Maria Elena "Nini" Prodan Bjørnson, 16 February 1949 – 13 December 2002

Maria Bjørnson's own life was as varied and rich as the design who made her world famous. For better and for worse. Her mother, Mia Prodan, came from a family belonging to Romanias cultural elite. But difficult political times in the 1940s made Mia Prodan a political refugee, and by chance she ended up in Norway. Here she was taken under the wings of the equally culturally prominent Bjørnson family. She eventually became close to Bjørn Bjørnson, grandson of Nobel Prize winner Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. But he was married, and the situation soon became so difficult Mia moved to Paris. It's said Bjørn visited her there, but when it was clear she was pregnant he went back to his wife and children. In February 1949 Maria was born, but Bjørn did not acknowledge her as his daughter.

Mia Prodan moved on, to London, in 1950. Despite poverty and tuberculosis, she managed to create a life there for herself and her little daughter. She was taken under the wings of Ion and Elizabeth Ratiu, who themselves were Romanian refugees and from a cultural background. They took care of little Maria for long periods of time, while her mother struggled to raise money to survive. But she was also careful to teach her daughter about culture, to always take her to museums and theatre and the movies.

Maria Bjørnson could not have gotten a worse start in life: illegitimate child born into poverty, a refugee, with minimal contact with her parents, with cleft palate, epilepsy and tendencies of stuttering. Nothing indicated she would one day be one of the most renowned stage designers of her generation. But her solitude might have fueled her creativity. As a child she created whole universes with pen and paper, with creatures in the most amazing outfits, each with their own background story. The artist Cecil Collins saw some of her work, and recommended a career within stage design, and with his help she was permitted at the prestigious Central School of Art and Design in London. At this time her mother Mia Prodin accepted a three year engagement in Niger to finance her daughter's education.

As a teenager Maria got to know more about her background. She learned who her father was, a Norwegian called Bjørn Bjørnson. The head strong teenager took Bjørnson as her last name, and worked for many years to be accepted by her father and to meet him. Through a Norwegian cousin a meeting was arranged, many years later. This happened in Langesund in Southern Norway, where her father had a summer house. Through this cousin she also got to know more of her Norwegian family, and got to see parts of the country. Maybe some of this even inspired her work. David Pountney, her collaborator on the opera "Kàt'a Kabanovà" in 1972, claims she used the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch as one of her inspirational sources for the design. This was her first professional commission, and it is interesting she choose a Norwegian artist as basis.

Bjørn Bjørnson accepted the adult Maria Bjørnson as his daughter. He left her a rather solid fortune when he died; amongst others various factories and summer houses in Southern Norway. Ironically this came after Maria had become a famous artist and was rich in her own rights. She seemed ambivalent to the large Norwegian fortune she suddenly possessed, and she preferred to collaborate with the true workers, the carpenters and painters and tradesmen. She never minded working at night, if necessary. She was a perfectionist, and put heart and soul into her design. Fame and fortune was of less importance, though it surely gave her more liberty.

Maria lived for more than 30 years in England before applying for a British citizenship. It's claimed her only reason for applying was that she traveled to so many corners of the world as a designer, and her refugee papers made traveling unnecessarily difficult. She didn't consider herself fully British in temper and mind; she declined to design "Peter Grimes" because she found it too British and hence a part of a world she didn't fully understand. She also expressed that though she appeared to have a cool Norwegian attitude, her Romanian blood burned passionately within. In between those two moods she created fantastic stage design. She's probably most famous for her design for Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera", which premiered in 1986. The show is still playing, and it's still using her design for sets and costumes. It's been performed on all continents of this world, in many countries and cities, and made her richer than she could ever have imagined.

It's still slightly ironic it's in the world of musical theatre she should be most famous. She did approximately 126 productions within three decades - more than what other people do in a whole lifetime - and only a handful of these were musicals. She did most of her design for opera and classical theatre, and her design for "Don Giovanni", "Der Rosenkavalier" and "The Little Prince" is still used worldwide. She designed both costumes and scenography; often both for a production. One of her favourite aspects of stage design was scene transactions. Where one usually had curtain down or backdrops lifted up and down to change settings, Maria staged the transactions for the audience - gliding transactions, where details were added and removed until the scenery was changed. She once said succeeding in good transactions was the most fulfilling part of the job, since it sets the mood for the coming scene. Without curtain down the story is continued, seamlessly. This might be why productions with her design has something filmatic about them. The story is never stopped by technicalities. Her assistants referred to it as "flowing scenery".

She also wanted the sets to be important in their own right, with or without actors on stage. "It mustn't just sit there like an empty box", she said, and let the sets get a life of their own. She had a similar attitude towards the costumes. In "Phantom of the Opera" she let the costumes, ornamental and intriguing from all angles, contrast a stripped-down stage, and hence substitute the scenography. This was a most cautions trick, and she seemed to have enjoyed to let costumes, sets and actors complete eachother and form a dialogue. Maybe this is why she so often designed both sets and costumes for a production. Whatever the case, Maria was not a decorator. Her design sprang out of the core of the story, and always worked on communicating it.

No matter the project and the starting point, she wanted to challenge the audience. According to her the biggest mistake was to simplify design and to underestimate the audience: "I think you must never talk down to your audience, that's a big mistake, especially with musicals. A lot of people do - they make things into easy listening and easy viewing, which isn't right". Her design, though always with strong aesthetic qualities, seldom looked like stuff you had seen before, and she often added small details meant for the unconciousness: "I try to move and disturb the audience. You may not see it, but you feel it". To achieve this she worked within the symbols from what she called "the collective subconscious". In Phantom you have candles, organ, smoke and heavy drapes, things we associate with religion and rituals. And what Christine experience in the Phantom's lair is a sort of rite. The audience understand the subtext without it even being spoken.

