Dedicated to drop-dead gorgeous

Designer Maria Bjornson brought a lusher-than-thou aesthetic to the stage

What show in musical theater history has been more dependent on sets and costumes for its reputation than “The Phantom of the Opera”? There’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, and Michael Crawford certainly made an impression. But think “Phantom,” and what inevitably comes to mind is the opera house’s falling chandelier, the Phantom’s crepuscular lair and all that crisp satin. And for that, we must thank Maria Bjornson, the show’s extraordinary designer, whose imagination didn’t just define a mood — it defined a seminal theatrical extravaganza.

Bjornson’s list of credits may always be headed by “Phantom,” but her work in theater was varied and, ironically, includes far more operas and plays than musicals. The tragedy is that her credit list, though substantial, would be larger still had she not died in 2002 of natural causes at the unnaturally early age of 53.

At the time, she was working on the inaugural production of Rachel Portman’s opera “The Little Prince,” based on the beloved book by Saint-Exupery. Well received at its premiere in Houston in 2003 and in New York last year, the opera was especially lauded for Bjornson’s whimsical set and costume designs — a world away from what she had wrought for “Phantom.”

Francesa Zambello, who first worked with Bjornson at London’s Covent Garden in 1999, directed that production and says that although the designer didn’t live to see her work executed, she had built all the set models and painted the costumes designs.

“She was relentless in getting it right,” Zambello recalls. “There are some designers who will not spend hours in the paint and costume shops, but Maria would not leave people alone until everything was right.”

The director describes Bjornson as “a consummate storyteller who was never afraid of great beauty,” dubbing the designer “traditionalist and conservative” in the aesthetic sense. “It’s not often fashionable now to desire something to be drop-dead gorgeous,” says Zambello, “but that’s what she was dedicated to.”

Producer Cameron Mackintosh had seen Bjornson’s work in the opera house, but it wasn’t grandeur that impressed him most when it came to picking a designer for “Phantom.” “She was able to create a real world I could believe in,” he says. “The reason why of all my shows ‘Phantom’ has endured so long is that it requires the scale and beauty of the visual to pull you in.”

Lloyd Webber, too, acknowledges “Phantom’s” debt to Bjornson, saying, “She brought femininity to it.” And the composer disagrees with those who attribute the show’s visual success to excess. “People talk about it being very spectacular,” he says, “but most everything in the production is done with an extraordinary lack of technology. A lot of ‘Phantom’ is extraordinarily simple. It’s just that the design is so brilliant that it works right through.”

(Matt Wolf in London contributed to this report.)

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