Page last updated at 05:58 GMT, Tuesday, 25 August 2009 06:58 UK

Puppets embark on opera odyssey

By Steven Brocklehurst
BBC Scotland news

Il Ritorno D'Ulisse in Patria
The opera singers help to control the movements of the puppets

Opera singers have been moved aside in a new Edinburgh International festival production and replaced with performers who are, to be honest, wooden.

Three-quarter life-size puppets present the action in Monteverdi's Il Ritorno D'Ulisse in Patria, while opera singers perform the arias beside them.

For long periods, the heavy puppets are held aloft against a backdrop of amazing charcoal drawings by director William Kentridge, projected onto a huge screen.

The physical demands of holding a puppet in the air for such long periods have meant that the length of the opera has been halved, outraging some purists.

But Adrian Kohler, founder of the Handspring Puppet Company, said wooden figures on stage had "an ancient, totemic and magical quality".

Learning the music

The South African puppeteer told the BBC Scotland news website that Ulysses and Penelope, originally characters from Homer, were ancient mythical people.

He said puppets had "a strange and different quality to live performers" which helped them portray mythical figures.

According to Kohler, the big technical task was how to marry the singers, the puppeteer and the puppet - all on stage at the same time - into one image.

"The way we did it was by learning the music and learning the breathing of the singer," he said.

It took about five weeks to learn the dialogue and match the movement of the figure to the breathing of the singer but the final effect is an incredible partnership.

Another technical difficulty was the size of the puppets.

"These were the biggest wooden figures we had made. We were trying to stretch them to see how big we could make them before they got too heavy to hold up," Kohler said.

"These are about as big as one should go because there are some quite long scenes."

I don't think Monteverdi ever did it with puppets
Adrian Kohler

He said that one 12-minute scene performed with the puppet held out, not resting on a table, often made his hand go numb.

"You have to shake it out and get the feeling back for the next scene," he said.

This is part of the reason why the opera has been cut from about 3 hours to about 90 minutes.

"Purists in the beginning were a little outraged that we decided to trim it," Kohler said.

"Because some of the side plots have gone and some nice characters and some beautiful music have been cut out of the piece."

He said it was impossible to make a Monteverdi opera in the style which the 17th Century Venetian would have used so it had to be reinvented for modern theatres and orchestras.

"But I don't think Monteverdi ever did it with puppets," he added.

The production comprises seven singers, seven musicians and five puppets - all visible to the audience.

The singers do not look at the audience, instead it is the puppets who present the action.

Mr Kohler said the singers did not mind being upstaged.

"Everyone on board knew that was the deal," he said.

"It is difficult for a singer to relinquish a character but in almost every instance they come to quite like the fact the character is out there and they are providing it from the side.

"They are completely visible, the audience see that they are singing, so the performance is not masked."

Very sophisticated

The singers also have another important role in this production.

They hold the hands of the puppets and manipulate some of their movements.

The puppeteers control the head and the other arm.

Kohler, 57, founded Handspring in 1981 and began by producing work for children.

He said there had definitely been a revival in interest in puppetry.

Handspring is currently enjoying huge success in London with War Horse, the National Theatre's production of Michael Morpurgo's children's story.

"It is crazy in this time of the internet and computers and very sophisticated animation that puppeteering has been growing in the past 20 years.

He added: "It is about the hand-made quality. I think the craft of making puppets that move well is intriguing to an audience which is used to the most incredibly sophisticated technology around.

"It is 17th Century technology pulling audiences in the 21st Century."

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