George Kolombatovich, fencing coach at Columbia and the Metropolitan Opera, dies at 72

Mr. Kolombatovich spent 32 years as a coach of the Columbia fencing team.
Mr. Kolombatovich spent 32 years as a coach of the Columbia fencing team.(Larry C. Morris/New York Times/1984)

NEW YORK — George Kolombatovich, who coached Columbia University fencers to five NCAA championships and taught sword fighting to cast members of “Otello,” “Carmen,” and “Don Giovanni” at the Metropolitan Opera, died on Sept. 19 in a hospital in Sarasota, Fla. He was 72.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, principally acute respiratory distress syndrome, his family said.

Mr. Kolombatovich, whose first lessons came from his father, spent 32 years as the head coach or co-head coach of the Columbia fencing team, many of them with Aladar Kogler. During that time, Columbia’s program became one of the country’s strongest: About 150 of its fencers became All-Americans, 17 won NCAA titles, and several qualified for the Olympics, including Erinn Smart.


The Columbia Lion fencers thrived in New York City, long an epicenter of the sport in the United States.

“Every single thing that counts as a disadvantage for Columbia football works in our favor,” Mr. Kolombatovich told the Associated Press in 1988, adding that it was much easier to recruit for fencing than it was football at the Ivy League school.

“I only need two or three and I have a national championship program,” he said.

Before and during his time at Columbia, Mr. Kolombatovich, an epee specialist, instructed singers at the Met in dueling onstage. With his father, Oscar, a Yugoslavian-born fencing master, and on his own, Mr. Kolombatovich designed the swordplay in numerous operas in the 1970s and ’80s. After his father retired as the Met’s fencing master, a part-time job, his son took over.

“He and his father were the greatest fight experts in the business,” Fabrizio Melano, the stage director, said in a telephone interview.

“Not only was George great at teaching people how to fight but also in how to integrate the fighting into the context of the opera,” added Melano, who directed “Otello” and “Roméo et Juliette” at the Met, and “Macbeth” at the Cincinnati Opera, with one or both Kolombatovichs on swashbuckling duty. “George and his father knew a lot about stage fighting but always insisted on safety. The swords were blunted but they were still made of steel.”


George Edward Kolombatovich was born in Queens on Aug. 29, 1946. His father was born in Split, in what is now Croatia, and taught fencing at the US Military Academy at West Point, having been influenced after his immigration to the United States by acrobatic film swordsmen like Douglas Fairbanks Sr. His mother, Joan (Roke) Kolombatovich, was a schoolteacher and principal.

For young George, a life in fencing appears to have been inevitable. Instruction from his father began when he was about 5. “He taught me only when I asked for lessons and they were very short,” he told Andy Shaw, the historian of USA Fencing, in a video interview in 2010. “After about a year and a half of doing this, probably four or five times a week, he sent me to Giorgio Santelli,” who won a gold medal with the Italian team at the 1920 Olympics.

George became a junior fencing champion on Long Island and a senior champion while in high school in Greenlawn. He attended New York University for two years and continued the sport during his Army service in Europe.

“Even though it hurts my vanity, I must admit that George can beat me,” Oscar Kolombatovich told The New York Times in 1974. A back injury in a car accident cut short George’s competitive career; he began working at his father’s fencing academy in Centerport, N.Y., and at his small factory in East Northport, which manufactured swords, daggers, and armor for collectors, film, and theater. And, in the late 1970s, he started coaching, at Huntington High School and then at New York University.


When Columbia hired him as assistant coach in 1978, The Daily News wrote, with his opera background in mind, that he had handled “such grudge matches as Cassio vs. Rodrigo in the Met’s ‘Otello,’ ” so Mr. Kolombatovich “should have little trouble getting the Lion fencers up for the Elis and Crimson.”

In addition to coaching the fencing team, Mr. Kolombatovich refereed around the world — including at three Olympics — and served on the officials’ committees of USA Fencing and the International Fencing Federation.

One of his major achievements was to create a new grading system to judge referees in the United States. “George changed the system that was there — which had been cursory — and made it more complex and better,” said Shaw, who is also a fencer and owner of the US Fencing Hall of Fame. “And he recruited people like me to train referees under the new system.”

He leaves his wife, Henriette (Wilkens) Kolombatovich, who is known as Etta; two daughters; two sons; and five grandchildren. His marriage to Sally Nygren ended in divorce.