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Herbert Charles Senn, noted Broadway set designer, dead at 78

Herbert Charles Senn, noted set designer for Broadway, the Opera Company of Boston, and the Cape Playhouse, died at his home in Yarmouth Port Wednesday after a brief illness. He was 78; and in his last days, he was surrounded by his collaborator of six decades, designer Helen Pond; his dog, Lucky; and friends.

Senn and Pond met as students at Columbia University nearly 60 years ago and worked together throughout their careers. They designed more than 50 operas for Sarah Caldwell and the Opera Company of Boston, and more than 350 plays for the Cape Playhouse, where their demanding schedule required a new production each week of a 10-week season between 1956 and 1994.

They designed the Boston Ballet's "Nutcracker" with its vast Christmas tree; with one major refurbishment and the collaborators' annual attention, it has held the stage and delighted audiences for 25 seasons.

For Broadway they designed "What Makes Sammy Run?," "Roar Like a Dove," "Oh, Coward!" and revivals of "Showboat" and "The Boys from Syracuse." They also designed productions for the New York City Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York's Lincoln Center and the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.

Working on a series of seriously compromised stages for Caldwell, the pair repeatedly triumphed through artistry and ingenuity, mastering the almost-forgotten art of scene-painting and often using a revolving stage for magical effects and transformations.

Among their triumphs were "Don Pasquale," where the landscape of Rome rolled by behind the characters as they travelled by coach across the city; "Russlan and Ludmilla," inspired by the Russian tradition of lacquered palekh-box painting; "Les Troyens" with its stage-spanning Trojan horse; "Benvenuto Cellini" with its triumphant recreation of the casting of the gold statue of Perseus; and "Don Quichotte" with its giant working windmill.

Caldwell, reached yesterday, said: "I think the most wonderful thing about Herbert is that he had complete faith in the theater. When we were working on an opera, he would try to figure out a way to do things the way they were conceived. When we did `Don Quichotte," we figured out a way to have Don Quixote fight the windmill and fly around on its blades as they turned. Herbert liked to do things from different perspectives -- the Trojan horse in `Les Troyens' was big and it was down at the edge of the footlights, and little children crawled out of it dressed as soldiers, so it looked even bigger. He loved creating illusions that would capture the audience."

Senn was born in Ilion, N.Y., and served in the Army as a medical technician in San Antonio, Texas, and in the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He studied at Atlantic Union College and at Columbia, and began his career with Pond with student shows and working off-Broadway.

In recent years, Senn and Pond slowed their pace without ever announcing their retirement, and they continued to attend performances in Boston, New York, and on the Cape. Last winter, they were sighted checking out the Boston Lyric Opera's production of Mozart's "The Abduction from the Seraglio," coincidentally the first opera they designed for Caldwell, back in 1965.

They also curated three exhibits of their set models, all called "Stealing the Show," which is something they knew how to do; many of their precisely detailed and captivating stage pictures earned a round of applause as the curtain rose.

Their work was notable for bold colors, naturalistic detail, and architectural solidity, even when they were painting on canvas. They were masters of every period, style and mood, but maybe at their best in comedy, when they could give free play to their lively imaginations and contribute to the momentum of the fun -- their best sets were not just frameworks for the action but almost became characters in it.

For the last 30 years Senn and Pond have been decorating a deconsecrated church and parish house in Yarmouth Port that they named "Strawberry Hill" after the residence of Horace Walpole, the British writer and master of the Gothic. Pond bought the buildings in the 1970s but there was so much work to be done that they didn't move in until 1985. They decorated the buildings with elaborate carvings, woodwork, murals, and ceiling paintings. It was one design they never completed.

In personality, Senn was modest, good-humored and more colorful than he let on. One day, wearing jeans and a down vest, he cheerfully painted the fanciful rococo palace of the Marschallin in Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier" in an underheated Somerville warehouse in the dead of winter. His own favorite of his opera designs was "Don Pasquale." He said, "It showed that opera is a viable alternative to a Broadway musical. Opera is the ultimate project -- it demands everything scenery can accomplish."

Shortly after his death, Pond and several friends tolled the bell of Strawberry Hill 78 times.

In addition to Pond, Senn leaves two cousins, his dog and many colleagues and friends.

An invitational memorial will be scheduled at a later date.

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