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  • Big Marionette, Little Marionette
  • Hayley Fenn (bio)

Die Zauberflöte

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

  • Production Premiere: February 17, 2019

  • Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

  • Libretto: Emmanuel Schikaneder

  • Musical Director: Alondra de la Parra

  • Director: Yuval Sharon

  • Set Design: Mimi Lien

  • Costumes: Walter Van Beirendonck

  • Light: Reinhard Traub

  • Video Design: Hannah Wasileski

  • Sound Design: Markus Böhm

  • Choir Master: Anna Milukova

  • Dramaturgy: Krystian Lada, Benjamin Wäntig

Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Salzburger Marionettentheater

  • Production Premiere: May 24, 1985

  • Revival Premiere: April 13, 2019

  • Composer: Jacques Offenbach

  • Librettist: Jules Barbier

  • Recording: Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, DECCA

  • Director: Wolf Dieter Ludwig

  • 2019 Revival: Philippe Brunner

  • Set Design: Günther Schneider-Siemssen

  • Costumes: Bernd-Dieter Müller

When we think of puppets, we tend to think small. Puppets often inhabit worlds of reduced dimensions, some marvelously delicate, others makeshift, even crude: pint-sized figures hang from strings and sway atop rods. We imagine these figures to be controlled behind the scenes. The operators, however, are not always hidden; [End Page 335] in some traditions, puppeteers appear, in full-view or camouflaged, alongside their diminutive companions—and suddenly, we are in the presence of giants. To the miniature puppet, its puppeteer is huge. Conversely, a giant puppet can shrink its puppeteer, transforming her from an all-powerful overseer, a would-be god, into the brains of the operation, an enshrined homunculus.

Music scholars are probably most familiar with puppetry from the opera house. Phelim McDermott’s 2007 production of Satyagraha (English National Opera/Metropolitan Opera) features puppets of all sorts, many gigantic in scale. Some sub-sume their puppeteers within papier maché skins; others roam around mid-air, held aloft by puppeteers on stilts. In his 2009 Lohengrin for Berlin, Stefan Herheim draws on his experience as a puppeteer to flood the stage with marionette Wagners. And then, of course, puppets inhabit countless productions of Die Zauberflöte, of which Julie Taymor’s for The Met is surely the most famous. More recently, in February 2019, Yuval Sharon reimagined Mozart’s last opera for the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin.

When puppets enter the opera house, they are ordinarily deployed as extras, props, or part of the scenery. In Sharon’s Magic Flute, however, the singers are themselves turned into puppets, marionettes to be precise, complete with heavy-duty strings and (sometimes) disembodied voices. Sharon’s vision thus re-creates an experience familiar to German audiences: that is, operas performed by actual marionettes. In such performances, marionettes, jointed wooden figures about a foot tall with anywhere between seven and twenty-three strings, “sing” the main roles of the opera. They displace the singers of conventional performances, relegating them to the wings or, more often today, the sound system.1 The idea that musical performance constructs puppet-like relations—conductors over their orchestras, performers over their instruments, composers over audiences both concentrated and diffuse—is not an uncommon one. And when actual puppets fill the roles on stage, they can make palpable these power dynamics of performance, the material realities of opera, and the multifarious capacities of body and voice.

The Magic Flute is a usual suspect for performance by marionettes because, significantly, its affinities with puppets are not only born of the visual demands of theatrical presentation, but spring from the music as well—especially that of its magic instruments, the flute and the bells.2 Their music is diegetic in nature, functioning within the narrative world of the opera not as musical performance per se, but rather variously as a weapon against perpetrators, protection from the elements, a charmer of wild animals, and a conjurer of lovers. Musicologists have remarked on the detached quality of the music for these props, on both emotional and material planes, perceiving in it a quality of autonomy.3 This is the sense in which puppetry inhabits their music: the music emitted by these magical instruments plays itself, and it can “play” others, too, objects and people alike. [End Page 336]

Other staples of the marionette repertory include Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Don Giovanni, Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, and Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Jam...


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