Called the "dean" of American scene design, Ming Cho Lee (born 1930) shaped the face and future of design in professional theater and opera in America beginning in the late 1960s through his work on Broadway, the New York Shakespeare Festival, and the Metropolitan Opera and by teaching design at the Yale School of Drama.
Ming Cho Lee was born on October 3, 1930, in Shanghai, China. Lee's father was a 1919 Yale graduate who was in the international insurance business. When his parents divorced when he was six, Lee was sent to live with his father, which was not unusual at the time. "I had weekend visits with my mother, and those were the great moments of my life," he recalls. His mother, on his weekend visits with her, would take him to the theater, movies, and Chinese opera. His mother also provided him with the opportunity to study ink drawing and landscape painting with the watercolorist Change Kwo-Nyen. Like his father, Lee's stepfather was a member of Yale's class of 1919, and his mother's brother was a 1918 graduate. The young designer grew up in an environment where English was often spoken.
Lee completed high school in Hong Kong, but he was denied entry to the University of Hong Kong due to poor English skills. He then enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles, majoring in art so that he would not have too many English-language courses to pass. Because he came to the U.S. as a college student, Lee never felt like a part of the Chinese American community. "I never had experience of growing up as Chinese American or being part of a family who came over as true immigrants," he explains. "I never experienced that kind of prejudice. I was always accepted as a guest."
He soon switched his major to speech after deciding he would go into the theater, and his first scene design was for a 1951 student production of The Silver Whistle, a comedy by Robert McEnroe. He received his B.A. in theater in 1953 and continued to design as a graduate student at UCLA. He impressed stage lighting designer Eddie Kook, who recommended him to the famed New York designer Joe Mielziner, who had designed such shows as Winterset, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Guys and Dolls, and The King and I. Mielziner hired Lee as his apprentice in 1954. After passing his examination for membership in the United Scenic Artists union in 1955, Lee's first professional design was for a revival of Guys and Dolls for the Grist Mill Playhouse. His New York design debut was in 1958 for Herbert Berghof's production of Cocteau's The Infernal Machine, which received poor reviews but was noted for its set design, which one critic said seemed "to echo the play's moral decay." During this period, Lee worked briefly for the designers Boris Aronson and Rouben Ter-Artunian; in 1961, he was named the art director and designer of the San Francisco Opera. This experience led his participation in Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF), designing the festival's premiere production of The Merchant of Venice in 1962.
In succeeding years, Lee designed the NYSF's "Mobile Unit" theater, re-designed their playhouse in the park, and created scenic designs for over forty productions, while he was simultaneously principal designer for the Juilliard Opera Theatre and the American Opera Center of the Juilliard School of Music. Lee was also the principal designer for the Peabody Arts Theatre of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, from 1959 to 1963. His noted designs for the opera and dance include Madama Butterfly and The Marriage of Figaro for the Metropolitan Opera National Company (1965-1966), the American premiere of Alberto Ginestera's Don Rodrigo at the New York City Opera (1966), and The Witch of Endor for Martha Graham's Dance Company in 1966. About dance designing he said: "Dance demands the purest kind of designing because you're dealing with the abstract essence of a dramatic statement, which I express either in sculpture or painting. … Next to Dance, I enjoy designing opera and Shakespeare, which also take design away from the literal situation."
Lee brought a "new minimalism" to American stage design, characterized by austerity in color; the use of scaffolds, pipes, railings, and suggestive "set pieces" that localize each particular scene without being "realistic"; and abstract sculptural forms that create "environments" on stage rather than backgrounds. Much of his early design work was thought to be in reaction to the more aesthetically luxuriant designs of his mentor, Mielziner, but it may also have been influenced by practical needs of the companies he was working for, which may have prompted him to find innovative ways to create the proper scenic environment. In later years he moved away from the collage minimalism of creating a "visual statement" to a more "text-centered" approach that was tied thematically and situationally to the play.
