Stefanos Lazaridis: Demanding stage designer for opera and theatre renowned for his boldness and clarity of interpretation

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The stage designer Stefanos Lazaridis was the scion of a rich expatriate Greek family owning highly profitable factories making fabrics and bath towels, coffee and wallcoverings, in Addis Abbaba.

It was a paternalistic background: his father Nicholas would entertain the thousands he employed to great Eastertide feasts with lambs roasted in the open. Stefan (as he was usually known in Britain) and his slightly younger sister Irene, both born in Dire-Dawa, went to the Greek School in Addis and then were sent off to Geneva to the Ecole Internationale. He arrived by himself in London ahead of her in 1962, aged 20, and was supposed to study business administration. But instead he started a course at the Byam Shaw School of Arts, and then went to the Central School of Speech and Drama to become a stage designer. Nicholas Georgiadis, a fellow Greek who was famous for his designs for Kenneth MacMillan, gave him work as an apprentice in his studio for five years. He designed his first theatre production in Guildford in 1967. But his breakthrough (thanks to Georgiadis) was designing Antony Tudor’s Knight Errant for the Royal Ballet touring company in 1968.

Lazaridis initially took a mainly decorative approach when working with the director John Copley at Covent Garden and the Coliseum, on similar lines to his teacher Georgiadis, but later he made himself into a totally different kind of artist. He was not a painter, unlike Georgiadis who had studied at the Slade. He sensed the coming change in theatrical and operatic fashion - a more Felsenstein-like emphasis on theatricality and meaning.

Before starting any design process with the model box that he always preferred to sketches, Stefan always wanted to explore the physical and social history behind a work’s composition, the circumstances and character of the composer, the ideas in the story. He had an insatiable appetite for photos and paintings that might become relevant to what he was modelling. He would stir a rich brew of allusions into the strong focussed statements that made his sets so conceptually distinctive. His work never represented a consistent personal aesthetic, like Axel Manthey’s or Nigel Lowery’s. This differentiated him from famous designers of the previous generation such as Oliver Messel or Sean Kenny.

Lazaridis’s originality was all about interpretation. He described his approach as “distorted traditionalism”. The German tradition of in-house dramaturgs who actively collaborate on the production process is unknown in the English-speaking world. Directors and designers seeking to avoid conventional solutions of course do for themselves what German dramaturgs do. Lazaridis never set out to make an aesthetic statement. “Design is the result of a process. My craftsmanship is my experience, my past mistakes. If I make something work now, it is because I have learnt what to avoid and can escape disasters. But the result - what you see on stage - comes from within.” Copley appreciated Stefan’s nose for a good idea, his readiness to steal and improve on the original. Their 1973 “modern” Covent Garden Don Giovanni - which was the production that set Lazaridis on a different course - was based on Timothy O’Brien’s set for Peter Hall’s staging of Tippett’s Knot Garden.

Copley, impressed by seeing Lazaridis’s folio, gave him his opera debut with that 1970 Sadler’s Wells Carmen - a bankable hit like so many later Lazaridis shows. Seraglio, Werther, Trovatore were the stepping stones. It was his work with David Pountney - and with some of the young turks that Pountney brought in to direct at English National Opera in the 1980s - that established his status in British design. It was a golden age for opera in Britain, and Lazaridis told Copley he was delighted to be appointed an Associate of ENO in 1986 because “it means I can kick people out that I don’t like”. Copley felt he was one of them.

Lazaridis designed over 30 productions for ENO. But it was the three productions that he did with Pountney at the Bregenz Festival in 1989, 1993 and 1995 that mattered most, along with the Harvey Goldsmith Carmen which he designed for Steven Pimlott at Earls Court in 1993 - the year he also directed and designed Duran Duran’s tour of the US. These huge productions were popular opera on a scale not seen before - enormous budgets that earned their money back, and interpretations that added up and appealed to an audience’s intelligence: opera as theatre.

Lazaridis usually created a single set where the whole work could be played out - the unity of the work embodied in an invented environment as if the purpose of the performance were to mobilise the moral or historical flavour in music and text. Lazaridis wanted to articulate the theme that drew composer and librettist to the material in the first place. He was a difficult and demanding collaborator who defended his ideas ferociously. He alone could decide on changes to his ideas: he was not consensual if an element of the design idea had not worked out, or presented problems. Ideally he wanted his final design to settle the physical shape of the direction. Yet, unlike many famously “impossible” or “nightmare” designers, he did not gravitate to directing his own productions, except a few for Scottish Opera and Opera North, and a Gluck Orphée et Euridice in Sydney. He was much less interested in human performers than in the ideas they embodied. However brilliantly manipulative on behalf of his ideas for the staging, he was not a people person.

Directors he worked with as well as Pountney included Nicholas Hytner, Graham Vick, Yuri Lyubimov, Keith Warner, Jonathan Miller, Patrick Garland, John Cox, Colin Graham, Tim Albery, and Phyllida Lloyd. He did many straight theatre productions, including for the RSC, and worked all over the world - in the USA, Japan, and Australia as well as in European centres of opera: Milan, Venice, Berlin, Zurich, Bologna, Stuttgart.

It was a huge body of work, characterised by frequent success with critics and audiences, and a bold clean-limbed interpretative clarity.

