous production of his 'Midsummer Marriage' would be seen not in London, or Berlin, or the Metropolitan New York, or even Bayreuth,' but in Cardiff.

The extraordinary fact is, opera has moved into the provinces in a big way. When did London last see a new production with the boldness of concept, imagination or sheer visual and musical class of, say, the joint Scottish/ Welsh 'Jenufa', the Scottish 'Macbeth', or Kent Opera's ' Rigoletto'? The answer I suppose is the season-before-last's 'Peter Grimes' at Covent Garden, and only the lucky Milanese have been allowed to see it since. And now comes this 'Midsummer Marriage', which the Welsh National Opera has toured to Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester in the last five weeks.

What on earth was all the fuss about in 1955, when the piece was deemed utterly incomprehensible? It is incomprehensible only to those people who imagine they know what happens in 'Cosi fan tutte'. A work of art that can be 'explained' in Noddy language is no work of art. I cannot see the slightest problem about this ritual union on Midsummer Day, assuming one has actually heard of Jung, is on nodding acquaintance with the odd mythological archetype, and knows a phallic symbol when one meets one, any more than there are problems in 'The Magic Flute' or 'Die Frau ohne Schatten'.

Maybe it is part of the function of a visionary artist to be a year or two ahead of his time, but I fear this was a case of us being a good ten years behind ours. The only worrying point is the .effect this may have had on Tippett; I don't believe that his later operas have attained anything like the stature of this work, though I look forward to being proved ignominiously wrong in twenty years' time. In the meantime, Cardiff has made amends.

First, the sound. Some find the acoustic of the New Theatre too dry; I welcome the lack of fuzziness. The impact of the choral and orchestral sound is almost physical, and one could actually hear and revel in the bold intricacy of Tippett's writing.

Over the years we have all been remarking on how the relatively young Welsh Philharmonia has been improving. That must stop: it is now a marvellous opera orchestra, and the new pit, extending under the stage as in Glasgow's Theatre Royal, means that the brass can bray to its heart's content and still not get in the way. The balance was beautifully controlled, and the playing of this fiendishly difficult score betokened untold hours of rehearsal, every minute of it well spent. The result was a personal triumph for Richard Armstrong, the musical director and moving spirit behind this enterprise.

The chorus not only sang their heads off, producing a body of tone that cannot be matched in these islands, but managed in their collective stage manner to establish that atmosphere of complete normalcy so essential in this work. There was a refreshing lack of self-consciousness in their every movement—this was also true of the principals—and that constitutes the most important, indeed crucial contribution from the producer, Ian Watt Smith.

All this was achieved in a permanent set, which said both everything and nothing, by Ralph Koltai, the most imaginative designer working in opera today. He was aided and abetted by Robert Ornbo, luckily, since Koltai sets are designed to be lit rather than just have light flung at them. It looked so simple: a green grass circle, and twin perspex vertical circles at the back which revolved in counter-motion to form the temple entrance. There was a metallic cloth behind, and both this and the circles appeared to have both translucent and reflecting qualities: the variety of colour and light throughout was of bewitching beauty.

Koltai substituted some of his own visual imagery for that specified by the libretto. No lotus petals, indeed no transfiguration for Mark and Jenifer in the finale: Sosostris started as an abstract mobile (and again it took light with quite breathtaking virtuosity) and turned into a blinding-white globe (in fact a disc, but Mr Ornbo was hard at work). The couple's role-switching was indicated by the changing colours of their costumes, and the earthiness of the whole suggested by the way the white chorus clothes merged greenly into the grass cloth. Tippett's visible delight at the curtain calls showed that he didn't mind. Nor should he have done—I cannot remember having seen design used so creatively in the service of opera, warm though my memories remain of Barbara Hepworth's original.

The principals declined to be overpowered by all this. A stentorian young tenor, John Treleaven (Mark) laid the foundations of what should be a useful career. He appeared quite undaunted by the fearsome difficulties of the vocal writing; Jill Gomez, alas, did. Rather than singing the role of Jenifer she toyed with it, and I trust this was a passing indisposition. Raimund Herincx's King Fisher was far more subtly delineated than in the bestforgotten Covent Garden production of 1968, and as always with this singer, every word told. Mary Davies and Arthur Davies were a delightful second couple, and Maureen Guy and Paul Hudson, got up as metallic Mekons with fish-tails, were the Ancients. Helen Watts managed to get many of her words across—Sosostris's solo is the only technically questionable moment in the score.

The dancer Hugh Spight (Strephon) displayed rather more of his body than might be considered decent in Cardiff, but that hardly seemed out of place in this particular piece. The choreography, save for Spight's animal leaps at the opening of Act Two, was the only less than satisfactory element, falling between the two stools of the abstract and the representational and employing a Fokine out-of-date dance vocabulary. The circular patterns were good, though.

Rodbey Milnes
The Spectator Archive, 18 DECEMBER 1976, Page 28

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Robert Ornbo in Scotland

Lighting for Scottish Opera and touring companies visiting Scotland

Turco in Italia 1971
Götterdämmerung 1972
Duke Bluebeard's Castle 1972
Oedipus Rex 1972
Tristan und Isolde 1973
Hermiston 1975
Rheingold 1976
Valkyrie 1976
Götterdämmerung 1976
Siegfried 1976

Ornbo's approach to stage lighting influenced designs for Compass Club and Ayr Intimate Opera, noptably in the 'forest effect' for Sandrina

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