Opera Scotland

Roger Butlin Suggest updates

Born Stafford, 1 June 1935.

Died 23 July 2011.

English theatre designer.

Roger Butlin studied interior design and textiles at West of England College of Art, followed by teacher training. For six years he taught art in Cheltenham, then, after applying for an Arts Council design scholarship he spent a year from 1967 at Sadler's Wells, before joining the staff at the Greenwich Theatre. As resident designer he worked on several West End transfers including Forget-Me-Not Lans by Peter Nichols and the musical Sing a Rude Song. He designed Shaw's The Devil's Disciple for the RSC.


One of Butlin's first opera designs was a set for the students at the London Opera Centre in collaboration with director Anthony Besch. This production of The Coronation of Poppea was taken over by Scottish Opera in 1973.  His second work for Scottish Opera was David Pountney's 1979 production of Eugene Onegin, for which he provided a memorable contrast between the cosy rurality of the Larins' estate and the glacial majesty of Gremin's palace, a contrast reflected just as accurately in Deirdre Clancy's costumes.

His design breakthrough perhaps came with his sets and costumes for Michael Geliot's memorable 1973 production of Billy Budd for Welsh National - a success repeated some years later with Australian Opera. Macbeth had been an earlier success for him with the Welsh company. He designed a very successful Così fan tutte with John Cox for ENO, and collaborated with him on a Glyndebourne staging of Idomeneo, complete with Turneresque backdrops, which Cox later borrowed for Scottish Opera.

Butlin's artistic home for most of his career was Kent Opera, with whom he designed many productions such as The Return of Ulysses and Il rè pastore. A superb example, his complete design for Gluck's Iphigenia in Tauris, was brought on Kent Opera's only visit to the Edinburgh Festival.

He made three designs for the Wexford Festival. He began in 1977 with Massenet's little known Hérodiade. Then he worked on the equally neglected Tiefland, by Eugen d'Albert. His third design was a return to the familiar idiom of a recreation of the classical world with Spontini's La Vestale. This staging achieved lasting fame because, it seems, of an overscrupulous stage crew who, between dress rehearsal and opening, scrubbed off the non-stick surface applied to make a ramp safe. The entry of the chorus of Vestals signally failed to maintain the sense of dignity implied by the music. Scottish mezzo Claire Livingstone performed the role of Grand Vestal on that occasion.

Work abroad took Butlin to Brussels (Peter Grimes) and Cologne (La Périchole). He also designed Albert Herring and The Barber of Seville at the Sydney Opera House.

At Covent Garden, he designed another excellent neo-classical production, this time directed by John Copley. This 1981 staging of Gluck's Alceste was mounted for Dame Janet Baker's farewell performances at the Royal Opera House. It was followed by a much admired staging of The Marriage of Figaro. designed during the period when the company played in other theatres during the redevelopment of 1998. One of his last projects was the design for English Touring Opera's staging of The Fairy Queen by Thomas Guthrie, originally mounted in 2005 and revived just after his death, in the autumn of 2011.

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