Salzburg Marionette Theater Pulls Strings, Delivers Opera

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In this year of anniversaries—Wagner, Verdi, Britten, Richard Tucker—and in this month’s immersion in Mozart here at WQXR, there is another artistic event worth noting and taking pleasure in. The Salzburg Marionette Theater is celebrating its 100th birthday in a major way, including a fabulous new two-hour production of the Ring Cycle and a seven-week tour across the United States concluding with The Sound of Music in Stony Brook, NY (Dec. 8) and the Ring Cycle and Alice in Wonderland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan (Dec. 13-15).

Regular readers of my articles know of my fascination with puppetry of all types as well as my deep connection to Salzburg. Earlier this year I wrote about the Amsterdam Marionette Theater. Next year I plan to write an article about the marvelous Carlo Colla company in Milan, whose origins date back more than two centuries. 

Unlike the Amsterdam company, which draws inspiration from operas to make productions that use music and words but are distinct creations, the Salzburg Marionette Theater presents essential productions of operas in which the puppets perform with the very best recordings as their soundtracks. The Ring cast is led by Georg Solti and includes Birgit Nilsson, Regine Crespin and Hans Hotter. I confess that part of my enjoyment at the Salzburg marionette performances comes in listening to absolutely fabulous music-making.

This Ring Cycle is a joy because it is both faithful to the story and charmingly tongue-in-cheek. The bird, bear, dragon, serpent and frog are all there. So is Brünnhilde’s horse Grane. Siegmund and Sieglinde escape on his motorbike. The Valkyries look like Austrian Airlines stewardesses from the 1960s. Loge wears a sparkling red blazer. Siegfried looks like a personal trainer, which is fun, but you will marvel at the perfect coordination of puppet and music during the scene in which he forges the sword Nothung. 

The guiding approach in this theater is, "Marionetten als Menschen und Menschen als Marionetten" ("Marionettes as humans and humans as marionettes") and it is perfectly expressed in this Ring. The whole show is performed by six puppeteers and two actors who play various roles, including Fafner and Fasolt. Although it is only about two hours long and Erda and the Norns are missing, one feels that Wagner’s music and ideas have been more faithfully honored than in most full cycles seen recently on the stages of major opera companies.

One of my favorite people in Salzburg is Barbara Heuberger, who runs the Marionette Theater. She is an artist to the core but also understands what works for audiences of all ages. When I visit this theater I always feel I am in a community of artists, whether it is the backstage people who lovingly construct the puppets and manipulate them, or the woman in the box office who has a vast knowledge of the company’s repertory.

In August, when I was in Salzburg to see the Ring production, I sat down with Heuberger for a few minutes as she took a lunch break. She told me that, while puppets and marionettes are part of a grand theatrical tradition, the perception of them as being old-fashioned makes it hard to attract audiences who fixate on screens rather than on live theater that requires spectators to bring imagination and an active sense of wonder.

She said, “This art form is dying in many places, so we have to carefully choose what to present. I would love to do Baroque opera or works by new composers. But to make that happen, we need support from people who love this art form. American audiences are much more enthusiastic. When we performed at the Metropolitan Museum in 2007, they laughed often and cheered for the puppeteers. In New York you feel the audience—they react. And that gives us energy.”

Much energy is required of the puppeteers, who work in a cramped space, bending over for long stretches of time as they operate the marionettes from above the stage. Philippe Brunner, age 41, saw the company as a child visiting from Berlin and joined ten years ago. He told me, “The staging is set by the director, but you give the characters emotion with your fingers.” He added that, while not all of the puppeteers have formally studied music, “they must have a feeling for music.”

The theater was founded by Anton Aicher (1859-1930), who invented one-hand control of the marionettes (which weigh up to 4-1/2 lbs (2 kg).) There are at least 12 strings per puppet that are at least 6-1/2 feet (two meters) long. The family tradition continued with Hermann Aicher (1902-1977) and Gretl Aicher (1928-2012), who was succeeded by Heuberger. Gretl famously said, “The soul of the puppet rests in my hands and I breathe with it.”

Brilliant creativity is evident in all of their productions. Mozart lovers can, on visits to Salzburg, see repertory that includes Bastien und Bastienne, Der Schauspieldirektor, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte (above). There are also fables and fairy tales that please both adults and children. Interestingly, the musical The Sound of Music is not well-known in Salzburg but has recently gained a local audience both in the puppet version and with actors at the nearby Salzburg Landestheater.

I think that puppet theater, when done at this level, is the perfect way to introduce people young and old to opera. The music comes easily, the theatrical elements are entrancing and, though the protagonists are made of wood, paint, cloth and string, they are unmistakably human, and humane. That is the essence of opera.