In Memoriam: Robert Ornbo, Theatre Lighting Designer, 1931-2008

Robert Ornbo, born September 13,1931 passed away on November 19, 2008, at the age of 77. There will be a private cremation on Friday, November 29, followed by a Service of Thanksgiving in the church at Barton Mills, Bury Saint Edmunds, Suffolk, UK. All are welcome at the 12pm service and for refreshments at the nearby pub afterwards. Ornbo's illness, first diagnosed in 2001, was Fibrosing Alveolitis. A research project to continue work investigating the condition has been organized. Any financial contribution, however small, would be deeply appreciated. Donations may be sent to: Dr John Shneerson (Re Fibrosing Alveolitis), Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, Papworth Everard, Cambridge, CB23 3RE.

Ornbo was a brilliant and prolific lighting designer, whose work on over 300 productions ranged across drama, musicals, opera, and ballet to events such as the Edinburgh Tattoo, the Royal Tournament, the naming ceremonies of ocean- liners and events at Buckingham Place for the Royal Family. His influence has had a profound impact on theatrical lighting over the last fifty years.

He was the first lighting designer to join Richard Pilbrow at Theatre Projects in 1960 and he became managing director of Theatre Projects Lighting during its heyday when its team of lighting designers, who included Robert Bryan, John B. Read, David Hersey, and Andy Bridge worked at the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet, Glyndebourne, the English National Opera, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare, and across the West End.

Ornbo's work enhanced such productions as Jonathan Miller's The Merchant of Venice with Laurence Olivier (National Theatre at the Old Vic 1970), Hal Prince's Cabaret (Palace Theatre London 1968), and Company (Alvin Theatre NYC 1970 - Tony Award nomination) both with designer Boris Aronson; Pelleas and Melisande (Royal Opera House 1969) with designer Josef Svoboda; Back To Methusehah (National Theatre at the Old Vic), and The Ring Cycle (Coliseum 1971-1973) with designer Ralph Koltai.

It was the latter Ring Cycle that caught the attention of Buckingham Palace. Ornbo began regularly lighting shows at the Palace including the Masque for H.M. The Queen's Silver Anniversary (1972) and the 90th Birthday Concert for the Queen Mother in 1990. Ornbo lit the opening season for the Sydney Opera House with the opera, War and Peace, again with designer Ralph Koltai. Thus began an extraordinarily international career. Ornbo led the way for English stage lighting designers operating abroad. He lit productions in Amsterdam, Beirut, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Dublin, the Hague, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Oslo, Oman, Malmo, Moscow, and elsewhere. So successful was his work on the Choregie—a festival of opera and music—for many years in Orange, France that he was honored by that city in 1976.

Ornbo's many shows in the West End included: 40 Years On, The Ruling Class, Voyage Around My Father, Grease, Habeas Corpus, I And Albert, Jeeves, Dad's Army, Wild Oats, The Two Ronnies, Pack of Lies, I'm Not Rappaport, With Travesties, and London Assurance, both also on Broadway. He also worked widely in the regional theatre for the Chichester Festival Theatre, and the 69 Theatre Company, Birmingham Repertory Company, Bristol Old Vic. Northcott Theatre, Exeter, the Palace Theatre, Watford, the Theatre Royal, Windsor, the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guilford, and the Birmingham Hippodrome.

For the ballet, Ornbo lit Creation du Monde followed by Anastasia at the Royal Opera House, several pieces for London Contemporary Dance and Giselle for the Northern Ballet Company. For Kent Opera he lit Magic Flute, and for the Glyndebourne Festival Cosi Fan Tutte the double bill L'Enfant et les Sortileges and L'Heure Espagnole. In 1976 Ornbo designed the lighting for the Bi-Centennial American Birthday Military Tattoo at Wolf Trap Washington DC. This led Ornbo to a lifetime engagement with Tattoos, revolutionizing the lighting for the Edinburgh Tattoo, the Berlin Tattoo, and the Royal Tournament for over 20 years.

The world of large-scale military spectacles opened up another field for Ornbo's talents and he traveled the world lighting various special events, including The Royal Horse Show in Oman (1990,1991), the Wedding of HRH Abdullah Bin Hussein (1993) and the HRH Crown Prince Abdullah’s 50th Birthday Celebrations (both in Jordan), National Day celebrations in Oman, VE, as well as VJ Day Celebrations in Hyde Park (1995), and the Royal Dynasty Celebrations in Saudi Arabia in 1999. He became a specialist in lighting—and eventually producing—the naming ceremonies of the newest of massive oceanliners. The Oriana (1995), Canberra (1997), Dawn Princess (1997), Grand Princess (1998), Sea Princess (1998), and Ocean Princess (2000).

Equally at home in the West End and Broadway, fringe and regional theatre, a Middle Eastern nightclub, palace, opera house, or vast arena, Ornbo's influence has guided generations of designers. He was a marvelous communicator and teacher and he lectured extensively in the UK and abroad.

Ornbo was a member of the United Scenic Artists in New York City, Equity, and The Society of British Theatre Designers. He was chairman of the Drama Panel of the Eastern Arts Association, and since 2002, was also joint president of the Association of Lighting Designers in the UK, of which he was a founding member and ex-chairman. He also served as chairman of the Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmonds—England's third oldest working theatre.

Ornbo was educated at Hymers College, Hull (1942-1949). His national service in the Far East gave him opportunities to indulge in his theatrical inclinations. After returning to England in 1951 and joining his father's ship-broking business, he realized the lure of the theatre called and joined a group of touring actors. Returning to London, he landed a job as a linkman at The Talk of the Town, before moving to the Princes Theatre becoming 2nd dayman, 1st dayman, and then chief electrician.

Ornbo was married to Rose Harris, who he met while she was a production assistant at Theatre Projects. They have two sons, George and Sam.

Despite a long and increasingly debilitating illness, he always sought to live life to the fullest. He and Rose were intrepid travelers visiting Japan; the Caribbean for cricket (a game He particularly loved), and many favorite haunts in France. Keenly interested in countries emerging from the communist era, the couple visited Prague, Budapest, Sophia, Riga, Vilnius, Bratislava, and Tallin. In August of this year his son George married and Ornbo supervised preparations for the event, even through he was finally unable to personally attend. He was in touch with friends via email and exercised his always-agile mind by enthusiastically completing the Times crossword puzzle every morning.

His many friends and colleagues around the world will remember Ornbo as a true friend, who was always eloquent, humorous, and witty; a great host and bon-viveur, who enjoyed producing spectacles of his own for family and friends. He was a loving husband and father. His pride in his two sons as they both embarked on successful careers and marriages gave him particular joy.

Related Article:

Richard Pilbrow On Robert Ornbo

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