Imagine a serious opera, written for the court of France's Louis XIV, presented with elaborate sets and fanfare, then pirated away and turned into satirical parody for performance at local fairs or vaudeville theaters—and the melodies changed to those of pop tunes. The powers that be of those days did everything they could to prevent their operas being copied, bastardized, cheapened, or performed by anyone except the designated theaters. Restrictions on numbers of actors, live musicians, singers, you name it, went into effect. But those who wanted to perform them for the masses had the last laugh: They ended up using puppets. The puppeteers, too, used famous performers: Arlequin, Pierrot, and Polichinelle, thinly disguised, became the characters of the opera.
La Grand-mere Amoureuse
On the Boards, June 4-6
Kirkland Performing Arts Center,
We have a sample of this robust art form in La Grand-m貥 Amoureuse ("The Lusty Grandma"), first presented in 1726 in Paris, a riotous send-up of Lully's solemn opera Atys. Presented locally by the Early Music Guild, it will be performed by the singers and musicians of San Francisco's Magnificat Baroque Ensemble and the Carter Family Marionettes of Seattle, with the original parodied libretto by Fuzelier and Dorneval and vaudeville tunes of the time unearthed by Magnificat's artistic director Susan Harvey.
"It was poor man's opera," explains Stephen Carter, who, with his wife, Chris, and fellow puppeteer Bruce Chess鬠creates puppets, builds sets, and presents some 250 puppet shows a year on the road and at the Northwest Puppet Center. The Carters, who began their love affair with puppet theater when in college and have been presenting it professionally ever since, mostly use Sicilian-style rod puppets. Their 3-foot wooden marionettes are held by rods attached to their heads, and strings are attached to the arms or elsewhere as needed.
"Puppets which have all strings can move more naturally or be more subtle," explains Chris, "but we were drawn to the power and energy of the Sicilian puppets." After years of practice, subtlety and artistry pervade the way the Carters move their puppets; a tiny twitch of a hand, and all of a sudden a soldier strides forward, though there are no strings to his legs.
La Grand-mere Amoureuse was the Carters' first baroque opera (initially presented by them with Magnificat last year in San Francisco, to sold-out houses). It was the first time they had worked with live singers and musicians, with a score to follow. "Our puppets don't have moving mouths, so we don't have to make them lip-sync, but they do need to move with the music, so the audience knows who is singing. But in Grand-m貥, the puppets really have two voices, the singing one, and the speaking one, which is us," says Chris.
As the Carters learned the music and as the singers got to know the puppets, a strong performing triangle grew between the puppets, singers, and puppeteers. All three would be playing off one another in live, improvisatory characterizations. Becoming more familiar with the music, the three puppeteers then choreographed the puppets' movements. "Puppeteers are always playing with rhythm," says Stephen, explaining that the cadence of movement on stage is what affects the audience, that a show will be flat if the movement isn't just right.
Deciding how the Grand-m貥 puppets would look was a three-tiered job, say the Carters, who do meticulous research. First, the lusty grandma, Cybele, is acted by another puppet, Arlequin, a man in drag—so they've given him (her?) a bit of stubble on his chin. Second, this is a parody of an opera based on ancient myth, so they've dressed her in a flowing robe (it's a bawdy send-up, too, so the robe is very revealing). Third, it's a baroque opera, so she dons a towering powdered wig. The characters for Grand-m貥 speak English but sing in the original French. There will be supertitles over the stage proscenium; singers and musicians assemble out front, but the puppeteers remain unseen until the end, when they bring the puppets out to meet the audience.
Call the Early Music Guild (325-7066) for further information on performance times and tickets.