Desmond Heeley, 'Alchemist' of Theater Design, Dies at 85

By Weber, Bruce | International New York Times, June 22, 2016 | Go to article overview

Desmond Heeley, 'Alchemist' of Theater Design, Dies at 85


Weber, Bruce, International New York Times


Those who worked with Mr. Heeley often described him as a magician with a preternatural ability to see with the eyes of the audience.

Desmond Heeley, a celebrated designer for the theater, the opera and the ballet, whose costumes dressed the likes of Laurence Olivier, Beverly Sills and Margot Fonteyn, and whose sets were used in major productions throughout the world, died on June 10 in Manhattan. He was 85.

The cause was cancer, said Philip Caggiano, a friend.

With a painterly eye for beauty and the resourcefulness to create the impression of elegance from the most mundane materials -- a glittering chandelier for a 1993 production of "La Traviata" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago was made from plastic spoons -- Mr. Heeley was a designer of both grandeur and witty panache.

His long career -- on Broadway alone it covered more than half a century and three Tony Awards -- began when he was a teenager in England, and early on he worked with the innovative director Peter Brook.

Mr. Heeley was a skilled painter and a hands-on designer who concerned himself with every detail of a production's visual presentation, tinkering to the very end. Those who worked with him said he had a preternatural sense of what an audience sees; he was frequently described as an alchemist or magician because his constructions -- seemingly unrefined on close examination -- dazzled from a spectator's perspective.

Santo Loquasto, the Tony Award-winning designer, said that a Heeley design "often had a beautiful lushness to it" and revealed "a sculptural way of viewing things."

Duane Schuler, a lighting designer who was his frequent collaborator, recalled a twinkling tree that Mr. Heeley made from shards of old CDs, and a whole shimmering ocean suggested by clear plastic and clear tape.

"He had a great sense of color and proportion and a sense of how to find light," Mr. Schuler said. "He'd build sets out of masking tape and water putty, and the texture would be rough, and up close they wouldn't look like much; they were a mess. You'd take 20 steps back, and it was magical."

Mr. Heeley designed for Glyndebourne, the opera house in East Sussex, England, and La Scala in Milan. His work at the Metropolitan Opera included Bellini's "Norma" (1970), which starred Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne; Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" (1978), with Ms. Sills; and Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" (1980), directed by Gian Carlo Menotti and starring Renata Scotto.

His ballet work included "The Merry Widow," a dance adaptation of the operetta by Franz Lehar, for the Australian Ballet (which featured Margot Fonteyn in the title role when it appeared in New York City in 1976), and a Tchaikovsky buffet: a "Sleeping Beauty" for the Stuttgart Ballet, a "Nutcracker" for the Houston Ballet and a "Theme and Variations" for the American Ballet Theater. …

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