Lazaridis’s conceptual and dramaturgical approach was what perhaps lay behind his comparative lack of interest in the clothes that the characters would actually be wearing. Two weeks into rehearsals with John Copley for Lazaridis’s 1970 Carmen Copley panicked that there was still no hint what anybody would be wearing. Even locking the young designer into Camperdown House with provisions over the weekend did not produce any inspirations from him, let alone sketches of clothes. Copley brought in David Walker for the clothes: a sign of things to come. Lazaridis often worked with another designer doing the costumes (Sue Blane, for example, on his hugely successful Bayreuth Lohengrin with Keith Warner directing in 1999). One of his most frequent costume collaborators was Marie-Jeanne Lecca who was with him on The Ring at Covent Garden in 2006/7. It cost companies more to have a second designer at work, but that never affected Lazaridis’s career. It proves how well his concepts worked that managements bit the bullet and accepted hiring someone else proposed by him to do costumes.

Such hit productions as ENO’s The Mikado with Miller were typically just a single architectural set on which everything could happen. Yet one of his most engaging ENO designs - Pountney’s Hansel and Gretel - involved a thrilling set change when the whole Witch’s kitchen emerged from below stage like a volcanic island rising from the sea. This idea perhaps originated in Svoboda’s Ring set for Götz Friedrich at Covent Garden. Stefan’s imagination was always daring. Expense was just an issue to be resolved. Sadly, few of his designs would be affordable in today’s climate.

The idea of a camera oscura as frame for one of his most successful of all ENO productions, Madam Butterfly directed by Graham Vick in 1984, Lazaridis himself reused in his darkly depressive 1987 restaging of Werther for ENO, directed by Keith Warner. He had been very excited to find out that Massenet was obsessed with photography. This was originally planned by ENO as a revival in the sets Lazaridis had created for Copley’s decorative period production in 1977, which unusually had been staged both at the Coliseum and later at Covent Garden. But since then Lazaridis had worked with Yuri Lyubimov on a Rigoletto for the Florence Maggio Musicale that had been a gratifyingly huge scandal in Italy (Gilda sang Caro nome seated in a swing like Jeanette MacDonald). Lazaridis had undergone almost a conversion experience about what design should show.

Lyubimov could also teach Lazaridis a thing or two about being unreasonable and demanding - a valuable tutorial, and Lazaridis was an apt pupil. The pair prepared a Tristan und Isolde in 16 days. Lyubimov demanded everything in the show be newly invented. He pointed at the trees beating against the windows of Lazaridis’s sixth-floor Holland Park duplex and asked why anybody would want to try and repeat the wonder of that natural physical reality on stage. Could the designer invent nature? Lazaridis, considering all the painted false trees in the Werther he had made for Copley in 1977, banned trees from his work for 14 years - until his 1998 Turn of the Screw in Brussels with Keith Warner directing. For Werther he persuaded ENO to let him start again with the sets and design a very cheap black box for Warner to work within.

Lyubimov’s challenge also lay behind the rejection of Japanoiserie for the Vick Butterfly. There would no longer be visual doubling of ideas realised in the music. For a time Lazaridis was impressed by the Russian experimenter. Then he decided Lyubimov was not really inventive, but applying a lot of old tricks. Inspiration, Lazaridis felt, could only come from the unconscious. It could not be part of a kit packed away and pulled out when needed. His expatriate background and his upbringing in the Greek Orthodox church strongly influenced him. Greek liturgy is both theatrical and of Wagnerian length. Copley felt he embodied a very unBritish mentality. Greeks do not like doing what they were told. Lazaridis said, “For me the theatre is religion.”

His successful 1998 design of The Turn of the Screw for the Monnaie in Brussels, conducted by Tony Pappano, for which Lazaridis was named designer of the year by the German magazine Opern Welt, used a mirror gauze to achieve some of its ghostly effects. The gauze looked as wrinkled as a pair of tights at the piano dress rehearsal and Lazaridis fell out with the technical director over it. The problem was seen to, but the production - though very popular and admired by the audience - was never revived and never went to Barcelona the company that had co-produced it. His sets for Macbeth in Brussels a few years later - with Warner directing again - were turned down by the technical department, though Lazaridis used the ideas for a production with his most frequent collaborator Pountney in Zurich.

His sets for The Ring at Covent Garden in Warner’s production, his last work, were a disappointing coda to his career. Lazaridis’s Wozzeck for Pappano with Warner in 2002 had been very successful and well-reviewed. But the fault was partly the Royal Opera managements’, partly Warner’s, toying far too long with an abortive ploy to engage polymath Daniel Libeskind (who had never designed opera) on the project. Lazaridis regularly fell out with directors – and then was reconciled. But perhaps The Ring with its inevitable range of different worlds and scenes was not his piece.

Lazaridis and Warner’s Lohengrin for the Bayreuth Festival in 1999 was one of the most successful productions there since the famous Chéreau Ring and unprecedentedly revived for six seasons. Yet even at Bayreuth Lazaridis gave a characteristic demonstration of his ability to get extraordinary terms for his work. Gudrun and Wolfgang Wagner’s proposal for his Lohengrin fee was so much lower than what he generally earned that he told them he would work for nothing - and turn the job into a tax loss. The Wagners replied that they couldn’t not pay him - so the fee was fixed at one Deutschmark. The expenses, however, included flying him to Bayreuth for consultations in a private jet. Being expensive was for Lazaridis a matter of pride. Managements invariably paid up, one way or another. If he had worked in film, of course, negotiations and immense costs would all have been routine and normal. In opera they were unusual. But that reflected both Lazaridis’s extraordinary reputation and his achievement.

His ENO designs for Hansel and Gretel and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk won awards in 1987, and in 1998 his Turn of the Screw for the Monnaie, Brussels got the Diploma of Honour in Prague. More recently his Martinu Greek Passion and Wozzeck both at the Royal Opera House won Olivier awards. He is survived by Tim Williams his partner for 47 years.

Tom Sutcliffe

Stefanos Lazaridis, stage designer: born Dire-Dawa, Ethiopia 28 July 1942; partner to Tim Williams; died 8 May 2010.