Maria Björnson, Designer Who Won Tonys for the Phantom's Lair, Dead at 53

Obituaries   Maria Björnson, Designer Who Won Tonys for the Phantom's Lair, Dead at 53 Maria Björnson, the set and costume designer who created the rich, sumptuous visual world of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera — a world of underground caverns, windswept rooftops and pastiche opera spectacle — was found dead in her London home Dec. 13, according to the Times of London. The Paris-born Ms. Björnson was 53. No other information about her death has been reported.
Howard McGillin sings from the Phantom's lair, designed by Maria Bjornson.
Howard McGillin sings from the Phantom's lair, designed by Maria Bjornson. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

The woman who created what is arguably the most famous chandelier in theatrical history (it comes crashing down to the stage every night in the Harold Prince staging of the Lloyd Webber hit) was, the Times reported, a "love child" — the daughter of a Romanian mother, Mia Prodan, who survives her, and a Norwegian businessman, Bjorn Bjornson. Her great-grandfather was the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian playwright, Bjornstjerne Bjornson.

Ms. Bjornson's mother brought her daughter to London in 1950. In her teen years, she studied design. Her work in a design school graduate show was noticed by Philip Prowse of the Citizens Theatre of Glasgow and Ms. Björnson was invited to design there.

Plays, musicals and operas would all be a part of her costume and scenic work over the years. She designed the alpine staging of Aspects of Love for London and Broadway, and the Shaftesbury Theatre staging of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. For The Phantom of the Opera — considered to be one of the most complicated design projects in musical theatre history — she won two Tony Awards, for set and costumes, respectively. Her work on the show was replicated in stagings around the world, and she meticulously oversaw aspects of each production and was known for visiting each version.

Her credits include Der Rosenkavalier, Don Giovanni, Donnerstag aus Licht and Tales of Hoffman for the Royal Opera House; Die Valkure and The Gambler for English National Opera; The Queens of Spades for Nederlandser Opera; Katya Kabanova and Jenufa for Houston Opera.

She designed Houston Opera's upcoming world premiere of The Little Prince. In the ambitious Phantom, Ms. Björnson created opera pastiche settings (a giant elephant hull punctuates the fake opera, Hannibal); a fog-covered, candlelit underground lake on which the title character's skiff glides; and a large staircase at the Paris Opera House, with New Year's Eve revelers hiding behind ornate masks (they sing "Masquerade" as they step down the stairs; some theatregoers note there are also costumed dummies on the steps, but the design work and the overall staging are so rich that the illusion of a crowd works).

Maria Bjornson's design for <i>The Phantom of the Opera</i>'s mock opera, "Hannibal."
Maria Bjornson's design for The Phantom of the Opera's mock opera, "Hannibal." (Photo by Photo by Clive Barda)