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IU Jacobs School of Music

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IU Jacobs School of Music

Last modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Illustrious set designer Robert O’Hearn retires from IU following "A Wedding"

Jan. 30, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When the curtain rises on this weekend's performance of A Wedding, the third of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom's operas to have its collegiate premiere at Indiana University, it will reveal the final creations of illustrious set designer Robert O'Hearn, who retires following the opera's run, at the age of 86.

O'Hearn also designed Bolcom's two previous IU Opera Theater premieres -- McTeague, in 1996, and A View from the Bridge, in 2005.

Robert O'Hearn

Robert O'Hearn

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"When I tell people in opera or on Broadway that Bob O'Hearn has been doing sets for my operas at IU, they are amazed; he is a legend in the business," Bolcom said.

With more than 80 designs to his name, O'Hearn has evoked settings reaching across time and through countless regions during his career. His credits range from Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera in New York to Swan Lake in Strasbourg, from Don Quixote in Salt Lake City to La Traviata in Miami. In his 20 years at IU, he has created more than 30 designs, many of which remain in current rotation.

O'Hearn's connection to IU began in the 1930s, when he enrolled as an undergraduate. Originally from Elkhart, Ind., he completed his degree in the Department of Theatre and Drama in 1943.

By 1948, he had become a fixture at the Harvard University Brattle Theater, designing numerous productions there. Then in 1952, he left Brattle for New York City and became an assistant designer on Broadway, working on such legendary productions as Kismet, Pajama Game, My Fair Lady, and West Side Story in the '50s.

In the years that followed, he became one of the biggest names in set design, completing a total of 12 operas for the Met, many of them considered among its most important productions. Highlights from his Met productions include L'Elisir d'Amore (1960), Die Frau Ohne Shatten (1966), Der Rosenkavelier (1969) and Porgy and Bess (1985).

"A Wedding" set

O'Hearn's set for "A Wedding."

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His other U.S. credits are quite extensive, including the New York City Opera, New York Shakespeare Festival, City Center Theater, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Boston Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, Houston Opera, Ballet West, Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and the San Francisco Ballet.

O'Hearn's international credits include the Vienna Staatsoper, Vienna Volksoper, Hamburg Staatsopera, Austria's Bregenzer Festspiele, the Karlsruhe Opera House in Germany and the Canadian Opera Company.

In addition to opera and ballet, he has worked on musicals such as Annie Get Your Gun and Carousel for the Miami Opera and West Side Story and My Fair Lady for the Michigan Opera Theater.

As a teacher, O'Hearn has shared his unparalleled expertise with students since 1968, when he became a professor for the Studio and Forum of Stage Design in New York. He was there for 20 years, but after a year at IU as a visiting professor in 1988, he decided to make Bloomington his permanent home.

"I'd been there for 40 years, so I'd had New York," he said. "I was tired of the car horns honking and the car alarms. I went back and forth for several years in the summer and over Christmas vacation, but I was always glad to come back here. So, eventually, I sold my apartment and bought a condominium here. I have no regrets."

O'Hearn is the first American-born designer to serve as principal designer for IU Opera Theater. Designing for the Met was good preparation for working with IU's Musical Arts Center, he said.

"The stages are very similar. Ours is maybe 5 percent smaller, but we have the main stage and two side stages, and our fly gallery is the same as the Met's," he said.

"Peter Grimes"

O'Hearn's first design for the Musical Arts Center was the set of "Peter Grimes."

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His first design for the MAC, Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, set in 19th-century England, he considers "one of the best things I ever did." Among the elegant and theatrically sensitive designs that followed were Eugene Onegin, Wozzek, Falstaff, Carmen, Ariadne-auf-Naxos, Arabella, Manon and Le Nozze di Figaro, to name a few.

Professor David Higgins, also an esteemed designer who has worked closely with O'Hearn at IU, said, "There is no American theatrical designer more closely associated with the world of opera than Robert O'Hearn. His productions have been the benchmark of excellence both here and abroad. As the history of IU Opera Theater continues to be written, it will no doubt remember him as a key figure in the development of even higher standards of artistic achievement."

Through all the operas and ballets O'Hearn designed during his 60 years in the profession, he has never lost his enthusiasm.

"I love the operas, and they are all exciting and challenging," he said. "They can be in all different historical periods -- that's really what has made it exciting. I love the music, and the students are just wonderful. We've had some really great voices come through here."

He delayed retirement as long as possible, but at 86, felt it was finally time to slow down.

"It's been a great time being here," he said. "But I finally realized that it was time now to retire, after the dean informed me that I was the oldest person on the faculty. I've had a long run."

In 2005, O'Hearn received the Robert L. B. Tobin Award for lifetime achievement in theatrical design. His sets and designs will remain in use throughout the country for many years to come.

A Wedding will be performed at the MAC on Feb. 1, 2, 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets are on sale now at the Musical Arts Center Box Office (for information, call 812-855-7433), open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; at all Ticketmaster outlets; by phone through Ticketmaster at 812-333-9955; and online at