Robert Ornbo, lighting designer, 1931 - 2008
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Robert Ornbo was a brilliant and prolific lighting designer, whose work on over 300 productions ranged across drama, musicals, opera and ballet to events such as the Edinburgh Tattoo, the Royal Tournament, the naming ceremonies of ocean-going liners and events at Buckingham Place for the Royal Family. His influence has had a profound impact on theatrical lighting over the last fifty years.
Robert was the first lighting designer to join me in my fledgling company: Theatre Projects in 1960 and he became Managing Director of Theatre Projects Lighting during its heyday when its team of lighting designers, who included Robert Bryan, John B. Read, David Hersey and Andy Bridge, worked at the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet, Glyndebourne, the English National Opera, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare, and across the West End.
“Would you like to come and work for me.” I asked. Robert replied: “Well, yes, I would.” Thus began a friendship and a lifelong association.
The remuneration was modest - £15 a week, but the timing was appropriate. Robert joined on a Monday and we always joked that he went home three weeks later. Well I was lighting three shows that week and I recall we swapped duties, focussing, plotting and attending rehearsals turn-and-turnabout. We did survive. Twenty productions followed that year.
Robert and I had a favorite catch-phrase: “If we can get through this week-end, we can get through anything!”
In those far distant days, an assistant lighting designer had to double as production electrician, rigger and vital source of support. Robert and I had an amazing partnership. Always elegant and eloquent, he could keep interfering producers away from interrupting our work at the production desk and at the same time spur me onto greater efforts. He quickly moved from being a most indispensable assistant to a designer in his own right.
Robert’s career as a designer took off: his first show “ENGLAND, OUR ENGLAND” (Princes Theatre 1962) led to the opera “LOVE OF THREE ORANGES” (Sadlers Wells 1963); “SCENT OF FLOWERS” (Duke of Yorks 1964); “TRELAWNEY OF THE WELLS” (National Theatre at the Old Vic 1965); “MACBETH” (Royal Court 1966); “MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE” (Royal Opera House Covent Garden 1968); altogether fifty-six productions in his first five solo years.
Theatre Projects Lighting grew. Our two-man design team expanded. Over the coming years Robert and I were joined by many aspiring lighting designers. Through the 1960’s and 70’s Theatre Projects became the center of lighting design in Britain, a unique training ground where young lighting designers could work with top people in the profession. It was an exciting period. Under Robert’s guidance and nurturing a team of designers lived and breathed stage lighting together. Exchanging suggestions and ideas, horror stories, offering help and sharing each others’ opportunities and travails.
In 1973 the famous Sydney Opera House was due to open. Theatre Projects was called in to remedy a shortage of lighting facilities. Robert was despatched to solve the problems and stayed to light the opening season starting with the opera “WAR AND PEACE”, again with designer Ralph Koltai. Thus began an extraordinarily international career. Robert led the way for English stage lighting designers operating abroad. He lit productions in Amsterdam, Beirut, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Dublin, the Hague, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Oslo, Oman, Malmo, and elsewhere. One of his last productions in 1999 was a large-scale musical in Moscow, proving as he remarked: “You don’t need to speak the language provided they have the same color book.” So successful was his work on the CHOREGIE - a festival of opera and music - for many years in Orange, France that he was honored with the Freedom of that city in 1976.
Robert’s many shows in the West End included: “40 YEARS ON”, “THE RULING CLASS,” “VOYAGE AROUND MY FATHER,” “GREASE,” “HABEAS CORPUS,” “I AND ALBERT,” “JEEVES,” “DAD’S ARMY,” “WILD OATS,” “THE TWO RONNIES,” “PACK OF LIES,” ”I’M NOT RAPPAPORT,” with “TRAVESTIES,” and “LONDON ASSURANCE” both also on Broadway. He also worked widely in the regional theatre including productions for the Chichester Festival Theatre, the 69 Theatre Company, Birmingham Repertory Company. Bristol Old Vic. Northcott Theatre, Exeter; the Palace Theatre, Watford; the Theatre Royal, Windsor; the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith; the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guilford; and the Birmingham Hippodrome.
For the ballet Robert lit "CREATION DU MONDE" followed by "ANASTASIA" at the Royal Opera House, several pieces for London Contemporary Dance and "GISELLE" for the Northern Ballet Company; for Kent Opera the "MAGIC FLUTE" and for the Glyndebourne Festival “COSI FAN TUTTE”; the double bill "L''ENFANT ET LES SORTILEGES" and "L''HEURE ESPAGNOLE".
In 1976 H.M. The Queen had decided to honor the bi-centennial birthday of America with a Military Tattoo at Wolf Trap near Washington DC. Robert designed the lighting for Colonel Leslie Dow, recently appointed as Director of the Edinburgh Tattoo. This led Robert to a lifetime engagement with Tattoos, revolutionizing the lighting for the Edinburgh Tattoo, the Berlin Tattoo and the Royal Tournament for over 20 years.
Equally at home in the West End & Broadway, fringe and regional theatre, middle eastern night club, palace, opera house, or vast arena, Robert’s influence has guided generations of designers. Robert was a marvelous communicator and teacher. He lectured extensively in the UK and abroad where his enthusiasm and skills enthralled and inspired many young designers.
Robert was a member of the United Scenic Artists in New York, Equity, and the Society of British Theatre Designers. He was Chairman of the Drama Panel of the Eastern Arts Association and since 2002 Joint President of the Association of Lighting Designers in the UK, of which he was a founder member and ex-Chairman. He also served as Chairman of the Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmonds - England’s third oldest working theatre.
Robert was born September 13th 1931 in Hessle, England to Karl Gerhardt (a shipbroker) and Gwendoline Cicely Fenner. He was educated at Hymers College, Hull (1942-1949). National Service in the Far East gave Robert opportunities to indulge in his theatrical inclinations. As well as performing at the Little Theatre in Singapore he was seconded to Radio Malaya, where he wrote and performed in plays, alongside his contemporaries Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse.
He returned to England in 1951 and entered his father''s ship-broking business, but the lure of the theatre called and he joined a group of touring actors playing one-night stands. Returning to London he landed a job as a linkman at The Talk of the Town, before moving to the Princes Theatre becoming 2nd Dayman, Ist Dayman and then Chief Electrician.
Robert was married to Rose Harris, whom he met while she was a production assistant at Theatre Projects. They have two sons, George and Sam.
Robert was diagnosed with Pulmonary fibrosis (fibrosing alveolitis) in 2001. Despite a long and increasingly debilitating illness Robert always sought to live life to the full. He was a great host. He and Rose were intrepid travelers visiting Japan to enjoy both the zen culture and the wonderful sushi; the Caribbean for the cricket (a game Robert particularly loved), and many favorite haunts in France. Keenly interested in countries emerging from the communist era, Robert and Rose visited Prague, Budapest, Sophia, Riga, Vilnius, Bratislava and Tallin to visit their classic opera houses and concert halls. In August his son George married and Robert supervised preparations for the event, even through he was finally unable to personally attend. Almost to the last Robert was in touch with friends via e-mail and exercised his always agile mind by enthusiastically completing the Times Crossword every morning.
His many friends and colleagues around the world will remember Robert as a true friend, who was always eloquent, humorous, and witty; a great host and bon-viveur, who enjoyed producing spectacles of his own for family and friends. He was a loving husband and father. His pride in his two sons as they both embarked on successful careers and marriages gave him particular joy.