Puppetry In Opera – The Blog

It’s the second day and and I am slowly falling asleep.


Now, this may be considered a pretty bad start in most devising workshops but not in this case. For we are exploring the very dreamy world the Empress’s Feet, one of the two operas chosen for the Puppet Centre Trust’s Puppetry In Opera event (which is in collaboration with Central School of Speech and Drama and in association with Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the Barbican) that we will be performing at in November. I am one of three puppeteers working with four opera singers (studying at the Trinity College) with a puppetry and opera director to create a short work-in-progress piece to perform at the Barbican amongst several talks given by some very prestigious puppeteer and opera practitioners.


According to the Puppet Centre’s Linda Lewis, this is one of the first, if not the first time that puppetry and opera have been utilised together as equals as the basis of a project, instead of being introduced later on in a pieces progress. So, as a recent university graduate, passionate about puppetry and eager to participate in new projects, I feel very lucky to be apart of this one! It’s an excellent oppourtunity!


On the first day I was incredible nervous worrying, as I tend to do, that my skills wouldn’t be up to scratch. I had no idea what the opera was about, how opera was rehearsed or what sort of puppetry we were going to be using. It felt like I was stepping into the unknown (Or more like commuting to it with then desperately trying to find it with Google Maps)


But then again, this is what I love about puppetry. Every venture is different; always. From the moment I discovered puppetry, every project has involved a different way to puppeteer, a different type of puppet and a different role for puppet and puppeteer. You have the same key points, key rules to follow when manipulating puppets; 1.Breathe 2. Focus 3. Gravity & 4. Fixed Point (Each of we played with during the initial two weeks we had to play with) And these rules can be applied in multiples of varying ways in different contexts. This project was just one variable.


So what is the Empress’s Feet? On the surface, the opera is a tale of an Empress with enormous (yet beautiful) feet, who frequently walks in her sleep. The Emperor’s solution? To bind her feet and she is left with tiny (yet beautiful a singer insist) feet.


But then there is a lot more to discover as we found on the first day. We read (we didn’t sing) through the text to get a sense of the story, the rhythm and the character we would be representing; The Empress, the Emperor and the elusive Singer. We had a big discussions on what the play is trying to say.There is a singer who tells us one of her dreams (or is it a memory or merely a story) that contains the tale of the Empress who as she sleepwalks also dreams often terrifying dreams (Or are they things she sees in real life). This is a very shifting tale, where we as performers and audience are not always sure where we are, much like it is when we dream. Essentially, this is Puppetry IN Opera INception


The first week was focused mostly on puppetry skills, playing with the four puppet principles, slowly introducing the singing element and discovering what our type of puppets could do. Our puppetry director Seonaid Goody had created a menagerie of puppet heads made of polystyrene balls, each with a simple but individual character. She had also brought several pairs of shoes and gloves of varying colour, size, shape and use. With these items combined, with a little imagination to fill in the spaces, we would be able to make a whole cast of characters. But we also discovered that we could create new and developing versions of the same character. Take for example, the Empress  who in one scene was represented by a head and a white glove could also be seen with a head, long lacy glove body and two large, heavy wooden shoe lasts for feet.


 I found this particularly interesting and challenging (But I love a good challenge) In the past, I have used found objects, marionettes, shadow puppets and my favourite type, the table-top puppet. I am used to having a puppet that is a solid object; a puppet an entire entity separated from me and either manipulated from afar or up close. These combinations of items were puppets but they were also apart of me, such as my arm becoming the body of a puppet once it was wear the lacy glove. I’ve never had this integrated experience, to be part of the puppet instead of just a manipulator. I’m usually invisible (and enjoy being so!) but now I’m within the action and keeping the focus on the puppet becomes harder. This was very new but really inspiring and made me think beyond what I had thought puppets were. I’m not even sure whether this style even has a name! It also made a lot of sense in regards to what we were trying to achieve, that to integrate puppet and singer you had to integrate puppeteer physically into the puppet (I’ve only just thought of this, five days after our last day, so it just goes to show this is a project that is still revealing itself to me and is still making me think. Which is fantastic!)


 The early days of the week were filled with a lot of exercises and games to get us thinking and creating, but as we started to integrate the singing (As the singers had been also puppeteering up to this point) a lot of questions came up. 


How can we link puppeteer and puppet, when the puppeteer is also singing? How do we we link the singer to the puppet? Is the singer singing for the puppet, is the puppet speaking what is being sung or is the singer narrating what is happening to the puppet? Can we link and use the breath of the singer and the breath of the puppet? How does a puppet sing when it has no mouth? How does a puppet breath when it has no mouth? Who has the focus, the puppet, the singer or possibly the puppeteer and how do we jump from one to the other? What can you convey with just the face of the puppet? How does a puppet become one figure when it is made up of different items? What happens when it draws away from each other? How do we use the music of the piece? What does the male voice and female voice represent? How do you stick it all together so that it isn’t just about singers singing and puppeteer puppet-ing but a true collaboration of both forms.


(I could go on but then this blog will be too long. But basically, a lot of questions came about!)


 Hopefully we have been able to answer these!  


The second week was more framed and involved taking what we had discovered during the first week and devising directly with the score. Each song (or is it an aria? Or is it an opera? I didn’t quite pick up the Opera lingo!) we used a new idea and way of creating a puppet. So, while we were using the same style, each song had a different defining image. And this is what I think was particularly amazing with our piece. When we showed the bits and pieces we had devised to the members of the Trinity College, the Puppet Centre Trust and the Central School of Speech and Drama on the penultimate day of our workshop period, it really felt like we are giving them a surprise with every turn. It felt like we were performing magic.


So, this is why I spent an afternoon of falling asleep at varying speeds, on the floor and on our feet. This exercise eventually mutated into a sequence of the whole cast puppeteering while falling asleep and the impact this had on our puppets.


At this moment in time we have finished the initial workshops stage and have planned to meet again later in October before performing in early November. I had an amazing time. I enjoyed being worked hard, challenged (the big one for me was fixed point, especially when puppeteering the Empress’s heavy wooden feet)! and working with a fantastic group of people with a big range of skills. I just can’t wait to perform this and show what puppets and opera can do when married together.


This is the sort of project that really gets my mind ticking over and opens me to new experiences. It has brought out my love for devising and experimenting through playing. It was a lot of fun! It just proves why I want to keep exploring this art form and find its limits. So far, it looks like it’s going to take a long time for me to find them. And that’s okay with me.


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