He became known for his design work on Broadway shows that were less than successful. He readily admits to a "terrible Broadway career," adding almost jovially, "I've had more Broadway flops than anyone in the history of theatre…" However, Lee had many acclaimed Off-Broadway assignments, including Hair, a revival of The Crucible, and Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. His important Broadway designs were The Shadow Box by Michael Cristofer and K2 by Patrick Meyers, the latter winning him the 1983 Tony award for best set design through its realistic rendering of a crevice of ice on the face one of the world's tallest mountains; the K2 design (originally created for the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.) consisted of sculpted styrofoam covered with layers of tissue, paint, and glue.
Although Lee currently sits on the board of directors of New York's Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, he rarely engages in Chinese theatre, which is why his 1995 collaboration with "The Woman Warrior," an adaption of two of Chinese-American Maxine Hong Kingston's novels, staged in Los Angeles received a lot of attention. "I never had any project before this that had anything to do with China," said Lee. "Maxine's book totally wiped me out. Because I was not born here, her experience was very different from what I knew. At the same time, I understand it because I am Chinese. It was a very important opening of my eyes."
Unlike many famous designers, Lee's significance was felt not so much because of his Broadway designs but because of his virtuosity and versatility in designing for a number of different media. His primary influence on stage design was exercised through his post as co-chairman of design at the Yale School of Drama, where he began teaching in 1969. He is said to love teaching and rarely misses a class, even though it frequently meant a great deal of commuting. He numbers among his proteges many of the most prominent names in American design, including John Lee Beatty, Heidi Landesman, Michael Yeargan, Adrianne Lobel, Marjorie Bradley Kellogg and Douglas Schmidt. Lee has, in fact, long regarded the two sides of his career as being essential to one another as yin to yang. "Teaching forces a teacher to always go through a process of self-evaluation," he says. "I always remember what I owe to other people who were my mentors."
One of Lee's key contributions as a mentor is the annual Lincoln Center gathering known as the National Stage Design Portfolio Review, a major new-talent showcase more popularly called "Ming's Clambake." Launched in the 1970s by the League of Professional Theaters training program, the yearly showcase was curtailed for lack of funding in the mid-1980s. Lee came to the rescue. At first, he invited students from other schools to come to Yale to show their wares. Then, when the National Endowment for the Arts gave Lee its $25,000 Distinguished Theater Artist award, he committed money to reviving the Portfolio Review, which is now partly backed by the Lincoln Center Library that houses the event. The Portfolio Review, which is closed to the public, allows young designers a chance to show their wares and schmooze with some of the best desingers in show business. This past year, for instance, Lee was joined by such luminary colleagues as John Lee Beatty, John Conklin, Tony Walton, Adrianne Lobel, Santo Loquasto, Dunya Ramicova and others.
A comprehensive view of Lee's art was displayed in "Sets by Ming Cho Lee," a retrospective at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center— the same library that housed his first retrospective, in 1969. The exhibition—with more than 40 set models plus sketches and renderings—ranges from his 1960s monumental abstracts for the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park to the more recent efforts of what he calls his "white period." The show covers Lee's extensive work in theater, dance and opera, both here and abroad. Lee's watercolors and paintings, which were his hobby, were exhibited along with his designs in shows in Los Angeles, New York, and Prague.
He is the recipient of countless awards (including a Tony, Drama Desk, 1995 OBIE Award for Sustained Achievement and Outer Critics Circle), fellowships (including the Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts) and at least two honorary doctorates.
He married photographer Betty Rapport in 1958; she oversaw his design business from their New York apartment. They have three children.
Information on Ming Cho Lee's career can be found in the Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia (1987) and in Lynn Pecktal's book Designing and Painting for the Theatre (1975). For profiles of his approach to designing, see Faubion Bowers' article in Opera News, "Dean of Design" (March 1988) and "Designers on Designing: Ming Cho Lee" by Patricia Mackay, Theatre Crafts Magazine (February 1984).