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OPERA San Antonio in the News

Desmond Heeley: Master Craftsman of Stage Spectacle


Glittering at the centre of the Stratford Festival's 2009 production of The Importance of Being Earnest was a light-reflecting chandelier fashioned with plastic wine glasses and utensils – the kind you buy at the dollar store and use at a picnic. The internationally renowned theatre, opera and ballet designer Desmond Heeley, who died on June 10, 2016 at the age of 85, conceptualized the elaborate stage accoutrement and crafted most of it himself, in spite of having a team to do such work.

"He could make anything out of anything," says costume designer Molly Harris Campbell, a former assistant and longtime friend. The production subsequently went on to the Roundabout Theatre in New York, where it won Mr. Heeley his third and final Tony award, for costume design.

Known for his gorgeous props, costumes and sets, Mr. Heeley was exceptionally inventive and thrived on tight budgets, often making his most striking creations with everyday objects. His designs were in demand on both sides of the Atlantic. In Canada, he designed 40 Stratford Festival productions and worked for the National Ballet of Canada, the Canadian Opera Company and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. In the United States, he designed productions for New York's Metropolitan Opera, the American Ballet Theatre, the Guthrie Theater and more. He also designed productions at London's Royal Opera House and National Theatre, and at La Scala, the illustrious Milan opera house.

Desmond Heeley, designer of costumes for The Stratford Festival, examines a model of the city of Troy built from his designs for “Troilus and Cressida” by Lawrence Schafer (right) of Kitchener, June 1963. PETER SMITH

"He had such a huge influence on design and designers around the world," says Doug Paraschuk, a set designer at Stratford who worked as Mr. Heeley's assistant for many years and was also a good friend.

Macaroni, cork balls, swimming pool noodles and tape of all sorts found their way into his creations. He would make Christmas wrapping paper look like gold leaf. Ornate tassels on a curtain were actually made of plastic spoons. He covered the stage at the Festival Theatre in Stratford with crushed red velvet.

For a production of Molière's The School for Wives, he made faux tiles out of pieces of carpet that cushioned the actors through the French farce. A going-out-of-business sale in New York yielded mounds of exquisite silk fabric samples that he transformed into costumes for a lush production of The Three Musketeers at Stratford. He personally painted the skirts used in La Sylphide, which the National Ballet of Canada reprised a few months ago.

Many of his creations looked raw and unfinished to the naked eye. "You'd see his work up close and you'd think, 'This is crazy. It's goofy,'" says Antoni Cimolino, artistic director of the Stratford Festival, who has been with the festival since 1988, as an actor, director and administrator. "Then you sat in the audience and it looked better than real."

Desmond Heeley, designer of costumes for The Stratford Festival, June 1963.

"He was a master at finding light," Mr. Paraschuk says. Even the simplest table was painted with some kind of patina to reflect light. With costumes, he'd often create multiple layers, and paint directly on the fabric, all to give the piece more texture.

In 1968, Mr. Heeley became the first person to win Tony Awards for both scenic and costume design for the same production, for his work in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

British-born Mr. Heeley first came to North America to work in Stratford. While he lived in New York for most of his life, he spent numerous springs and summers working in Stratford working on productions. "Canada was his spiritual home," says Mr. Paraschuk. "Des would not mind me saying that."

Desmond Heeley was born on June 1, 1931. Little is known of his early life but friends say he was an orphan who was adopted by a family living in West Bromwich, a small town outside Birmingham, England. The family owned a store and young Desmond began decorating the store's windows when he was a child.

Mr. Heeley often shared the story of how, at age five, he was taken to see a pantomime version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. He was enamoured of the production. But even at that age, he was critical of the design work, in particular a skeleton prop. "That's not very good. It's just an old cardboard thing," he told Playbill in 2011.

