Stefanos Lazaridis obituary

Iconoclastic stage designer who always started from the idea, never the visual, in highlighting dramatic conflict

For some, opera describes private passions, voicing individual desires and tragedy. For others – especially directors and designers of the late 20th century – opera is an idea. It strikes sparks when characters run against their turbulent society, acting like lightning conductors for a culture's stress points. This was the ethos of Stefanos Lazaridis, who has died aged 67 of cancer, one of the most striking, and possibly most influential, opera designers in Britain during the last 30 years. Working throughout Europe, but especially at English National Opera (ENO) during the 1980s, he created bold, theatrical, argumentative designs. "I never start from the visual," he said, "the stage picture has to follow from the idea, as an inevitable consequence of it."

Born to a Greek family in Dire-Dawa, Ethiopia, Lazaridis was educated in Addis Ababa and Geneva. He came to London in 1962 to attend business school, but instead studied design at the Central School of Speech and Drama. His first professional design was for Tennessee Williams's Eccentricities of a Nightingale (in Guildford, Surrey, in 1967), and his first opera a pulsating Carmen for director John Copley at Sadler's Wells Opera, north London, in 1970.

Early designs were noted for opulent naturalism, including Copley's Marriage of Figaro (1971) at Covent Garden, assailed by scorching sun from without and gasping passions within (a youthful cast included Kiri te Kanawa).

Later Royal Opera productions were less happy: Idomeneo (1977) saw conductor Colin Davis clash with German director Götz Friedrich. Lazaridis's style was in transition. An Aida drenched in gold paint and described as "grand opera gone wild" (ENO, 1979) was a turning point. He stripped back the production for touring, but the decisive shift from decorator to conceptualist came when he worked with visionary Russian director Yuri Lyubimov. Their Tristan and Isolde in Bologna (1983) was a revelation: "Like moving house, because I suddenly discovered all the things I did not really need about me on stage."

His stage pictures did not become stark, exactly – Lazaridis was never minimalist – but everything would now have an ideological as well as atmospheric purpose. Not everyone liked the style – Piero Cappuccilli, due to sing the title role, walked out of Lyubimov's Rigoletto in Florence, set in a crypto-fascist state.

Lazaridis then returned to ENO and was appointed associate director in 1986. The company was led by a questing triumvirate: general director Peter Jonas, conductor Mark Elder and director of productions David Pountney, their provocative tenure known as the "power house". Although Lazaridis had a reputation as fearsomely expensive, it was poverty that forged the house style. A zero-budget series of unfamiliar operas developed, the management team claimed, "a rumbustious, iconoclastic production style".

Fuelled by passion rather than balance sheets, the directors pounced on glinting rarities. These included Janacek's phantasmagoric Osud (1984) and Busoni's expressionist Doktor Faustus (1986): the latter was one of Lazaridis's proudest achievements, a skyline of filing cabinets spiking the background. Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1987) was a triumphant discovery. The lewd, despairing score was released over a vast set of metal and paper. Lazaridis and Pountney set this opera banned by Stalin at the height of the dictator's purges. It opened in a meat-packing warehouse, iron and a raw arterial scarlet dominating the colour scheme. Katarina turns poisoner to resist her constricting environment – she ends in a gulag, her death just one more atrocity silhouetted against a pitiless white sky. A searing Wozzeck (with Pountney in 1990) was dominated by a corrugated iron wall, drenched for the finale in a blood-red moon.

Fairy stories became Freudian fables. The flip side to snug family life emerged in a vigorous Hansel and Gretel (1987). It takes only a nudge of nightmare to turn a harassed mother into a witch, for the squabbling domestic kitchen to reappear as a lurid riot of gingham. Grotesque inversion nonetheless found room for a tender scene in which angels watch over the sleeping children – here, icons of suburbia (postman and lollipop lady), clustered in the municipal park. With yearning delicacy, Dvorak's Rusalka (1986) – about a water-spirit longing to be human – suggested the fearsome initiation into adult desire. In an enchanting nursery, dolls lumbered into life and a witch emerged from the wardrobe like a black-gowned governess.

Opera houses depend on a revivable bank of repertory staples, but this was not Lazaridis's style. The question, he felt, should be "let's see what this particular opera means for us now". Even popular productions should be discarded: "Throw it away and get somebody to do another one." He and Pountney courted controversy with Verdi: La Traviata (1988) had a strong feminist charge, and in Macbeth (1990) an unstable society warred against nature: the Macbeths enforced Ceausescu-style charades of loyalty, while bloodshed ran green, the natural world insisting on its presence.

Lazaridis and his directors realised that Puccini's operas are emotive precisely because the heroines are tormented by the abuse of power. Madame Butterfly (ENO, 1984) was anti-romantic but devastating in Graham Vick's production. The split-level design, red cutting through black and ivory, was built on contrasts – between Butterfly's fantasy of America and her industrialising society. Nagasaki was industrial and muddy. Tosca (1986) with Jonathan Miller, seen first in Florence and later at ENO, placed classical Roman architecture at a perilous slant, suiting Mussolini's regime.