In the autumn of 2009 the magazine "The Scenographer" dedicated a whole number to Maria Bjørnson and her design. In the biography they write she avoided taking medications for her epilepsy, because she was afraid it would dull her mind and creativity. She died suddenly and prematurely in December 2002, because of an epileptic seizure. Her death was as uncompromising as her design.

Maria Bjørnson was at her death considered one of the finest stage designers by her peers. She had won a Tony award for her design for "Phantom of the Opera", as well as numerous other awards worldwide. She worked as a tutor at Central St Martins College Of Art & Design, and was also the course director for "Theatre Design". In 2006 a theatre was dedicated to her memory; "The Maria" at the Old Vic. Many "Phantom of the Opera" chandeliers also bears the name "Maria", amongst others the one in Las Vegas and the one used in the 25th anniversary Royal Albert Hall concert.

For "Phantom of the Opera" she designed a vast amount of costumes for both lead roles and ensemble roles. In total a production has around 230 costumes in use, though some of these are replicates to fit different cast members playing the same role. A production use around 165 costumes for each performance. What is amazing is that Maria Bjørnson designed these costume in a few weeks time, not only making sketches of how the costume looked from the front and back, but also additional sketches on how shoes, hats and accessories should look. Each design was carefully fitted with swatches of materials she'd selected. She collaborated closely with workshops, tailors, carpenters and the others making her visions come to life, and stayed faithful to them throughout her career.

What inspired her when designing the costumes for "Phantom of the Opera"? First and foremost she had a solid training in historical styles, and included details like historically accurate medals on uniforms, clocks (ornamental wedges) on Rococo socks, red Baroque heels for the mock opera "Il Muto" etc. She also looked to historical fashion plates and portraits for inspiration. Some of the ensemble costumes are variations of fashion plates from Harper's Bazaar - she most likely had the 1974 edition at hand, as the blue "by the sea" ensemble featured on the cover made it into the musical as the seamstress/dresser, as well as severa dresses included in the book. Portraits and etchings also forms the basis of some stage costumes. An etching from a Palais Garnier ball seems to have inspired Masquerade's "African tribe man", "Whiteface clown" and some of the dummies. Furthermore, old costume designs by C. Wilhelm and other, as well as paintings by Gustave Moreau, echoes Maria Bjørnson's design.

Another book of interest was "The Great Opera Stars In Historic Photographs", showing historical stage costumes from the 1850s to the 1940s. Especially costumes for the mock operas and Masquerade has gotten a hint of costumes from this book - Hannibal soldiers and princesses, Il Muto ladies, Don Juan ensemble, Masquerade costumes. The book was mentioned by associate designer Sam Fleming in a costume meet-and-greet in Las Vegas 2009.

Last, but not least, another important source of inspiration was popular culture and especially movies. Christine in the Mausoleum scene echoes a cloaked Meryl Streep in the 1981 movie "The French Lieutnant's Wife". Raoul's dashing Hussar uniform in the Masquerade scene is a nod to Errol Flynn in the 1941 movie "They Died With Their Boots On". Even the face of the famed Australian actor made it into the Raoul design: “Maria enjoyed the tease of using famous faces, like Errol Flynn in her design for Raoul” (Michael Lee, Archivist, Maria B. archive). Madame Giry is a solid nod to mysterious Mrs. Danvers in the 1940 movie "Rebecca". And of course, she studied the Lon Chaney "Phantom of the Opera" movie in detail and adapted different looks from it, most noticeably the Phantom's Red Death costume.

Now, using all these different sources doesn't mean Maria Bjørnson's design is unimaginative. Rather, she's giving nods to role figures, designers and painters whose qualities she wants to add to "Phantom of the Opera". She's combining historical sources with her creative touch, and the result is a unison Bjørnson look.

Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera House, London (2009, 2008, 2000, 1999, 1984)
Macbeth, La Scala, Milan (2008, 1998, 1997)
Phantom of the Opera, Her Majesty's in London, later produced on all continents (1986-)
Kàt'a Kabanovà, several worldwide productions (2008, 1994, 1982, 1980, 1979, 1972)
The Little Prince, The Metropolitan, New York (2007)
Don Giovanni, Opera North, Leeds (2008, 2007, 2002, 2001, 1994, 1981)
Adventures of Hoffman, Royal Opera, London (2008, 2000, 1999, 1980)
Cunning Little Vixen, Welsh National Opera, Wales (2008, 2003, 1988, 1983, 1980)


"The Scenographer: Tribute to Maria Bjørnson" (Harman Publishing Ltd / )
"The Complete Phantom of the Opera" (George Perry, Pavilion, 1987)
"Stage Design" (Tony Davis, Stagecraft RotoVision Switzerland, 2001)


Two stage models

Parisian men from "Toussaint Louverture"

Tatiana, from A Midsummer Night's Dream (1981)

A figure from "Der Rosenkavalier" (1984)

The Phantom of the Opera (1986)
To see more of the costume design for "Phantom of the Opera", please visit:

Sleeping Beauty (1994)

The Little Prince (2002)

No copyright infringement intended.
Most of Maria Bjørnson's design is in the care of The Maria Bjørnson Archive in London. Some can also be found at the Victorian & Albert Museum in London, and in private collections.