Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Puppetry Week #3: The persistence of puppet opera

Photos from "Faust," above, and "Lakme," atop blog, courtesy of Opera in Focus.

      Puppetry Week hit a speed bump today. I had a thoughtful conversation with Blair Thomas, founder of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, all set to go, when my boss asked me Tuesday afternoon to weigh in on the latest developments of this Bolingbrook teen who tried to fly to Turkey and join ISIS.
     I considered replying, “But my puppetry opus is ready!” But that didn’t seem the path of the hardened journalist, and since the paper hasn’t run the puppet story yet—I’m shooting for Friday—it wouldn’t be right to post it here first and scoop my own paper.
     So, to keep the week going, I’ve disinterred this 2010 visit to one of the oddest landmarks of Chicago puppetry, Opera in Focus, a rod puppet operation improbably located in Rolling Meadows. No pictures, alas. I’ll post the kid-in-trouble column at 6 a.m. If you want to learn more about Opera in Focus, you can click here. Its season begins Feb. 4 with, fittingly, a program that includes "Aida."

     Opera is a grand art form, and Verdi's "Aida" is the grandest opera 
of all, a tale of forbidden love amongst the pyramids. Its 
Triumphal March is opera's famed flourish, a pageant that sometimes 
includes chariots, horsemen and live elephants.
     So when I heard that not only is opera performed by puppets in 
Rolling Meadows, but in May the show on the 4-foot-wide stage was 
"Aida," I had to be there.
     Chicagoans of a certain age will remember the Kungsholm Miniature 
Grand Opera, performed at a Swedish restaurant at Rush and Ontario. 
That closed in 1971, but puppeteer Bill Fosser, who began working 
at Kungsholm at 14 in 1943, continued the tradition. He kept his 
Opera in Focus going at various storefronts, and even in a Magic 
Pan restaurant, until his puppets found a permanent home in the 
basement of the Rolling Meadows Park District headquarters in 1993.
     This "Aida" was abbreviated, but still over two hours long, with 
four intermissions, plenty of time to wonder: a) exactly how did 
Rolling Meadows become the permanent host to puppet opera? And b) 
how did this blending of puppetry and song -- unique in the world, 
apparently -- find new enthusiasts after Fosser's death in 2006?
     In the early 1990s, Rolling Meadows was looking for ways to spur 
cultural interest -- courting a children's museum, a youth theater, 
waging a "battle" with Park Ridge over the puppet opera.
     "I had just been assigned by city of Rolling Meadows to work on 
economic development, and we had nothing in the form of 
entertainment," said Linda Liles Ballantine, executive director of 
the chamber of commerce, who had read about the puppets. "I 
happened to say to the city manager, 'Oh shoot, this would be 
something unique.' "
     Unique it is. As tempted as I am to assume a straight face, hold up 
the puppet "Aida" to the Lyric's and find it wanting ("The artistic 
decision to present a recorded 'Aida' using only four puppets 
underscores the Lyric's wisdom in using a full orchestra and 100 
live singers . . ."), the truth is, it is beyond critique, a visual 
and musical gem in a separate realm of sweetness that you either 
appreciate or you don't.
     My wife loved it. "This is such a little treasure," she said. I'm a 
harder case, so did recall Samuel Johnson's line about women 
preachers and dancing dogs -- the issue isn't whether it's done 
well, "but you are surprised to find it done at all." That said, I 
was charmed by the effort.
     The puppets are not marionettes, but rod puppets, operated from 
below, 16 inches tall and finely crafted, with lush costumes.
     Wisely, every half hour there is an intermission, with a spread of 
food—hors d'oeuvres, cookies, candy and pop—in the small lobby. 
My boys appreciated that.
     Afterward, the puppeteers invite the audience backstage, so you can 
see how they maneuver the puppets, while sitting on low rolling 
chairs, and view their work room, with sets and costumes and 
puppets from other operas at the ready.
     You also meet the puppeteers -- brothers Justin and Shayne Snyder, 
Barry Southerland and Leilani Narcisco. All in their 20s, it is 
remarkable to find a quartet of young people devoting themselves to 
this obscure realm of low-tech entertainment. Why?
     "To keep the tradition alive," said Narcisco.
     "We do what we do because we love it!" said Justin Snyder, who was 
an apprentice under Fosser and got the others involved. "It's a 
labor of love. We're the last remnant of a beautiful art form that 
is unique to Chicago."
     That they are. Unlike the Lyric, which, like an exhausted bear, 
hibernates half the year, Opera in Focus performs year-round, if 
sometimes sporadically and not usually single operas, but 
highlights. Call to make reservations -- (847) 818-3220, ext. 186. 
Adult tickets are $12, a buck less for seniors, children are $7.
        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 31, 2010


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