Obituary: Michael Stennett, Suffolk artist, leading opera designer and writer of ‘stiff letters’
Michael Stennett played a major role in the life of Yoxford but he was also a leading, creative figure in the world of opera and a successful painter with many solo exhibitions to his credit and work in the Royal Collection
Michael Stennett, one of the world’s leading theatre and opera designers, has died at his home in Yoxford, aged 74.
During his long career he worked with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, The Royal Opera House, Drottningholm Court Theatre, Sweden, English National Opera, Ottawa Festival, Malmo Ballet, Welsh National Opera and extensively with Australian Opera.
He began to wind down his globe-trotting work in the mid-1990s and moved to Suffolk, buying the 17th century Plantation Cottage in Yoxford.
Over his career, Stennett made costumes for performers such as Dames Kiri Te Kanawa, Janet Baker, and Joan Sutherland, as well as Kathleen Battle and Marilyn Horne. Despite working with a dazzling array of talented performers, however, it was his close working relationship with Dame Joan Sutherland that proved not only the most rewarding but also lasted the longest.
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He wrote that their first meeting happened in a typically brusque and almost confrontational style. “I met Dame Joan on stage at Covent Garden (in 1966). I was 19 and very full of myself. Joan asked me what I was doing, so I said I was studying theatre design. So, she said: ‘what do you think of the designs of this performance?’ I pulled a face. So, she pulled a very stern face and said: ‘if you think you’re so clever, why don’t you send me some of your designs.’
“That terminated the interview. I produced a series of designs which was my, sort-of, fantasy how I’d design for her if I was put in that position. The upshot was that this, very famous, world-famous singer found time to write me a personal letter full of encouragement and advice about how I could best work with singers.”
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Michael’s relationship with Dame Joan then lasted for the next three decades and culminated with her travelling to Yoxford in 2000 to open the The Barnsdale Gallery which Michael had started in collaboration with good friend and fellow theatrical designer Bob Ringwood.
Dame Joan also nominated Michael as the artist who would complete a commission from The Queen, who wanted a portrait drawing of Dame Joan for the Order of Merit series at Windsor Castle.
Michael retired from full-time theatre design in 1994 and set about becoming a Suffolk painter, exhibiting regularly in Aldeburgh and Snape as well as always having new work on show at the Barnsdale Gallery.
He also threw himself into village life. One of his favourite activities was the “Portrait Group” which he tutored. He mounted an exhibition of his paintings in “Yoxford Portraits”.
Michael enjoyed an active role in village life with activities and projects including a spectacular bonfire firework effigy, multiple children’s Victorian Costumes for the Christmas Fayre, life size Nativity Tableau, and perhaps most significantly the restoration of Cockfield Hall Chapel.
Michael was born on June 25, 1946 in Farnborough, Hampshire, the son of an army officer. In 1960 he was accepted into Repton School before moving onto Chesterfield College of Art, in 1963 and then onto Wimbledon School of Art to study theatre design.
Michael was always proud to have studied at Wimbledon under the inspirational tutelage of Richard Negri, who helped him secure a post-graduate position in Period Tailoring at Toronto Opera.
He decided very early on that he would have a career in opera design, so he swiftly bit the bullet and bravely went to the Royal Opera stage door, asking for the legendary artistic administrator Joan Ingpen. She had just given Luciano Pavarotti his first role at Covent Garden as Rudolfo in La Boheme.
In 1967, he lived in Rome for six months painting in an artist’s studio, designing fashion and undertaking portrait commissions. A turning point came in 1968 when, aged 21, he became assistant to the designer, Henry Bardon. His first West End contract was for the costumes of Anne of Green Gables at The New Theatre in London. A year later, he flew to Sydney as costume designer for Opera Australia’s production or Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro .
As the 70s dawned Michael found himself a rising star in the world of theatrical design. In 1971 he found himself designing costumes for Dame Kiri te Kanawa’s debut at The Royal Opera House, constructing jewellery for Glenda Jackson in ‘Elizabeth R’ for the BBC and making Mia Farrow’s costumes for her performance in ‘Time and the Conways’ at Theatre 69 in Manchester.
Michael went on to design the costumes for 14 further productions, working closely alongside John Copley CBE, who formally introduced Michael to Richard Bonynge and his wife Joan Sutherland.
In 1973, he designed costumes for Rudolf Nureyev in the production of “Conservatoire” for London Festival Ballet. He designed at least 18 productions for Australian Opera; the first being “The Marriage of Figaro” with John Copley and Henry Bardon. He also worked for San Francisco Opera, The Canadian Opera and Iceland Opera.
His first costume design for Dame Joan Sutherland was in “Lucrezia Borgia”, at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden with John Copley and John Pascoe in 1979. Michael always painted the Opera Stars with flattering facial and figure resemblance in his designs. He understood glamour and allure; he knew how to complement a star’s appearance thus ensuring great trust in never sending them on stage looking ridiculous. As a result, many were purchased by the stars themselves and are still popular with collectors.
Moffat Oxenbould AM, artistic director of Australian Opera, said that Michael’s artistry, professionalism and practical knowledge immediately endeared him to the craftspeople who worked with him in the wardrobe workshops. “His expertise and flair was inspirational. He knew how to challenge and cajole cutters to give nothing short of their best. His knowledge of fabric, decoration and appliqué was matched by an ability to make artists look their very best. His knowledge of period and style and his passion for research was extraordinary. His range was immense – from the grandeur of 19th century successes such as La Traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor and Rigoletto to the whimsical and theatricality of Fra Diavolo and the grittiness of Jenufa and Peter Grimes.”
Older brother David Stennett said that Michael slowly began to decline work in the early ‘90s and launched into a painting career and set about taming a large wild plot which came with the cottage. “His Garden Project involved the strategic placement of tons of breeze blocks to shape the contours. This great project continued over the years with waterfalls, bubbling fountains, ponds, streams and, in the spring, his favourite delphiniums. He hosted his Open Garden for a different charity each summer. The event always had a magical atmosphere. It often included a young harpist playing in the summer house, which had a painted ceiling featuring jokey classical figures. He was a witty caricaturist. His friends often received cartoons of themselves with ‘politically incorrect’ and comic captions.
“Michael was noted for his “stiff” letters. On one occasion, he visited a National Trust property and witnessed the poor condition of the tapestries. He wrote to the then chairman of the National Trust and made this evident in no uncertain manner. His letter was circulated to all of the Trust’s properties for immediate action.”
His sharp comments were not always in written form. During a visit to Derbyshire, he was walking in Chatsworth park at the Bower House, where Mary Queen of Scots had been held captive. He was horrified at its neglected and run-down state. The [then] Dowager Duchess of Devonshire walked past him. Michael promptly told her; “Duchess - the state of the Bower is a disgrace!” It is likely that she took immediate action as it is now much improved.
Michael was diagnosed with Pulmonary Fibrosis last year. He died at home on June 11th, 2020. He leaves a brother and a sister.