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Josef Svoboda

10 May 1920 - 8 April 2002


Svoboda started working as a set designer in 1943. In 1945 he joined the newlyfounded Theater of the Fifth of May, where in 1946 he became Head of Sets and Costumes. There he created his first large-scale sets and became acquainted with leading Czech stage directors Václav Kašlík and Alfréd Radok. When the Theater of the Fifth of May was absorbed by the National Theater in 1948 he joined the National Theater, where he began as Assistant Head of Sets and Costumes.
From 1951 to 1970 he was Head of Artistic-Technical Operations, then from 1970 to 1980 Head Designer and from 1980 to 1983 Set Designer. From 1973 until 1992 he was also Artistic Director of Laterna magika, one of the stages of the National Theater. From 1969 to 1989 he served as a professor at the College of Decorative Arts, and from 1975 to 1980 he was a technical advisor to the Grand Théâtre in Geneva.
As Head of Artistic-Technical Operations at the National Theater he set himself the goal of transforming the theater's workshops into a laboratory built and organized in modern style capable of overcoming even the most challenging technical problems of modern set design, with participation by professional and scientific institutes. In 1958 he shared in designing and building a set for Laterna Magika based on the principle of multiple projection screens for the occasion of the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels.
Svoboda shared as set designer in more than seven hundred productions. For Don Giovanni he designed sets a total of nine times - in Ostrava in 1949, for the National Theater in Prague in 1950, 1956, 1962, 1969, and 1984, for the Theater am Goetheplatz in Bremen in 1966, for the Staatsoper in Stuttgart in 1971, and for the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Trieste in 1990.
Svoboda's first opera sets abroad were for Rusalka in 1958 at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice with Václav Kašlík as stage director. Of other theaters abroad where he worked let us mention for example the Metropolitan Opera in New York where he shared in Carmen in 1972, Les vêpres siciliennes in 1974, and Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride) in 1978; the Teatro alla Scala in Milan where he shared in Cardillac in 1964, Ognenny angel (The Fiery Angel) in 1969 (not performed), Wozzeck in 1971, Scriabin's Poem of Fire in 1972, The Miraculous Mandarin in 1980, Richard Strauss's The Legend of Joseph in 1981 (not performed), and Swan Lake in 1982; Covent Garden in London where he shared in Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1967, Pelléas et Mélisande in 1969, Nabucco in 1972, Tannhäuser in 1973, Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1974-76, and Les vêpres siciliennes in 1984; the Staatsoper in Vienna where he shared in Idomeneo in 1971 and La forza del destino in 1989; the Volksoper in Vienna where he shared in Weinberger's Švanda dudák (Švanda the Bagpiper) in 1963 (not performed) and Rusalka in 1964; the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin where he shared in Faust in 1977, R. Petit's Otto dix in 1993, and Il matrimonio segreto in 1994; the Deutsche Oper in Berlin where he shared in Les contes d'Hoffmann in 1969, Ariadne auf Naxos in 1970, Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead) in 1981, Marius Constant's Professor Unrat in 1985, and Salome in 1990; the Komische Oper in Berlin where he shared in Il trovatore in 1966; the Bayreuth Festspiele where he shared in Der fliegende Holländer in 1969; the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth where he shared in Tristan und Isolde in 1974; the Grande Opéra in Paris where he shared in Les vêpres siciliennes in 1974, Symphonie fantastique in 1976, and Otello in 1976; the Staatsoper in Munich where he shared in Zimmermann's Die Soldaten in 1969 and Dessau's Lancelot in 1971.
Svoboda collaborated as a set designer with a host of distinguished figures in theater including many from abroad. He worked with stage director Sir Peter Ustinov on Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Rachmaninoff's Francesca di Rimini, both at the Opernhaus in Chemnitz in 1993; with choreographer George Balanchine on Bellini's La sonnambula at the Het Nationale Ballet in Amsterdam in 1964; with stage director Götz Friedrich on Bizet's Carmen in 1965 and Mozart's Don Giovanni in 1966, both at the Theater am Goetheplatz in Bremen, on Verdi's Don Carlos at the Komische Oper in Berlin, on Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen at Covent Garden in London in 1974-76, on Janáček's Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead) at the Opernhaus in Zürich in 1978 as well as at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 1981, and on Verdi's Macbeth at the Staatsoper in Hamburg in 1980; with stage director Leonard Bernstein on Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1972; with stage director Friedrich Dürrenmatt on Dürrenmatt's Achterloo IV with Der Süddeutsche Rundfunk im Rokokotheater des Schwetzinger Schlosses in 1988; and on other productions with stage directors Armand Delcampe, John Drexter, Claus H. Drese, August Everding, Laurence Olivier, Giorgio Strehler, Roland Petit, and Jean-Claude Riber.
For the sake of interest let us mention that Svoboda designed sets for a total of three productions of Wagner's tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen abroad: at Covent Garden in London (1974-76), at the Grand Théâtre in Geneva (1975-77), and at the Théâtre Antique in Orange, France (1988).