Ralph Koltai, an innovative set designer who gave an abstract, often startling look to hundreds of major theatrical, balletic and operatic productions in England, the United States and elsewhere, died on Dec. 15 in Châtellerault, France. He was 94.
Pamela Howard, a friend and fellow designer, said he died at a hospital after a short illness.
Mr. Koltai, who emigrated from Germany as a teenager just before World War II and later was part of the British team at the Nuremberg trials, was one of the most influential stage designers of the second half of the 20th century, helping to move theater and opera sets away from mere utility and realism and toward interpretation and statement-making. It was not uncommon for an audience to gasp collectively upon first sight of one of his sets.
For the 1972 premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s “Taverner” at the Royal Opera House in London, he devised a giant mechanical seesaw that suggested the scales of justice. For the English National Opera’s “Ring” cycle in the 1970s, he used metallic tubes and spheres to create a space-age look that, as the opera critic Hugh Canning later put it, was “futuristic but paradoxically timeless.” And for a Royal Shakespeare Company “Much Ado About Nothing” that made Broadway in 1984, he used a maze of reflecting surfaces, including a mirrored floor, to convey that, as Frank Rich put it in his review in The New York Times, “in ‘Much Ado,’ appearances are everything — and are almost always deceiving.”
The goal, Mr. Kotai often said, was to enhance, not merely to be functional.
“I still think we have a habit of treating scenery like scenery rather than helping the actor and director to make a statement,” he told The Times in a 1984 interview. “I try and find ways of introducing art into theater, and occasionally I get somewhere near.”
Ralph Koltai was born in Berlin on July 31, 1924, to Alfred and Charlotte (Weinstein) Koltai. He attended a progressive Jewish school, but the rise of the Nazis worried his father, a doctor who in 1939 had him sent to England.
He was taken in by Quakers, then sent to a school in Scotland. Eventually he joined the British Army and was stationed in Germany, where one day someone asked, “Can anyone type German?” He raised his hand.
“The next thing I knew I was in Essen, where the British were preparing a case against Krupp,” the German industrial giant, he told The Jerusalem Post in 2003. He was then moved to Nuremberg, where he assisted the British team during the trials there after the war.
“Ralph never defined himself or his work in terms of his survival or escape from Nazi Germany,” Sophie Rashbrook, a dramaturge who has written a play based on his life, said by email, “although, perhaps as a result of these early experiences, both his life and art were shaped by an alertness to the beauty of chance, instinct and accident.”
It was a theme Mr. Koltai himself addressed.
“Any talent I have is recognizing the accident when it happens and then pursuing it,” he said in a 2017 video interview for a series called “Breaking the Boundaries,” a title Mr. Koltai said “doesn’t apply to me.”
“I never had any boundaries, so I wasn’t aware of the fact that I was breaking anything,” he said.
He became a naturalized British citizen soon after the war and studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, graduating in 1951. (Later, from 1965 to 1972, he would head the department of theater design there.)
He began designing for ballet and opera In the late 1950s and early 1960s he worked on several productions with the choreographer Norman Morrice, whose works were shaking up the Royal Ballet and Ballet Rambert, two venerable British companies. Mr. Koltai’s disdain for traditional realistic sets and backdrops meshed well with Mr. Morrice’s determination to make ballet more contemporary.
“The claustrophobic settings by Ralph Koltai, nothing but an impersonal lounge with a steel staircase, grow more impressive as the ballet stealthily shows its hand,” Clive Barnes wrote in The Times, reviewing Mr. Morrice’s “The Travellers” at Sadler’s Wells Theater in 1963. The production, he added, “is clearly calculated to throw a hand grenade into the middle of Britain’s all-too-concentric ballet circles.”
In the early 1960s Mr. Koltai also began designing for the theater, including for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1967 he garnered considerable attention for his designs for the National Theater’s all-male production of “As You Like It,” replacing furniture with geometric forms and rendering the trees of the Forest of Arden as plexiglass tubes.
Mr. Koltai said that directors tended to leave him on his own on any given project, and that he worked from glimmers of input and inspiration.
“People think one has long, in-depth conversations with a director,” he told The Times in 1984, “but often designs stem from a hint. I don’t respond well to being told what is wanted.”
Other notable credits include the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which was brought to Broadway with “Much Ado” in 1984; the 1985 Broadway play “Pack of Lies”; and the English National Opera’s 1987 production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures.” Not all of his projects were successes, however. His résumé also included the infamous musical “Carrie,” which flopped on Broadway in 1988.
Mr. Koltai’s first marriage, to the costume designer Annena Stubbs, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Jane Alexander Koltai, whom he married in 2008.
Beyond his many individual productions, Mr. Koltai was known for his influence on younger designers.
“He really brought abstract thinking into theater design and did away with the fourth wall and the box set,” Ti Green, a designer who has worked with numerous English theater companies over the last 25 years, told the theater publication The Stage in September. She added, “He saw theater design as a sculpture and a work of fine art.”