Ming Cho Lee, an innovative and influential designer who created sets for hundreds of plays, dance works and operas, and whose ideas continue to influence the field, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 90.
His son Richard confirmed the death.
Mr. Lee, emeritus professor at the Yale School of Drama, was a Tony Award winner for the 1983 play “K2,” about two climbers scaling that titular Himalayan peak, for which he put a huge, icy, Styrofoam-and-wood mountain onstage at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway.
“The very fact that the Atkinson’s curtain goes all the way up as the evening begins creates its own stir of excitement,” Walter Kerr wrote of the production in The New York Times, “almost before we’ve been able to take in the full, ravaged splendor of designer Ming Cho Lee’s pitted pillar of crystal. We are so accustomed to curtains that welcome us by crawling halfway up the arch and then halting, with the emptiness above cut off by an artificial ceiling, that the curtain’s failure to stop midway is startling.”
If his “K2” set was realistic in the extreme — one actor had to scale it with spiked boots and pickax — many of Mr. Lee’s other creations went the other direction, toward minimalism. He was principal designer for Joseph Papp early in the life of the Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park, and he created sets for leading dance and opera companies as well, introducing new materials and new ways to envision a work that moved beyond the literalism of earlier times.
“In the 1960s and ’70s Lee radically and almost single-handedly transformed the American approach to stage design,” Arnold Aronson, professor emeritus at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and author of the 2014 book “Ming Cho Lee: A Life in Design,” said by email, “particularly through his work at the New York Shakespeare Festival, New York City Opera and Arena Stage in Washington.”
Professor Aronson said Mr. Lee had woven together a variety of influences — his training in Chinese watercolor painting, for instance, and his knowledge of German opera — to “forge a new American scenic vocabulary,” one characterized by a more vertical approach to stage space, a use of pipe work or wooden scaffolding, emblematic elements, collage, rough textures and new or unusual industrial materials.
Mr. Lee thought a good designer should work in multiple forms, though he had a particular fondness for dance.
“Dance demands the purest kind of designing,” he told The Times in 1975, “because you’re dealing with the abstract essence of a dramatic statement, which I express either in sculpture or painting. There are no hours of dealing with props or cigarettes or where the ice box should go, as you must with a play.
“Next to dance, I enjoy designing opera and Shakespeare, which also take design away from the literal situation. I’m very bad on props. I don’t like shopping around for them. That’s why my Broadway career has never been very strong.”
The comment was characteristically self-deprecating; at the time he made it, he already had more than 20 Broadway credits as designer or assistant designer, and he would add another 10 by the end of his career. In 2013 he received another Tony Award, for lifetime achievement.
“Though postmodern approaches to design, particularly in opera, moved beyond Lee’s aesthetic,” Professor Aronson said, “they would not have been possible without the revolution he inspired in the 1960s and ’70s.”
Ming Cho Lee was born on Oct. 3, 1930, in Shanghai to Lee Tsu Fa and Tang Ing. His father was general agent in the Far East for insurance companies, including what was then Occidental Life, and for a time Mr. Lee thought that that was probably his future as well. But then he became enamored of Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy movies, which were available in China at the time.
“One day my uncle heard me listening to their records and said: ‘They’re no good. You should listen to this guy,’” he told The Times in 1967. “He gave me some records, and it was Caruso. Then he gave me some more Italian opera records, and pretty soon I knew I couldn’t go into insurance.”
His parents divorced, and he stayed with his father, who moved his business to British-ruled Hong Kong with the rise of Communism in China. In 1949 Mr. Lee went to the United States for college, and stayed.
“I essentially became a refugee because I had no place to go back to,” he told The Washington Post in 2001. “Hong Kong at that time was not an easy place to get back in.”
He enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles, but his English was still imperfect, giving him trouble in lecture classes. So, having been painting since he was a young teenager, he enrolled in “every drawing class I could get my hands on,” he told The Times in 2014.
“I would get A’s,” he said, “which balanced the D’s I got in freshman English. They saved my life.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1953 at Occidental and a brief stay in graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles, he moved to New York in 1954 and became an assistant to Jo Mielziner, one of the most prolific set designers in Broadway history. Many of Mr. Lee’s early Broadway credits were as Mr. Mielziner’s assistant. He also worked with Boris Aronson, another top stage designer.
Mr. Lee was principal designer for Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival from 1962 to 1973. His early work was done before body microphones replaced stationary ones, which meant that, as innovative as his designs for Papp sometimes were, they started with a very mundane consideration.
“In designing for Shakespeare in the Park,” he once said, “the first thing you do is figure out where to put the microphones. It was all very primitive. All the staging was controlled by where you are in relation to the mikes.”
A particularly striking effort from that period was his set for the 1964 production of Sophocles’ “Electra” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park: three stone sculptural walls on a metal framework. It was, he told The Times in 2014, his first set with “a completely nonliteral abstract design, though at the same time it was real, an emblem, an icon.”
“It wasn’t an illustration of a place,” he added, “it was the pure expression of the play.”
Among his other projects for Papp was the original staging of “Hair” at the Public Theater in 1967. In 1974 he designed his first set for the Metropolitan Opera, a production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” He designed more than 20 productions for Arena Stage and also for Martha Graham and other leading choreographers.
“Certain words keep reappearing in reviews of Lee’s sets — minimal, terse, severe, sparse, skeletal, suggestive,” The Times wrote in 1975. “For Martha Graham’s ballet ‘The Witch of Endor,’ he used only two thrones and a striking piece of welded metal; for another Graham work, a welded clump of metallic trees.”
Mr. Lee’s acclaimed Broadway career had a paradoxical element to it: A number of the shows he designed for were flops. “K2,” by Patrick Meyers, closed after just 85 performances. Several lasted just days, the sets having often been the best part of a given production.
“The most distinguished aspect of ‘Here’s Where I Belong,’ the new musical that opened at the Billy Rose Theater last night, is the scenery by Ming Cho Lee,” Clive Barnes wrote in reviewing that one-day wonder for The Times in 1968. “But no one ever walked out of a theater humming the scenery.”
In addition to his son Richard, Mr. Lee is survived by his wife, Elizabeth (Rapport) Lee, whom he married in 1958; two other sons, Christopher and David; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Lee, a 2002 recipient of the National Medal of Arts, tended to greet the many accolades that came his way with modesty. Accepting his Tony Award for “K2” in 1983, he immediately shifted the praise to his lighting designer.
“Without Allen Lee Hughes’s lighting,” he said of his mountainous set, “it’s just going to be a large chunk of Styrofoam.”