Where Puppets Perform Operas
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN AUSTRIA
“YES, the music was beautiful, but the puppetry technique was amazing. The marionettes are able to convey even subtle gestures beyond anything [I have] seen in any prior puppet or marionette performances!”
Is the speaker describing a puppet show for young children? No. Believe it or not, those are the enthusiastic words of an adult visitor to the opera. Where is this outstanding opera performed? At a most extraordinary opera house in Salzburg, Austria, the city that was home to the famous composer Mozart.
But have you ever heard of wooden marionettes that are between two and three feet [from a half meter to a meter] tall performing operas? The puppets of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre do just that. When they start dancing onstage, they inevitably enchant the audience, transporting them into another world—one of fantasy and captivating music.
A Fusion of Reality and Fantasy
As the overture plays and the curtain rises for the first act, the audience is sometimes taken aback by what they see. Are those really wooden marionettes crossing the stage and gesticulating as if they were singing arias? And what about all those thin threads above the heads of the puppets? Some visitors may not be able to contain their disappointment, thinking, ‘Everything is too visible—we can see it all!’ What is more, the orchestra pit with its musicians is missing. The idea of simply playing prerecorded opera music seems to be bordering on bad taste. The inveterate opera visitor might well think indignantly, ‘How awful!’ But wait a minute! Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the audience undergoes a transformation.
Once the audience overcomes its initial skepticism, the marionettes begin to exercise their captivating charm. A fascinating fusion of reality and fantasy takes place. The silk threads that give life to the puppets are no longer noticed. The spectators are thrilled not only by the performance but also by the unusual idea of having marionettes onstage in a small opera house. Soon the idea no longer seems absurd, and the audience quickly forgets that they are watching lifeless marionettes. Yes, the puppets have the wondrous ability to thrill even skeptical spectators, whisking them off into the puppets’ own little world.
Onstage and Backstage
The action backstage is almost as fascinating as that onstage. The real artists are the puppeteers behind the stage—or, better stated, above the stage—where they work from a bridge. While the puppeteers twist and turn their hands as if speaking a kind of sign language, the marionettes sing, cry, fight duels, or curtsy—just the way real opera singers would.
The New York Times once explained what makes this art so fascinating: “Backstage, the humans are free to take on any role of any age, of either sex; they must have only one quality, and that one in great measure: skill.” And the skill with which the Salzburg puppeteers bring their marionettes to life is truly incredible.
Puppets Instead of Lifeless Figures
The Salzburg Marionette Theatre has been a success for over 90 years—since 1913, when the company performed one of Mozart’s operas for the first time. The founder of the theater was Anton Aicher, a sculptor. Aicher served his apprenticeship in Munich and then made marionettes that could perform exceptional true-to-life movements. He soon noticed that working with marionettes was much more enjoyable than carving motionless altar figures.
It did not take long before the rest of Aicher’s family was enthralled by this kind of entertainment. His family eagerly helped to sew the clothes for the marionettes and assisted with the musical and speaking parts. So great was their success that the repertoire was soon enlarged. And from 1927 on, guest performances were given in other countries. These days the marionettes appear regularly in several countries, such as Japan and the United States. The public in all cultures appreciate marionette entertainment.
Entertainment for You?
Opera has been defined as “a drama set to mus[ic] to be sung with instr[umental] accomp[animent] by singers usually in costume.” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music) Opera librettos, or texts, have been based on mythology, history, Biblical accounts, and fiction. They can be tragic, romantic, or comic. Those performed in this marionette theater are usually in German or Italian. Therefore, it is wise to check a translation of the synopsis to determine if you would enjoy the work.
How can a Christian decide if a certain opera is worthy of his attention? Should he judge only by the fame of the singers? Or by the beauty of the music? Or by the story line that is the basis for the libretto?
Surely, as with all entertainment, the best way for a Christian to decide whether to listen to or watch an opera is to compare the synopsis with the criteria that the apostle Paul expressed: “Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are of serious concern, whatever things are righteous, whatever things are chaste, whatever things are lovable, whatever things are well spoken of, whatever virtue there is and whatever praiseworthy thing there is, continue considering these things.”—Philippians 4:8.
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A full cast of marionettes are ready to appear in a variety of operas
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The Salzburg Marionette Theatre
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Anton Aicher, the founder
By courtesy of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre
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All photos on pages 8 and 9: By courtesy of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre