November 20, 2006


You Have to Pull a Few Strings to Create These New Opera Stars (MATTHEW GUREWITSCH, 11/19/06, NY Times)

IN September the puppet in the news was the bunraku boy in Anthony Minghella’s staging of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera. Next month comes the 12-foot Witch in Basil Twist’s production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at the Houston Grand Opera. But there is more to this new world of puppet opera than puppets: masks, shape-shifting costumes (often colossal), sets that have an eerie way of coming to life.

Julie Taymor, who virtually invented the phenomenon, can think of no good name for it. “It’s called being theatrical,” she said one recent Saturday morning at her apartment near Union Square in Manhattan. “It’s called using your imagination.”

Puppets and all that goes with them have had a place in opera for centuries. But mostly they have inhabited a parallel universe, miming on miniature stages to the voices of unseen singers, live or recorded. Why use them alongside breathing singers on the stage of a regulation opera house? In telephone, e-mail and personal interviews, a half-dozen theater artists experienced with puppets offered two basic philosophies.

On one hand there are puppet-friendly directors: Mr. Minghella and William Friedkin, both primarily film directors, and Ms. Taymor. They use puppets only as needed, to place specific accents. On the other hand there are puppetry’s true believers, who conceive entire spectacles in terms of their specialty: Mr. Twist and his fellow designer and director Douglas Fitch, whose production of “Hansel and Gretel” opens at the Los Angeles Opera on Sunday, beating Mr. Twist by nearly two weeks.

Among the puppet-friendly, Ms. Taymor — best known for the stage version of the Disney musical “The Lion King” — took the hardest line. “Only when a human being in its simplest form cannot do what is suggested in the libretto should you use a mask or puppet,” she said. “Unless a piece requires it, why bother?”

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2006 5:19 PM
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