Obituary: Peter Rice, opera and theatre designer

Peter Rice, opera and theatre designer. Picture: Contributed
Peter Rice, opera and theatre designer. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 13 September 1928 in Simla. Died : 24 December 2015 in Oxfordshire. Aged 87.

Peter Rice brought to all his productions – whether in large opera houses or fringe theatres – a grandeur and understanding of the essence of the piece. He covered a variety of productions from a memorable Arabella at Covent Garden to more intimate theatre such as Maureen Lipman’s show based on Joyce Grenfell, Re: Joyce.

But it was the early days of Scottish Opera (SO) for which Rice will be so closely associated. He formed a strong working relationship with the directors Peter Ebert, Anthony Besch and conductor Sir Alexander Gibson that helped to establish the company’s name internationally. Indeed, in the official history of SO his name is listed amongst the earliest supporters of Gibson’s burgeoning company.

Rice’s name is fondly remembered for his 1980 designs for Besch’s production of Tosca. It was set in all its magnificence in Mussolini’s Rome but it worked superbly well and the setting brought an extra excitement to the drama. The production over the years has taken on iconic status in the history of the company – it was last revived two years ago. One critic wrote, “The accuracy and opulence of Peter Rice’s sets and costumes lend the production an extra authenticity and atmosphere, and the transfer from its Napoleonic setting to the pomposity and paranoia of the Fascist era is an inspired concept.”

Rice always delighted in telling the story how he and Besch had constructed a mound of cardboard boxes for the soprano to throw herself on to at the end of the opera – rather than the usual pile of mattresses. The (naturally) worried soprano suggested that Besch first tried the idea. “The boxes collapsed instantly like a pack of cards” Rice recalled, “and a shaken Anthony emerged. ‘Get the mattresses’ he said a touch shaken.”

His other operas with SO included The Seraglio, L’Heure Espagnole, Faust, Falstaff, La Bohème, Don Pasquale and Ariadne on Naxos. 1966 showed Rice’s ingenuity: the company had decided to do new productions of both Falstaff and Faust and to dress the chorus in Tudor costumes for both operas (“a clever economy” Rice thought). None of the costumes was near ready for the first night of Falstaff and, “On the opening night Geraint (Evans singing his first Falstaff)” Rice recalled, “had to be sewn into his doublet at the side of the stage.”

His work was seen at five Edinburgh Festival. Particularly notable was Busoni’s Arlecchino for Glyndebourne’s visit in 1960 and English Opera Group’s production of Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy in 1968.

Peter Anthony Morrish Rice was the son of an engineer working in India. When the family settled in Kent he was educated at St Dunstan’s College and Royal College of Art. He enjoyed considerable early success as a stage designer and in 1963 designed the costumes for a major west end musical (Pickwick starring Harry Secombe). In 1964 he worked for the Royal Opera in a new and widely acclaimed production of Richard Strauss’s Arabella conducted by Georg Solti with a cast led by Lisa Della Casa and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

In 1966 along with the choreographer/librettist Billy Chappell, Rice collaborated on Malcolm Williamson’s new opera, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, which gained a strong following when originally seen in London. In the 1960s Rice returned to the Royal College of Art to teach the use of colour in the textile department (students included Zandra Rhodes).

Rice built up a strong relationship with the Chichester Festival and designed many productions for them – most notably Alan Bennett’s 40 Years On in 1984 with Paul Eddington as the headmaster and at Greenwich he designed the first revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal where Rice captured the majesty of Venice by simply stretching white lace over a bedspread.

Many remember Rice as the most agreeable colleague who never flapped or raised his voice - but came up with ingenious answers to all scenic problems.

His versatility was widely recognised: he redecorated the interior of His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, designed the half-price booth in London’s Leicester Square and the interior of Macready’s the theatrical club in Covent Garden in the Eighties.

Rice instinctively understood the demands made on a designer: “SO considered a production in great detail. I consider myself the eyes of the production and the director the brain.”

On a personal note I knew Peter and he once lovingly recalled his years with SO, “as amongst my happiest. The company was breaking new barriers and finding an audience.

“SO was so exciting and adventurous: it was great to be a part of it.”

In 1984 he married the textile designer Pat Albeck. He is survived by her and their son.