Puppetry in Opera

On Friday 8 November The Barbican hosted Puppetry in Opera, the first of two days organised by the Puppet Centre to explore the ways in which puppetry has been used in the past and visions for its future use in opera. The day was chaired by John Fulljames, Associate Director at the Royal Opera House, and Peter Glanville, the Artistic Director of The Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington. In his foreword in the programme Fulljames said that he was hoping, through the programme, to discover how puppets sing.

Introducing the day Louise Jeffreys, Director of Programming at The Barbican observed how similar both art forms are in sharing the need for the audience to suspend its disbelief and accept interpretive imagery in its place. This was further developed by the historian Daniel Snowman who showed how these two different art forms share a common history in developing out of popular Italian street theatre into entertainment in the Courts of Europe both separately as well as through ‘puppet opera’ in places like Vienna, Salzburg and Prague. Penny Francis MBE built on this and compared the artificiality and stylization of the two forms. She illustrated how the two forms had attracted each other since the 16th century and are continuing to do so.

William Kentridge from Johannesburg then gave the first key-note presentation on The Suspension of Disbelief and talked about his use of puppets in opera working with Handspring Puppet Company, heralded for their work in War Horse. He showed how music, drawing and puppetry could be merged into one seamless communicating medium through work he had done on a short film, and then went on to give a broader illustration with excerpts from his production of il ritorno d’ulisse in patria. In this he made the puppets the main characters and the singers purely the source of the puppets voices. He observed how this had been impossible for some singers who were unable to accept that they would not appear as the “stars”. This may also have fulfilled John Fulljames’ quest to find out how puppets sing.

David Pountney followed with a fascinating exposition of his revolutionary production with Stefan Fichert (Puppet Players) of Gounod’s Faust for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich where he used puppets and not the singers to deliver the dialogues. As he explained it is difficult to have multi-national singers who are often not good actors, to deliver spoken dialogue when you can have pre-recorded clear voices speaking through puppets instead. The two speakers were then joined by Mark Down of Blind Summit to describe and illustrate the work in progress of their production of Die Zauberflote for next summer’s Bregenz Festival. As some of the puppets will be larger than those in War Horse they have had huge technical challenges both in terms of minimising the weight of the creatures and also the problem of wind in the open air setting of the production. Stefan Fichert had also worked closely with Hans Werner Henze when the composer initiated the Munich Biennale festival of contemporary music theatre and produced 13 commissioned experimental works of opera with puppetry involving Swedish National Opera. He moved in the direction of “acoustic puppets, which were designed with some of the qualities of musical instruments so they make their own unique sound.

Anna Karinsdotter, Head of Education at Royal Swedish Opera, gave an overview of her production of The Boy and His Love for Three Oranges, an adaptation of the story with new music, formed from Prokofiev’s original, for audiences of children aged 2-5 and totally puppet based.

From Italy Alberto Jona talked of his work with Controluce, a company specialising in the use of shadow puppetry work in opera. Essentially their vision is to use shadows to act as a narrative and visual aid to musical emotion rather than the replacement of characters by puppets. His productions of Dido and Aeneas and Aida are now to be followed by Bellini’s Il Pirata. He argues that Baroque opera is better suited to this stylised format than is the work of the Romantics.

Finally, before a general summing up and discussion group Nori Sawa from Japan demonstrated his work in which he has used bunraku technique with masks and life size puppets alongside opera singers. Rather like William Kentridge, Nori found that not all singers are comfortable with the fact that the puppet steals the show from them. However, in his recent production of Menotti’s Amahl and The Night Visitors from which we were shown clips, it was clear that the use of oversize bunraku style Magi worked amazingly well.

What has become clear during this fascinating day is that puppetry can have a very positive effect on the emotional strength of an operatic production in the right hands. However, it is equally clear that a director who is wishing to use this enhancing facility must be certain that he/she understands the medium well enough and also has singers who are flexible enough to obtain the truly remarkable effects which can be achieved. Puppet Centre are to be congratulated for putting this event together and it was interesting to see how much collaboration already exists. We may now see further progress occurring around the world as a result of these two days.

– John Bird