Ralph Koltai, the German-born artist whose conceptual scenic designs for theatre, opera, and dance, innovated stage productions across the globe, died December 15 at age 94.
His sculptural and abstract landscapes reinvigorated classics by Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Kurt Weill, Puccini, and Wagner, bringing towering drama to The Valkyrie for English National Opera in 1970, and invoking a sparse solitude with The Tempest for Chichester Festival Theatre in 1968 with a white geometrical platform floating within a black void.
His designs for musical theatre were no less epic. His set design for the 1987 English National Opera production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Pacific Overtures required 102 scenic changes.
Koltai is perhaps best-known to musical theatre enthusiasts for designing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s premiere of Stephen King’s Carrie in 1988. The physical production, which referenced the structure of classic Greek theatre, incorporated new laser technology and pyrotechnics. The production later transferred to Broadway for a short-lived run—earning its place as cult epic. His work for the 1989 stage adaptation of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis made history as the first U.K. theatre design to cost £1 million.
In a career that spanned seven decades, Koltai designed more than 250 productions—30 of which were created for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Along with John Bury, he co-founded the Society of British Theatre Designers in 1975.
Ralph Koltai was born on July 31, 1924. He served with British Intelligence during the Nuremberg Trials at the end of World War II before studying at the Central School of Art and Design in London. He later became head of Theatre Design at Central School from 1965–1972.
He was married to costume designer Annena Stubbs from 1954–1976; the two artists were frequent collaborators. Koltai was appointed a CBE in 1983, and in 1997, published his book: Ralph Koltai: Designer for the Stage.
In later years he primarily focused on metal sculpture, a thematic presence in many of his theatre designs. He is survived by his second wife, Jane.