Robin Usher August 13, 2012
Operatic shadows: Director Nancy Black on the set for Master Peter's Puppet Show. Photo: Rodger Cummins
Puppetry is being used to cinematic effect in the pairing of two 20th century works by Victorian Opera.
OPERA is renowned as the art form combining the skills of both theatre and music, but Victorian Opera's latest production also has the added demands of puppetry.
''The challenge is to bring everything together so that it appears simple and effortless,'' says director Nancy Black. ''While that is critical, it is also very difficult to achieve.''
The show, a double bill of Manuel de Falla's 1923 work from Spain, Master Peter's Puppet Show, and Elliott Carter's What Next from 1998, is Black's first opera production, but she is very experienced with puppetry as director of Black Hole Theatre Company.
Puppet Show ends in disaster and What Next, which begins after a catastrophic accident, opens on the ruins of the puppetry set.
''The themes are carried through,'' she says. ''Puppet Show has different levels of reality and what you see is not what you get. With What Next everything is revealed from the beginning.''
Victorian Opera's music director, Richard Gill, suggested combining the two works, which have never been performed in Australia.
He had already programmed the season when he discovered that Carter had recommended combining his What Next with the Spanish work.
Black, whose award-winning puppetry work has toured internationally, prepared meticulously for the production, sitting in on other opera rehearsals and having early discussions with the conductor, Daniel Carter.
''I wanted him to know about my visual ideas and give him the chance to educate me about the musical challenges,'' she says. ''It has all been such a treat. I feel very privileged to be doing this.''
Puppet Show is usually done with rod puppets but Black proposed using shadow puppets because of their cinematic ability to change size. There are more than 100 puppets by Lynne Kent and Rachel Joy to create a world of fantasy.
The 25-minute work is based on an episode in Cervantes' Don Quixote and features the Don imagining the puppets as evil. ''He feels vindicated when everything comes tumbling down,'' Black says.
The work is about the attempt by Master Peter (Carlos Barcenas) to put on a public show, with the narrator (Lotte Betts-Dean in a pants role) adding to the confusion by changing the story.
Black says while de Falla's music is not as complicated as Carter's, the narrative is more complex than the American work.
''What Next is like an operatic version of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, only the games are different,'' she says. ''Like the play, it is also quite humorous.''
The six characters try to recall who they are after an accident and to find the resolve to keep going on.
Black says the 103-year-old composer and his librettist, Paul Griffiths, are excited about the ideas being explored in the 40-minute production and Daniel Carter has made some changes to the score that will be performed for the first time.
Daniel Carter discussed these during a trip to New York last May where he studied the work with the composer.
He is following in exalted company. Daniel Barenboim conducted the premiere of Carter's only opera at Berlin's Staatsoper in 1999, and it was first produced in the US in 2006 at the Tanglewood Music Festival under James Levine.
Black says the richness of the music takes the work to a level she is not used to, and one of the challenges she faced was to adapt to the way music determines the tempo.
She would love to direct more opera but acknowledges it is very different from her previous work. As well as writing and directing such puppetry shows as Caravan, which toured Europe in 2003, she has also worked in video and film.
One of her most recent projects is Slam Noir, which is about introducing puppetry to new audiences. ''I am sick of people saying they can't perform unless they have a venue or receive a grant,'' she says.
The first Slam Noir was staged two years ago and is continuing in cafes and pubs. Short works around a particular theme are selected for a one-off performance.
''There is live music and grog so that new ideas can be tried out within non-traditional puppetry settings,'' she says.
Black is also working on a show for next year involving the music of such composers as Irving Berlin, Jacques Brel and Cole Porter.
Master Peter's Puppet Show and What Next? opens at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Wednesday until August 22.