His collaboration with Miller could also bounce and fizz: their Mikado (1986) is still in the ENO repertory, and due to be seen again next February. A fantasia of English eccentricity, it is set in a white-on-white hotel, all palms and pianos. By contrast, in their sombre Taming of the Shrew for the RSC (1987), Fiona Shaw's self-harming Katherine negotiated a taut assemblage of wooden marquetry slats through which a coral-blue sky offered slivers of hope.

Lazaridis did not work like a painter, by starting from sketches: he preferred to develop his ideas with a model box. He was slow, meticulous, extravagant and demanding. Highly stubborn, he defended his ideas ferociously. He could be brusque, if not downright rude.

The ENO style delivered vertiginous excitement. Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes saw a Coliseum production of Janacek's The Adventures of Mr Broucek in 1992 and "for weeks after I was thinking how magical it was". He invited Lazaridis to design the band's American tour the following year, and relished the "cross between Flash Gordon and Kafka". But he recalled, "we soon realised we'd bitten off more than we could chew" – even the Hollywood Bowl could not contain the gargantuan set.

Lazaridis made scale work triumphantly on Carmen, staged in arena style at Earl's Court with Steven Pimlott in 1989. Five hundred performers occupied the sandy bullpit and the moving wooden walkway that encircled the stage. He and Pountney produced spectacular outdoor productions on the lake at Bregenz in Austria, including The Flying Dutchman (1989) and Fidelio (1995). Lazaridis occasionally worked as a director himself – notably on Oedipus Rex at Opera North (1987), inspired by Stravinsky's notion of "the geometry of tragedy" to transfix the hero in a grid of boxes.

With Pountney and costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, he created the shadowy dreamspace of Martinu's Julietta (Leeds and Holland, 1997) and shut Kát'a Kabanová (Munich, 1999) into a claustrophobic series of boxes ("oppressively cramped theatres of family life," as he described them). In Martinu's Greek Passion (Bregenz and the Royal Opera, 1999), he contrasted the might of the Orthodox church with the hardscrabble poverty of Greek village life.

At Bayreuth, an acclaimed Lohengrin with Keith Warner envisioned Wagner's "blackest tragedy" through what the designer described as "a windswept, barren landscape awaiting redemption". He and Warner also produced a less coherent Ring cycle for Covent Garden, while their Wozzeck (2002) presented a cruel white-tiled laboratory with incongruous objects sealed in vitrines.

Lazaridis also made a triumphant return to ENO in 2000 for the Italian Opera season – eight new productions in 13 weeks, on a semi-permanent set which deconstructed the lavishly tatty auditorium and celebrated "flamboyant poverty". Especially notable was The Coronation of Poppea with Steven Pimlott, the erotic shenanigans topped by an artificial red heart.

A disappointment towards the end of his career was his brief post as artistic director of the Greek National Opera (2006-07), inviting ballerina Lynn Seymour to head the ballet company. Their ambitious ideas caused a stir, but were met by resistance and timidity. This was not a response that Lazaridis, a self-described "cynical romantic" could brook. He is survived by Tim Williams, his partner of 47 years.

David Pountney writes: Nowadays it is quite common for designers to direct, and, to be honest, most of them can't. Stefan couldn't direct either – he did try once or twice – but his great significance as a designer is that he always designed as a director. You could also say that he designed as a dramaturg – the interpretation of which would be that for him the idea of the staging was always a greater priority than the way it looked: that would logically follow once the idea was clear.

We did a lot of work together at ENO, including some of the best productions of that era - Rusalka, Hansel and Gretel, Dr Faustus and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Mostly I can't remember now who came up with which idea – a sign of a productive director/designer relationship. I do know, however, that the design for Lady Macbeth sprang instinctively out of Stefan's head, and gave me the idea of the meat-packing factory that provided such a striking image for the Soviet society we chose to depict. That's a typical example of the way we worked: we led each other, confused each other, and sometimes sorted each other out!

However the three most astonishing designs by Stefan that may be less familiar to British audiences are those for the three lake-stage productions we did for the Bregenz festival: Flying Dutchman in 1989, Nabucco in 1991 and Fidelio – best of all – in 1995. The opportunity to work on this scale somehow triggered Stefan's most sensitive dramaturgical instincts, allied to his phenomenal aesthetic sense and understanding of scale.

These were never to him mere designs: he participated in a total way in the ideological and conceptual realisation of these productions and set up marvellously productive counter-flows of creative energy. Everyone who worked on these shows was inspired by his creative drive, as well as by his cussed determination. And I was the lucky one who had a good enough relationship with Stefan to soak up his ideas, edit them I hope intelligently, and gratefully implant them into our own production.

Much of this intelligence, sensibility and brilliance emerged during his brief abortive attempt to run the opera company in Athens: the Greeks have themselves to blame that they squandered such an astounding talent. His was a unique fire.

• Stefanos Lazaridis, stage designer, born 28 July 1942; died 8 May 2010


David Jays

The GuardianTramp

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