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Desmond Heeley began his career in the theater as an apprentice in the workshops of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. His practical aptitude for costumes, properties, and painting was noticed by Peter Brook, who commissioned Heeley to design the costumes for a production of The Lark by Anouilh, in London. Later, as Peter Brook’s assistant at Stratford-upon-Avon, Heeley designed the costumes and properties for the now legendary production of Titus Andronicus with Sir Laurence Olivier.
From this point on, his work was to be seen in the theater, the opera, and the ballet: at the onset, the Ballet Rambert, then with John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan ballets at Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden, including Benjamin Britten’s only full-length ballet, Prince of the Pagodas. Continuing with Cranko, he designed for London’s West End, including a musical in conjunction with Lord Snowdon, employing advanced photographic techniques.
His work at the Old Vic Theatre with artistic director Michael Benthall ranged from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde. On the operatic scene, he designed I Puritani for Joan Sutherland at Glyndbourne, and La Traviata and Iolanthe for the Sadler’s Wells Opera. He designed for the Marquis de Cuevas Ballet in Paris, and for the Opera at La Scala in Milan.
In London, he designed the original production of several new plays by some of the leading British writers, Joe Orton’s Loot, Gentle Jack by Robert Bolt — starring Dame Edith Evans, Carving a Stone by Graham Greene — starring Sir Ralph Richardson, and In Praise of Love, directed by John Dexter.
A long association with artistic director Michael Langham began with a production of Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon. A year later, he did another Hamlet at another Stratford — this time in Ontario, Canada, starring Christopher Plummer. He designed some eighteen productions in Ontario, finding time in between to do Swan Lake for the National Ballet of Canada with Erik Bruhn, and later, for the same company, Giselle, as well as the opera Cosi Fan Tutte. When Langham left the Festival to be artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Heeley followed. Among the many productions he worked on there, notable successes were Oedipus, the King and Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker.
Sir Laurence Olivier invited him to join forces with Sean Kenny to design the opening production of the newly formed National Theatre at the Old Vic in London in 1967. Again the play was Hamlet, and this time the star was Peter O’Toole.
Later at Sir Laurence’s invitation, he designed the original production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. He then re-created the production on Broadway and won two Tony Awards for the sets and costumes.
Sir Rudolph Bing commissioned him to design Norma for Joan Sutherland at the Metropolitan Opera. Following this, he designed Pelleas and Melisande for the Met. In the 1970s Mr. Heeley also designed a highly successful three-act version of The Merry Widow, directed by Sir Robert Helpmann in Australia, which was presented on Broadway and then in London’s West End, starring Dame Margot Fonteyn. He also designed the sets and costumes for the Stuttgart Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty.
For John Dexter, Mr. Heeley designed the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Don Pasquale starring Beverly Sills. He has designed Theme and Variations (1978) for American Ballet Theatre; Titus Andronicus at the Stratford Festival in Canada; Teible and Her Demon for the Guthrie Theatre; and on Broadway, the revival of Camelot starring Richard Burton.
Mr. Heeley designed the New York City Opera’s productions of Brigadoon and South Pacific, the London Festival Ballet’s (now English National Ballet) production of Coppélia, the Vienna State Opera’s Maria Stuarda, and The Merry Widow for the National Ballet of Canada.
Over the past ten years, Houston Ballet has emerged as Mr. Heeley’s artistic home in America. The company has four works by Mr. Heeley in its repertoire: The Nutcracker (1987), Solitaire (1991), The Sleeping Beauty (1990), and Coppélia (1992). Additionally, in September, 1995, Houston Ballet presented Mr. Heeley’s production of The Merry Widow from the National Ballet of Canada.
Mr. Heeley has received numerous awards throughout his distinguished career. In 1994, he became the first person to receive the Theater Development Fund’s Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award. The Allan Jones Memorial Award followed in 1995, and in March, 1997, he was the recipient of the prestigious Institute for Theater Technology Award in recognition of his lifetime contribution to the performing arts.
In 1997, Mr. Heeley celebrated fifty years of working in the theater. From June 3- November 9, 1997, the Stratford Festival in Ontario mounted a massive retrospective exhibition featuring sets, designs, costumes, and properties that chronicled Mr. Heeley’s half century of achievement. Recent projects Mr. Heeley has designed at the Stratford Festival include Camelot in 1997, Amadeus, and Measure For Measure.