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May 27, 2011

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Set designer's work transcends the literalness of words

MING Cho Lee, a Shanghai-born American theatrical set designer and a former professor at the Yale School of Drama, has produced a few ingenious and unique sets for musicals, ballets and operas.

The 81-year-old set designer is now presenting a retrospective exhibition of his works at Shanghai Art Museum. Lee was once described by the famous American theater industry newspaper "Playbill" as "perhaps the most respected and revered of living American set designers."

With more than 100 scenic set models, the exhibition offers theater lovers a rare chance to learn how sets become an integral part of stage performances.

Lee's works, known for daring textures, the use of non-traditional materials and Oriental elements, have been featured in a few acclaimed theatrical, opera and ballet productions throughout the world.

He has also included many rough, small scale drawings in the exhibition.

Known in the business as "storyboards," these drawings are the initial inspiration and illustration for the sets. They provide a visual record of the communication between director and designer in formulating the look of a production.

Born into an intellectual family in Shanghai in 1930, Lee received Chinese landscape painting lessons from well-known painter Zhang Daqian and attended Western-style theater and opera performances with his mother. He moved to the United States in 1949 and started majored in theater at Occidental College. His first set design on Broadway in New York was for "The Moon Besieged" in 1962.

Lee's famous scenic designs include those made for Shakespeare's classics "Othello" and "Macbeth" and Samuel Beckett's "Waiting For Godot."

In 1983, Lee won a Tony Award for designing a 15-meter mountain for "K2," Patrick Meyer's drama about two Americans trying to climb the world's second highest peak.

In 2002, Lee was awarded the National Medal of Arts, America's highest honor for artistic excellence, by then President George W. Bush in a White House ceremony. During his career of nearly 50 years his honors also include a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award.

This is the third showing of the retrospective after its successful debut at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts at the Lincoln Center in 1995 and at an exhibition in Taipei two years later.

Lee says he is fortunate to have an exhibition in the city he was born and spent his formative years. He doesn't believe his later designs are necessarily better than the earlier work, but says they are very different.

For instance, the "Peer Gynt" sets he created for the 1969 version were more abstract, intellectually more rigorous, with very little sense of humor, while the design for the 1998 version was more realistic, closer to the land and the life of the play.

"I hope that the language barrier does not impede the enjoyment of what I have done for the past 50-some years," Lee adds. "On occasion the power of visual imagery can transcend the literalness of words."

Date: through May 30, 9am-4pm

Venue: Shanghai Art Museum, 325 Nanjing Rd. W.

Admission: free

Tel: 6327-2829


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