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Obituary: Robert Ornbo 1931-2008

Robert Ornbo.

25 November 2008

UK - LSI Online has learned the sad news of the death of Robert Ornbo, one of the most prolific lighting designers of the 20th Century. Here, his friend and colleague Richard Pilbrow remembers Robert's career:

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 50 years.

Robert was the first lighting designer to join Richard Pilbrow in the 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.

Robert's work enhanced such productions as Jonathan Miller's The Merchant of Venice with Laurence Olivier (National Theatre at the Old Vic 1970); Hal Prince's Cabaret (Palace Theatre London 1968) and Company (Alvin Theatre NYC 1970 - Tony Award nomination) both with designer Boris Aronson; Pelleas and Melisande (Royal Opera House 1969) with designer Josef Svoboda; Back to Methuselah (National Theatre at the Old Vic) and The Ring Cycle (Coliseum 1971-1973) with designer Ralph Koltai.

It was the latter Ring Cycle that caught the attention of Buckingham Palace. Robert began regularly lighting shows at the Palace including the Masque for H.M. The Queen's Silver Anniversary (1972) and the 90th Birthday Concert for the Queen Mother in 1990.

Robert lit the opening season for the Sydney Opera House 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, Moscow and elsewhere. So successful was his work on the Choregie - a festival of opera and music - for many years in Orange, France that he was honoured 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 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 Tutti; the double bill L'Enfant et les Sortileges and L'Heure Espagnole.

In 1976 Robert designed the lighting for the Bi-Centennial American Birthday Military Tattoo at Wolf Trap Washington DC. This led Robert to a lifetime engagement with Tattoos, revolutionising the lighting for the Edinburgh Tattoo, the Berlin Tattoo and the Royal Tournament for over 20 years. The world of large-scale military spectacles opened up another field for Robert's talents: the big event. Robert traveled the world: The Royal Horse Show in Oman (1990,1991), the Wedding of HRH Abdullah Bin Hussein (1993) and the HRH Crown Prince Abdullah 50th Birthday Celebrations both in Jordan, National Day celebrations in Oman, VE as well as VJ Day Celebrations in Hyde Park (1995), and the Royal Dynasty Celebrations in Saudi Arabia in 1999. Robert became a brilliant specialist in lighting, and eventually producing, the naming ceremonies of the newest of massive cruise liners. The Oriana (1995), Canberra (1997), Dawn Princess (1997), Grand Princess (1998), Sea Princess (1998), Ocean Princess (2000).

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 marvellous 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. He was educated at Hymers College, Hull (1942-1949). National Service in the Far East gave Robert opportunities to indulge in his theatrical inclinations. 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. 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 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 travellers visiting Japan, the Caribbean for the cricket (a game Robert particularly loved), and many favourite 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 though 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.

Robert's consultant is organising a research project to continue work investigating fibrosing alveolitis. Any financial contribution, however small, would be deeply appreciated. Donations may be sent to: Attn: Dr John Shneerson (Re Fibrosing Alveolitis), Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, Papworth Everard, Cambridge CB23 3RE, UK. (Cheques should be made payable to Papworth Hospital Charity.)

(Richard Pilbrow)


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UK Robert Ornbo lighting designers Richard Pilbrow Robert designer work productions opera years Royal Opera National Theatre West End Company both Old Vic Palace lit Oman theatre world London friends

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