by Jarka Burian
Middleton: Wesleyan University, 1971. Scarce book on the work of this influential Czech theatre designer. Signed by Burian and Svoboda on title page. Hardcover with jacket.
Svoboda was born in Čáslav, Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic). He began his training as an architect at the Central School of Housing in Prague. At the end of World War II, he became interested in theatre and design. He began to study scenography at the Prague Conservatory and architecture at the Academy of Applied Arts.
Svoboda became the principal designer at the Czech National Theatre in 1948 and held that position for more than 30 years. His multimedia installations Laterna Magika and Polyekran, realized together with director Alfréd Radok and his brother Emil on the occasion of the Expo 58 in Brussels, allowed him to be internationally known. These productions introduced the combination of live actors and filmed projections. Svoboda is also responsible for introducing modern technologies and materials such as plastics, hydraulics and lasers into his designs. In 1967, Svoboda created one of his best known special effects, a three-dimensional pillar of light. This was created by the use of an aerosol mixture which revealed low-voltage luminaries.
Josef Svoboda considered himself a scenographer rather than a designer; he chose to show a more holistic, architectural, non-naturalistic approach to design. His 700-plus designs include Insect Comedy (Czech National Theatre, 1946); Rusalka (Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 1958); Carmen (Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 1972); The Firebird (Royal Danish Theatre, Copenhagen, 1972); I Vespri Siliciani (Metropolitan Opera, 1974); Jumpers (Kennedy Center, 1974), many of them realized together with the opera director Václav Kašlík.
He left the Czech National Theatre in 1992. Year later, he became artistic director of the Laterna Magika Theatre.
Svoboda’s honors and awards include honorary doctorates from the Royal College of Arts in London, Denison and Western Michigan universities in the United States, and awards from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT). He was made Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in Paris in 1976, and received the French Legion of Honor in 1993.
Josef Svoboda died in Prague, where he was buried on April 15, 2002.