Thursday, March 3, 2011: Light Work

Scene from Dvořák's Rusalka, National Theatre, Prague, 1991

When Josef Svoboda is praised as one of, if not the most, influential set designers it’s not empty hyperbole. He changed what people thought they could do with the stage and what the audience expected from it.

He had an architect’s sense of grandeur and space – unsurprising since he studied this field – coupled with a child-like love of illusion. As a recent local exhibition of his work showed, Svoboda didn’t just provide a backdrop for the performances. It was an integral part.

You may already know his work, if not his name, from Lanterna Magika, the multi-media theatre which he established with stage director Alfréd Radok. This theatre specializes in ‘non-verbal’ performances, relying on movement, music, and Svoboda’s set designs to convey the mood and ideas. What started as an exhibition for the ’58 Brussels Expo continues today.

Scene from Queen of Snows, from Hans Christian Andersen, Lanterna Magika, Prague, 1979

Svoboda worked a sense of space into his set pieces so that many of them interact with and dominate the space. This is evident in his early designs for Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers. Staircases are used to give the principles more than a means to reach the stage. The ascending parallel lines, slowly getting closer and closer, heighten the depth and thus the drama of the stage.

Svoboda’s ingenuity in the early adoption of laser light is much documented. He treated light almost like a material, not merely for illumination, but using light to interact with the structures and so to become a real presence in the production.

Most famous of these is his ‘pillar of light,’ which uses lights shining through an aerosol mixture to give the illusion of an actual three-dimensional pillar.

However, Svoboda’s sense of light went beyond just dazzling displays. Like his architectonic stage designs, light has a commanding presence as can be seen in his stage designs for the Royal Opera House’s 1974 production of Wagner’s Das Rhinegold, the first part of the Ring Cycle. The light comes down in shafts and adds to the sense of heroism in the opera.

Svoboda designed several more sets for Wagnerian operas and the originality of his approach seems to transform the productions. Sometimes his approach frees itself totally from representation, so that light, color, and form are central. His design for Stravinsky’s The Firebird in Copenhagen in 1972 has just this sense of lightness – in both senses. The set resembles of group of kites, congregating on the ceiling, through which light shines. The stage itself remains mostly dark.

Svoboda was born in 1920 and died in 2002. He studied scenography (stage design) at the Prague Conservatory and architecture at the Academy of Applied Arts. Though many of his designs were for early productions, it is still possible to see Svoboda’s design for Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Lanterna Magika. An exhibition of his work is also part of the Museum of Čáslav, the city of his birth. oo

–Ryan Scott

Photo Credits: Ubulibri


  1. Lynne DeMichele
    Posted March 7, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Fascinating. Just wish there might have been links to see more of Svoboda’s designs.

  2. Mary
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Fortunately, you can search the internet and easily choose just the length and type of further info that suits you best. Glad that Opus Osm could get you started! That’s what we’re here for.

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