The puppet theatres which have best survived the passage of time are often those which reproduce a particular genre of live theatre on a smaller scale. This is the case for those puppet theatres which are devoted to an opera repertoire, generally that associated with ballet. The tradition of “opera for puppets” follows a few decades after the birth of opera itself. At the start of the 17th century, “modern” forms of performance spread from their origin in Italy to the rest of Europe: alongside the touring puppet shows which moved from country to country, came the commedia dell’arte and opera. The first encounter between puppets and bel canto (a sophisticated model of singing of the period) took place in France in 1647 with the presentation of a “miniaturized” version of Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo by puppets (described as “petits fantoches”). Dominique de Normandin’s Opéra des Bamboches dates from 1675, with large puppets imitating dance, singing and acting. Another variant on the “opera for puppets” was presented at the fairs of Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent: in vaudeville comedies, recitation alternated with sung sections drawing on well-known popular songs. Here too, the theatre of bambocci (dolls) followed hot on the heels of a genre of musical theatre performed by flesh and blood actors.

It is important to distinguish between works intended for the live theatre which were subsequently adapted for the smaller puppet stage and works specifically created for puppets. In the first case, what is usually involved is the adaptation of selected fragments and a reduction of the orchestral ensemble rather than a new conception of the work, while in the second (and less common) case, composer and librettist conceive of a “small form” designed for puppets. Joseph Haydn composed various operettas (for which the librettos or music are, for the most part, lost) for the Eszterháza Palace marionette theatre, among them Philemon und Baucis (1773), Genovefens vierter Theil (1777, but also attributed to several composers including Beethoven and librettist Joseph von Pauersbach) and Dido (1775/76). In the comic opera Das abgebrannte Haus (libretto lost), the singspiel tradition is mixed with that of popular puppetry, personified by Hanswurst. These works were performed in a small theatre opposite the room devoted to the grand opera, reflecting both its manner of operation and its repertoire. The smaller theatre had no boxes or galleries and was designed in the style of an artificial grotto, with niches lined with pebbles and shells along the internal walls. The décor was sophisticated and it was equipped with stage machinery for which a number of technicians were responsible. The stage was huge and the puppets were beautifully dressed, thanks to the skill of Anna Handl, the costumier. It is likely that each character in the singspiel was animated by three people: a puppeteer for the movement, a singer for the voice, and an actor for the spoken sections.

The Venetian Tradition

A remarkable form of musical theatre for puppets appeared in Venice in the 17th to 18th century. As contemporary images show, the calli (alleys) and campi (small squares) of the city were peopled by wooden figures that danced and declaimed speeches: Pulcinella, Arlecchino, the Doctor, Pantalone, the Mage, the Soldier, the Turk, the Blind Man, Covelo, Orazio, Franceschina and Zampicone were among the glove puppets who emerged from the commedia dell’arte and were presented “on the square”, with grotesque voices distorted by the swazzle. Their strident voices contrasted with the refined sound of the marionettes which sang in bel canto style and pirouetted on the stages of palaces and theatres. Among the palaces which housed puppet theatres were the villa of Grimani ai Servi (its puppet theatre is preserved in the collection of the museums of Venice, the Fondazione Musei Civici Venezia in the Casa di Carlo Goldoni), the villa Contarini a San Barnaba, the villa Loredan a San Vio and, outside Venice, the villas of the counts of Ravegnani (see Décor / Stage Setting and the Italian-style Stage, Scenery and Staging, Stages and Performance Spaces).  

The style and the costumes reflected Venice’s highly developed artistry rather than popular culture. It was not by chance that puppet opera first developed in Venice. La Serenissima had an exceptional tradition in the performing arts. It had become a bourgeois city in which performances were entrusted to individual entrepreneurs rather than to the patronage of princes. Thus the first theatres to charge an entrance fee are found in Venice.

