Maria Bjornson, whose production design for Phantom of the Opera is one of the most famous in the history of Broadway and the West End, was found dead in her London home on December 13. She was 53.
According to the London Times, Bjornson’s life was marked by a series of bizarre twists and turns. She was born in Paris, in 1949, to Mia Prodan, a young Romanian woman studying at the Sorbonne. Her father was Bjorn Bjornson, who was 20 years older than Prodan, and who was a descendant of Bjornstjeme Bjornson, a Nobel Prize-winning playwright whose statue can be found outside the Norwegian National Theatre in Oslo. Prodan moved to London in 1950, where she worked as an office cleaner for the BBC before finding a more suitable position with the BBC Romanian Service. Bjornson was educated at both a Catholic convent, followed by a French school, both in London. She pursued her studies at the Glen Byam Shaw School, then attended Central School of Art Design, where she studied under noted scenic designer Ralph Koltai.
Bjornson began her career at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow in the early 1970s, where she designed In the Jungle of Cities, Cinderella, Life of Galileo, Puss in Boots, The Crucible, The Three Sisters, The Threepenny Opera, and Tiny Alice. She also worked at Scottish Opera and the Wexford Festival. In some ways, her breakthrough project was The Tempest at Royal Shakespeare Company (1983); this production caught the attention of producer Cameron Mackintosh, who offered her Phantom—amazingly, her first commercial production.
Phantom, one of the biggest commercial successes ever, toured worldwide after opening in London in 1986. Bjornsons’s designs, which included such indelible elements as the falling chandelier, the subterranean gondola, and the sweeping staircase, in addition to her sumptuous costumes, have become part of theatre legend. They also set a standard for stage spectacle that very few have ever equaled. Bjornson received Tony and Drama Desk Awards for both her Phantom scenery and costume designs.
After the West End opening of Phantom, Bjornson’s father re-entered her life in a dramatic way. A businessman, he died, he bequeathed to her two factories (one making cushions and duvets and another making silk flowers), a fox fur farm, a series of vacation homes on the Norwegian coast.
Among her post-Phantom credits are Follies (West End, 1987), Aspects of Love (West End 1989, Broadway 1990), The Marriage of Figaro (Grand Opera of Geneva, 1989) Cosi Fan Tutti (Glyndebourne Opera, 1991), Measure for Measure (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1991), Sleeping Beauty (Royal Ballet 1994), Macbeth (La Scala, 1997), Britannicus and Phedre (Almeida Theatre, 1998), Plenty (Albery Theatre/West End, 1999), The Cherry Orchard (Royal National Theatre, 2000), Ernani (Welsh Opera, English National Opera, 2000), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (West End, 2001), The Cunning Little Vixen (ENO, 2001), Don Giovanni (Royal Opera, 2002)
At the time of her death, she was preparing three productions: Il Trovatore for Paris Opera; Les Troyens, opening in February at the Metropolitan Opera, and The Little Prince, set for May at Houston Grand Opera.
In addition to her Phantom awards, Bjornson also took a Gold Medal at the Prague Quadrenniale in 1975 and, in 1999, the Franco Abbiato Prize.
Bjornson is survived by her mother and her partner Malcolm Key.