Born in Cáslav, a small town 50 miles from Prague, Svoboda studied art history and then architecture, before designing his first production in 1943. Visionary designers like Edward Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appia were great influences; also a generation of Czech designers who shared Svoboda's architec tural background.
He was head designer at the national theatre in Prague from 1951, and in 1958, he and director Alfred Radok developed Laterna Magika, an interplay of live action and filmed sequences for Expo 58 in Brussels. They created a stir as the mistress of ceremonies and her two filmed alter egos addressed both the audience and each other. The juxtaposition of disparate elements created a swift, sardonic form; the stage action was heightened or provokingly contradicted by films and projections. Laterna Magika soon became a theatre company, almost a research institute in theatre technology. Svoboda was artistic director from 1973 until his death.
Projections continued to be important in his work, while closed-circuit television monitors allowed live offstage action and multiple perspectives in Nono's Intolleranza (1965). Mirrors, too, were vital elements, reflecting the stage floor in The Insect Play or the audience itself in Waiting For Godot.
Svoboda's fluid stagings were perfect for multi-location Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet (1963) featured a delicate floating gallery that became Juliet's balcony or hovered like windows in the dreaming heroine's bedroom. The set moved rapidly between configurations, like the play's hasty emotions; an impassioned production, it tapped contemporary youthful ferment.
Critics frequently described Svoboda's vision as "apolitical". Rather, it subsumed politics. Ahead of his time, he admitted the brutal imagery of 20th-century experience. In 1957, concentration camp watchtowers surveyed the action of his Magic Flute; a nervous Royal Opera House rejected a concentration camp setting for Verdi's Hebrew tragedy Nabucco.