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OPERA PUPPETRY

I’VE BEEN enjoying puppets in operas. Not puppet operas per se, where all the characters are controlled by puppeteers, but rather operatic productions making use of puppets interacting with real people. Or as real as grand opera ever gets.

Specific productions I have in mind are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Magic Flute, Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. It’s difficult to imagine a more diverse collection of operas, but their link is puppetry of the finest sort.

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Mozart’s Magic Flute, Julie Taymor production, the Metropolitan Opera. Image from The New York Times, December 21, 2010.

Julie Taymor’s artistry has extended from The Lion King to a harrowing production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Her Magic Flute is populated by giant bears and other creatures who occasionally soar above Tamino and his pal Papageno. There’s an extensive and entertaining study of Taymor as puppet artist by James M. Brandon at The Puppetry Home Page.

Brandon quotes Taymor on an advantage of puppet theatrics: “… I like the things puppets allow you to do. I had this puppet Dinah Donewell, and she had this hand puppet named Mr. Pleaser. He was her lap dog who was constantly under her skirt. Now if you did that with actors, people would be offended. But in this case, so what? It was a puppet with a puppet.”

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In Wagner’s Das Rheingold, one of giants Fafner and Fasolt confronts the gods, part of the Gergiev production of the Ring Cycle. Image from Seen and Heard International.

Valery Gergiev worked with set designer George Tsypin in taking Wagner’s Ring Cycle on tour. The suspended monoliths, not really puppets by any stretch, had their own magic. But the giants Fafner and Fasolt moved about encased symbolically in stone blocks revealing only the heads of their portrayers.

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Brünhilde and her stallion Grane in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the concluding opera of The Ring. Image of the Metropolitan Opera production from Opera News.

The fourth and final opera of The Ring concludes appropriately with the end of the world. Brünhilde rides her stallion Grane into the flames of Siegfried’s funeral pyre. There’s an equine kinship between Grane and the Handspring Puppet Company’s star of War Horse. The latter is articulated by three operators, two controlling the horse’s feet, the third in charge of its head and neck.

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Sorrow, the child of Butterfly and Pinkerton, in the Anthony Minghella production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Image from The Opera 101.

Anthony Minghella, 1954 – 2008, was a British film director (with an Academy Award for The English Patient, 1996). In his Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, he turned to Japanese bunraku tradition for portraying Butterfly’s child, whom she’s destined to lose to Pinkerton and his American wife.

Bunkaru puppetry dates from 1684. Each character is operated by three puppeteers, the principal one controlling the head and a hand, a second one in charge of the body and other hand, a third working the feet. Dressed in black, by Japanese convention the puppeteers are invisible. (Occasionally, Japanese automotive stylists have used black to render this imagined invisibility to car features.)

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Madame Butterfly, her son and invisible puppeteers. Image from The New York Times, September 27, 2006.

The puppet child’s movements are particularly touching, much more so than those of the opera’s traditional practice (whose real child is likely rehearsed to sit and be quiet).

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Satyagratha, by Philip Glass, with set and puppet design by the Improbable Theatre Company. Image from The New York Times, November 7, 2011

Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch of the Improbable Theatre Company specialize in a blend of puppetry, improvisation, comedy and social awareness. Their oversize puppets, some more than 20 ft. high, are fabricated of newspaper, cotton cloth and latex glue, the shapes operated by fiberglass kite poles.

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Satyagraha puppets get suited up. Image from The New York Times, April 11, 2008.

Said Crouch of the sets and puppetry, “We decided we wanted to use very humble materials in the making of the opera. We wanted similarly to take these materials, maybe associated with poverty, and see if we could do a kind of alchemy with that, turn them into something beautiful.”

And, like Butterfly’s child Sorrow, their puppetry succeeds admirably. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

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