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Roger Butlin obituary

Innovative stage designer with a love of baroque opera and a painterly sensibility

In 1972 Thomas Allen was a young baritone preparing to sing Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd for Welsh National Opera. Although nervous, he was reassured by the atmospheric designs, and later recalled thinking: "This piece is going to be a success. We can't fail," because Roger Butlin's set "was so wonderful that we would have been idiots not to make it work."

One of the earliest opera designs by Butlin, who has died aged 76, it proved a landmark production. For Michael Geliot's intensely realistic version, Butlin designed a cross-section of an 18th-century warship. The effect was evocative and claustrophobic. As the critic Rodney Milnes wrote: "Butlin's exceptionally well thought-out sets and costumes indicate many hours well spent in the National Maritime Museum." Even the backcloth had "the cracked-varnish patina of a nautical seascape". Butlin's sensitive, graceful designs, especially of Britten and pre-romantic opera, added lustre to British and international stages.

Born in Stafford, he studied interior design and textiles at the West of England College of Art, Bristol, and for six years taught art at Cheltenham College junior school, where he met his wife, Joanna. In 1966 Sean Kenny's striking set for The Flying Dutchman at Covent Garden inspired his shift into theatre. Awarded an Arts Council design scholarship, he assisted at Sadler's Wells before making his full professional debut at the newly reopened Greenwich theatre, in south-east London.

Butlin's design for the musical play Martin Luther King (1969) is now in the V&A collection. A strong hexagonal thrust stage was backed by a screen showing news images of unrest and police brutality. As head of design at Greenwich (1969-72), he had successes that included Barbara Windsor playing Marie Lloyd in Sing a Rude Song; The Three Sisters with Mia Farrow and Joan Plowright; and Peter Nichols's barbed, nostalgic comedy Forget-Me-Not Lane, which transferred to the West End and secured Butlin a Variety award nomination.

Butlin had a painterly sensibility, and beautifully achieved panoramas often shaped his stage designs. John Cox's 1974 Glyndebourne production of Idomeneo (later released on DVD), dominated by a series of metallic hoops, was backed by Turner's views of the aristocratic Petworth estate. The critic Peter Conrad described how "the Turners, seen in tunnel vision as if through the wrong end of a telescope, betokened a classical calm which Mozart's characters, agitated by romantic emotion, had already left behind them."

Botticelli's Birth of Venus inspired an entrancing Return of Ulysses at Kent Opera (1978), while the award-winning Così Fan Tutte at ENO (1985) offered a balmy Bay of Naples. More recently, Butlin's Purcell productions with the director Thomas Guthrie were inspired by British artists: the first world war artist David Jones for King Arthur (2007), and the anguished fantasies of Richard Dadd for The Fairy Queen, which English Touring Opera tours this autumn. The director Tim Carroll believes that baroque opera "touched something very deeply in him", as did the "optimism and joie de vivre" of the age of enlightenment.

Janet Baker chose Gluck's Alceste as her farewell to Covent Garden (1981), and recorded an observer remarking that Butlin's set "looked exactly like the music". Butlin returned to the Royal Opera in 1998 with a black-and-white Marriage of Figaro, and also worked in Rome, Brussels and Dallas. His Barber of Seville, with Cox, featured in an early season at the Sydney Opera House in 1976.

Although proud to design for the world's renowned stages, he also relished smaller, quixotic projects. "He was always struggling with difficult causes," Allen recalled. "They appealed to him." Few were as precarious as Kent Opera, innovative but perpetually underfunded, for which Butlin and Norman Platt, the company's founder, produced a stream of memorable productions (Handel's Agrippina at Sadler's Wells was nominated for a Society of West End Theatre award in 1982).

The company's funding was axed in 1989, but Platt revived New Kent Opera in 1994. The opening production, Britten's Prodigal Son, paired Butlin with Carroll – Butlin relished working with new artists and loved to watch talent bloom. The pair formed a close friendship and created notable productions of Orfeo, The Turn of the Screw, and Acis and Galatea. Carroll recalled how the designer would make his young colleagues howl with laughter at his mock rap, but nonetheless refused to compromise his exacting design demands.

Butlin and Allen became friends on Billy Budd (he later gave his production sketches to Allen's son). He also collaborated on the singer's directorial debut, Britten's Albert Herring at the Royal College of Music (2002). Viewed through a sepia gauze painted with an Edwardian-style picture postcard, one critic hailed the "brilliantly designed" seaside shenanigans "that could stand comparison even with Glyndebourne's virtually definitive staging".

Comedy was unintentional in Spontini's La Vestale (Wexford, 1979), commemorated in Hugh Vickers's book Even Greater Operatic Disasters (1982). Butlin's raked, shiny white stage was treated to prevent slippage. When a zealous stagehand scrubbed it clean, the chorus "one by one shot gloriously down the stage to join their colleagues in a struggling heap at the footlights". Butlin, listening to a live radio broadcast, was baffled by the audience's helpless guffaws.

Although opera was central to his career, he enjoyed theatre, designing two George Bernard Shaw plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company, including Misalliance (1986), in which Jane Lapotaire's Polish aviator crashed her plane into an elegant Surrey conservatory. Later, he and Carroll worked at Shakespeare's Globe, notably on The Two Noble Kinsmen (2000), staging this anguished chivalric romance around a vast warhorse's skull, encased in armour (the cast affectionately named it Shergar).

For almost two decades, Butlin lived in the Kentish oast house which had been Kent Opera's office. These years were far from easy, troubled by illness, financial hardship and the death of his son Tom of a brain tumour in 1994, aged 24. When diagnosed with the same condition, he said simply: "If Tom can face this, then so can I." Friends were moved by his acceptance of loss. He was never bitter. "He was the gentlest of people," said Allen, "entirely loveable."

He is survived by Joanna (although divorced, they remained close), his daughter, Mandarava, who designed puppets for several of his productions, and his son, Conrad.

• Roger Butlin, stage designer, born 1 June 1935; died 23 July 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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