Every year New York City's premiere arts venue, Lincoln Center, celebrates summer with an international festival of performing art. Among this summer offerings were Senegalese hip-hop, Indonesian dance, Japanese Noh Theater and a puppet show. Not just any puppet show, but a full-scale Italian opera directed by New York based puppeteer Basil Twist, whose marionettes are not just for children.
Thunderous applause and shouts of bravo may be surprising at the end of a puppet show, but then this is no run-of-the-mill troupe of sock puppets. The cast of this production includes 70 life-sized string puppets, a 20-member human chorus, seven operatic soloists, along with a 32-piece chamber orchestra. Above the theater on a four-meter platform visible to the audience are a dozen puppeteers. Except for the musicians, this entire group dances on stage during the finale of the puppet opera La Bella Dormente Nel Bosco. These puppets are not just for kids as an older member of the audience points out:
"Did you see that audience? It's universal," said one audience member. "And if it weren't, I don't think he would be packing the place with people of all ages."
The impresario behind this elaborate production is Basil Twist, a third-generation puppeteer and one of the best-known puppet masters in the world. His work leans toward the avant guarde. His Symphonie Fantastique, for example, was performed underwater in a 4,000-liter aquarium using flowing strips of fabric for puppets and set to music by Hector Berlioz. After appearing for weeks off-Broadway, the show toured in Montreal, London and Munich. The marionette opera at the Lincoln Center Festival was a bit of a departure for Mr. Twist because it appeals more to children.
"This piece is probably the most kid-friendly show I've ever done," he said. "Sometimes I do shows that are slightly risqué. I've always tried to create for a general audience, I've never really focused on children. Because they'll always come anyway."
Puppet opera had its heyday in the 17th century as entertainment for noblemen. Composer Joseph Haydn wrote several operas for puppets that are now lost. Certainly the crowds flocking to see Twist's current show, a re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale written in 1922 by the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, are as much opera fans as they are puppet lovers. This is the first time the piece has been performed in the United States.
"I could hear in the audience a lot of people talking about the singers and the excitement of the opera. And also this is a very rare opera, so there was a lot of interest in opera circles about just this piece being mounted," added Mr. Twist.
The singers share star billing with the puppets. They dance with the marionettes and at one point, the soprano climbs atop a bridge to performs her aria among the puppeteers. At first, Mr. Twist was afraid to make such demands.
"Working with the opera singers I was very nervous," he explained. "I had been warned, 'Be careful Basil,' that they might be, you know, sort of precious divas. I met them and told them right away because you know with the string puppets they get tangled, I told them, 'Now in this show the puppets are the divas. And you may have to wait for them sometimes.' And they all thought that was real funny."
Although operating life-sized marionettes is technically challenging, the puppets' movements seem quaintly low tech when compared to the marvels of computer animation. How does such an old-fashioned art form compete for audiences in today's high-tech world?
"You would think that technology is killing puppetry, but actually my experience has been the contrary," he said. "You know technology makes it too easy for us sometimes to just sit back and you see [the movie] The Attack of the Clones and it's sort of not impressive, because they just did it with computers. But it's impressive to see the puppeteers at work. And it's also asking you to participate, to use your imagination and that I think is more satisfying for an audience."
Basil Twist, in fact, has found a thriving interest in puppetry all around the globe.
"It's so great to be part of the brotherhood and sisterhood of puppetry and meet people in other countries," he added. "I spent a lot of time in Japan last year. There's a really remarkable puppetry tradition there. [It is] very venerable, not at all for children. I went to a puppetry school in France and I got to travel a lot in Europe. It's so cool to meet puppeteers from other parts of the world because there's something about puppeteers, they're really, really kind, nice people. And that shows up around the world no matter what technique, what culture they're a part of."
This summer Basil Twist's marionettes have conquered Manhattan. And there is another New York puppet show, the raunchy Broadway hit Avenue Q, that will soon play Las Vegas. Puppets, it appears, have got audiences by a string.