Dutch Marionette Artist has the Opera World on a String

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Puppets and dolls have, since antiquity, served as surrogates for humans in religious and secular celebrations. On their own, dolls sit or recline, waiting for their moment. Being inanimate, they take on the meanings invested in them by those who manipulate them and those in the audience who watch them move.

I chose the word manipulate with care. This transitive verb suggests not only moving something with skillful dexterity but also to control something so that it can be used for persuasion or altering a fixed truth into a more complex or vague reality. This is not, in the context of creative art or theater, necessarily a bad thing.

Although dolls were found in ancient Egyptian graves, their purposes are not specifically known. They might have been religious totems or playthings to accompany the deceased to the next world. Puppetry is first mentioned in the writings of Xenophon, indicating that it was already a profession in the Greece of 400 B.C. The Greek word for puppet was nevrospastos, meaning “drawn by strings.” They were used in Roman times and later were part of medieval plays, especially in areas of southern Europe that had been under Roman domination.

In the Middle Ages, puppets were used to tell stories from the Christian faith to audiences who were illiterate. While actors were not allowed, in most cases, to play roles of religious figures, puppets were exempt from that proscription. It seems that the term marionette came into use around 1600 to suggest a particular puppet intended to represent the Virgin Mary. The word may well have been coined in the context of telling the story of Robin and Marion in a pastoral play by that name.

For the purposes of this article and your approach to the topic, think of marionettes as operated by a “manipulator” using strings from above while puppets might be on the hand or moved in other ways. Some dolls have roles in the iconography of theater while others are essential to the emotional development of children. For them, dolls can be confidantes and nonjudgmental friends.

Marionettes have been used with opera for more than two centuries. In most cases, the puppets were surrogates for singers who could handle the music well but may not have the gifts of beauty or acting skills.  On some occasions, singers stood offstage while marionettes would move (or be moved) in a small proscenium stage in front of the audience.

Franz Josef Haydn, one of the most undervalued composers, may have been the first to create an opera specifically for marionettes. He composed for his patrons, the Esterházy, in Eisenach, a noble town near where Austria meets Hungary. One of these was Philemon und Baucis, from around 1770. The Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa saw a performance of this opera and remarked that the marionettes “are the greatest actors of my time.” Here is a clip of the opera, performed by humans:

Mozart knew marionettes in Salzburg and places where he traveled. His native city has a very long tradition, as do certain towns in Italy. Marionettes and puppets were used in the commedia dell’arte in Venice and Bergamo. The archetypal commedia characters of the self-confident young woman, her ardent lover (usually a tenor) and the comically lecherous older man (a baritone or bass) appear in many Italian comic operas such as L’Italiana in Algeri, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Don Pasquale. They also appear in tragic form in Pagliacci.

In the years I lived in Milan I came to know the Colla Marionette Theater, whose origins date back to the 19th century and would have been known to Verdi, Puccini and other composers. I have no doubt that Leoncavallo, composer of Pagliacci, likely saw the Colla company in Milan while at work on his opera.

On frequent visits to Salzburg, I have come to know and love the Salzburg Marionette Theater, which has its centennial this year. In Salzburg, many—though not all—of the performances are based on Mozart operas, most famously Die Zauberflöte. I plan to write about them later in the year.

On my recent and very busy visit to Amsterdam, I took time to call on Hendrik Bonneur, who founded the Amsterdam Marionette Theatre in 1985. My initial intention was to get comments from him for my Salzburg article and to find out something about his company. I did not know that I would encounter such a fascinating person, one whose ideas have resonated in me in the week since we met.

Bonneur was born in 1941 in the southern Netherlands. German was his second language, along with English—his father was an English teacher. He was an altar boy with the Franciscans and was taken to see Gounod’s Faust in Aachen, Germany. “I experienced how powerful music theater could be," he said, and recalled being swept up in the story, even though it was not necessarily realistic to him. “Children have a greater ability to accept mystery without being bored by it. Adults look for the practical and for works of art to have a message.”

Although he continued to deepen his love of opera, music and literature, the young Bonneur pursued a different career path. He became a clinical psychologist, the first one in the Netherlands to work in a hospital setting with the specific task of helping patients deal with issues involving their illness and, perhaps, imminent death. "In a hospital, a clinical psychologist cannot do the Freudian method—it takes years," he noted. "I had one hour, a day, a week. I used the sort of short-term treatment devised by the American army in World War II.”

Needing to be expedient rather than reflective showed him how to zero in on the core feeling—the dramatic essence, if you wish—and this likely gave him the grounding for theatrical work he would do later on.

Bonneur's interest in opera never abated: "I saw a review of Luchino Visconti’s production of Don Carlo at Covent Garden. I was impressed by the sets and costumes by Filippo Sanjust. He worked often in Amsterdam and I sought him out and he let me become his assistant. We became friends; he was like a big brother to me. I assisted him on productions here but also Queen of Spades in Spoleto and Ariadne auf Naxos in Vienna with Edita Gruberova as Zerbinetta." With Sanjust he saw the work of other Italian directors, designers and writers, including Pierluigi Pizzi, Damiano Daminiani and Dario Fo.

Bonneur began to forge his own creative path that combined his love of stories, music, stage design and a special understanding of the human heart and mind that came from his work as a psychologist. “Filippo said I was crazy to want to work with puppets rather than singers," he said. "They called me ‘Il Piccolo Cecil B. DeMille.'

“Puppets are not bothered by egoism. They have the pure naiveté that every little boy and girl has. As adults, we learn we have to have a little egoism, alas. But adults who attend our marionette performances, if they are open, are brought back to pure naiveté by the puppets. And, through that, they become accepting of mystery again.”

What makes the Amsterdam troupe different from Salzburg (where Bonneur also trained) is that they do not do marionette versions of an opera. Instead, they go to the source material of an opera such as Faust or Die Zauberflöte and create shows that combine text, music and stagecraft to arrive at the essentials of the stories. "Supposedly Goethe saw old marionette plays of Dr. Faust and that inspired him to write his own text," said Bonneur. "We go back to those marionette plays too.”

In the Amsterdam Marionette version, they tell the story of Faust, using music from the Gounod opera but also add bits and pieces from Offenbach, Wagner, Halevy, and other composers. Here, Dr. Faust reads the Book of Magic but the music is from Der fliegende Holländer [Windows Media File].

The music is arranged and conducted by the American Vaughan Schlepp. In the 70-seat theater in Amsterdam, recordings of this music are used. But on their frequent tours to France, Italy, Russia and elsewhere, the Marionette Theater uses real singers and musicians who perform on original instruments. Most of the audio performances used in Amsterdam can be found on the Brilliant Classics label. These include De Toverfluit (The Magic Flute) and Le 66, drawn from the music of Offenbach. I recommend them because they help fire your imagination about what the marionettes might do. Here are video snippets from several of their shows.

I asked Bonneur if he would ever want to direct opera productions again with ”live” singers. “Yes, there is Les Contes d’Hoffmann but I think I would want to do Die Zauberflöte and, above all, L’Elisir d’Amore. Dr. Dulcamara is pure puppetry. That opera requires pure naiveté. It is usually presented as a comedy but, as the story unfolds, it becomes a tragedy with a good ending.”

Photo, right: Fred Plotkin/WQXR