A schoolteacher noticed his design talent and arranged a scholarship for young Mr. Heeley to apprentice at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon. He learned quickly and trained to be a milliner and prop builder. He then did work at places such as the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Mr. Paraschuk says one of the first plays Mr. Heeley ever designed was The Lark by Jean Anouilh – he would have been in his early 20s. In 1955, at age 24, Mr. Heeley designed the costumes for Titus Andronicus in Stratford-upon-Avon for director Peter Brook, with actors Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

Designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch and directors Tyrone Guthrie and Michael Langham, all worked with him in England and encouraged him to come to Canada. All three did pivotal work in the early days of the Stratford Festival (Ms. Moiseiwitsch, Mr. Heeley's mentor, designed the stage at the Festival Theatre).

He referred to leaving England and his family there as "going off and joining the circus." In 1957, he worked on his first Stratford play, Hamlet, which starred Christopher Plummer.

He worked consistently at Stratford and later began branching out, doing work for opera and ballet.

Mr. Cimolino recalls a dark and powerful set for the 1992 Measure for Measure, directed by Mr. Langham, in which Mr. Heeley created a very effective prison upstage. Also in Earnest, he put together a fireplace mantel, adorned with a clock and what looked like a mirror above it. But the mirror was actually a painting that showed the back of the clock on the mantel.

Mr. Paraschuk has strong memories of the "magical production" of Amadeus they worked on together in 1995 and 1996. Mr. Heeley had personal reasons for immersing himself in the play's subject matter – the death of an artist. His partner of about 20 years, the Australian-born composer Lance Mulcahy, died in early 1995. (Mr. Mulcahy had been nominated for a Tony himself for best original score, in 1981.)

Mr. Heeley also became a professor of design at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Outside of the performing arts, he did design work for Tiffany & Co. Mr. Paraschuk says his mentor also drew in his free time, and he recalls a series of drawings of animals dressed in fanciful clothing. "He often said if he had not worked in theatre, he would have loved to work for Walt Disney."

Designer Desmond Heeley, right, in a fitting with actress Jan Wood, centre, and cutter Margaret Lamb are shown in this 1983 file photo.

For his work, Mr. Heeley received numerous awards, including the TDF/Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994, the Allan Jones Memorial Award in 1995, the Institute for Theater Technology Award in 1997 and the Robert L.B. Tobin Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatrical Design in 2013.

Mr. Heeley was a tall man with a low, mumbly voice. Combined with his English accent, people often struggled to understand him at first. He had a bit of an ego and certainly a temper. "He wanted things to happen the way in which he wanted them to happen," says Mr. Paraschuk. He recalls a heated conversation between Mr. Heeley and the architect renovating the Festival Theatre in the mid-1990s. Mr. Paraschuk had to put a hand on Mr. Heeley's leg to calm him down and prevent a fiery outburst.

He was such a hands-on perfectionist that his assistants would often arrive at work in the morning to find their latest project had been finished by Mr. Heeley. He loved to do the final painting or put the ribbons on a hat. His team didn't mind – he always had a strong vision, but was easy to work with. "He was so loved by the people here," says Mr. Cimolino. Ms. Harris Campbell says he was a generous mentor, "He was incredibly encouraging to young people."

Above all, he was an artist who never lost his passion for design. (He also loved travel and food, particularly Italian food.) Even in 2009, when he was already suffering from the rare cancer that took his life, he worked while in pain to create Earnest, his final production.

Mr. Paraschuk recalls just how much the work affected Mr. Heeley. One morning, they entered the scenic shop at Stratford and could see the faux tile floor – assembled with a complex recipe of reflective mylar, epoxy and other materials – that one of the scenic artists had been working on, from above, nearly finished. "Oh, Doug," he said, simply, while powerfully clasping onto his assistant's arm. "When he grabbed onto you with those big hands, it meant something."

Original Article by DIANE PETERS for the Globe and Mail Inc.


La Traviata: The sets and costumes for OPERA San Antonio's production of La Traviata are part Desmond Heeley's artistic legacy. We invite you to experience grand opera for a grand city on September 13 & 15,  7:30 p.m. at the Tobin Center.  

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