With the entry of puppets into the world of musical theatre came the accompanying librettos, of which a huge number were printed in Venice in the 17th century. Venetian puppets first tackled opera in 1679, in the Teatro San Moisè. In the same year, a musical drama called Il Leandro was put on at the private theatre of Riva delle Zattere with music by Pistocchino (the castrato Francesco Antonio Pistocchi). Damira placata (Damira Appeased), a musical drama by Marc’Antonio Ziani with a libretto by Filippo Acciaiuoli was performed during the 1680-1682 seasons in the Teatro San Moisè. Also on the programme were two other pieces by Acciaiuoli, Ulisse in Feacia (Ulysses in Phaeacia), with music composed by Antonio del Gaudio, and Girello, with music attributed to Pistocchino. The musicians and singers were hidden; the wooden puppets were supplemented in the following years by wax figures.

The peak of this art was reached in the 18th century at the Teatrino di San Girolamo (Little Theatre of Saint Jerome), in the Canareggio district. Here, Antonio Labia put on performances from 1746 to 1748. He had a small theatre constructed along the lines of the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo (or Crisostomo, today known as the Teatro Malibran) which was described by contemporary observers as a perfect miniature of the larger theatres, with its “dolls of priceless construction”, sets, lights, costumes, music and singing – right down to the audience of puppets and the miniature librettos. Among the works presented by Labia was Lo starnuto d’Ercole (The Sneeze of Hercules), with music by Johann Adolph Hasse adapted by Andrea Adolfati and a libretto by Pier Jacopo Martello, in which Hercules – by sneezing – shakes off the pygmies clinging to his body. Numerous works were presented at San Girolamo including Eurimendonte e Timocleone, ouvero i rivali delusi (Eurimendonte and Timocleone, or the Disappointed Rivals; music by Hasse, libretto attributed to Girolamo Zanetti), Il Cajetto (music by Ferdinando Bertoni, libretto by Antonio Rigo), Giunguir by Apostolo Zeno (music by Geminiano Giacomelli). Among the celebrated librettists was Pietro Metastasio, the Italian poet and author of Didone abbandonata (Dido Abandoned), which was set to music by Adolfati in 1747.

Famous singers also found their way to the puppet theatre: at the end of the 18th century, Michael Kelly attended a performance in Padua of Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice), in which the castrato Gaetano Guadagni sang; since his retirement, he had sung only in the chapel of Sant’Antonio but relived his former glory in the puppet theatre. Aristocratic palaces in Rome also welcomed “doll” operas: La Pastorella, libretto by Pietro Ottoboni, a pastiche of arias by Scarlatti, Bononcini, Cesarini among others, performed in 1705, seems to be the only work for puppets (apart from Damira placata of 1680), for which the score has been preserved. As Roberto Leydi has observed, the art of puppetry embodies the two faces of 18th century theatre: the search for realistic imitation of the human, alongside a taste for the fantastic and exotic.

The European Tradition up to the 20th Century

A significant figure at the transition between the 18th and 19th centuries was Czech puppeteer Matěj Kopecký (1775-1847). Reworkings of opera librettos such as Gluck’s Alceste, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Weber’s Freischütz played a large part in his repertoire. Given the complex scenic preparation required to reproduce the actors’ theatre as faithfully as possible, this genre demanded a permanent venue with equipment and staff. This is why the history of puppet opera is often inseparable from the history of permanent puppet companies. Setting aside the particular case of Venice, this is particularly true for the German language tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries, as demonstrated by the puppet theatres of Munich and Salzburg. In the 19th century, as Stendhal noted, the Teatro Fiano in Rome presented lyrical works by Rossini and Verdi “interpreted” by puppets. The Colla company in Milan, which put on shows from 1906 to 1957 in the Teatro Gerolamo, dating from about 1865, today offers a very varied repertoire, including operas such as Aïda. The original repertoire of the Münchner Marionettentheater (Munich Puppet Theatre), founded in 1858 by Josef Leonhard Schmid (Papa Schmid) and centred around the figure of Kasperl Larifari, gradually came to include works of musical theatre – from Pergolesi to Donizetti, and Mozart to Rossini – particularly after the company’s collaboration with Carl Orff.

The Salzburger Marionettentheater (Salzburg Marionettes), founded in 1913 by Anton Aicher, is a theatre of reduced dimensions with a repertoire largely composed of operas. Today it has all the features of an opera theatre, with the same job titles (director, costume maker, scenographer) and a practically identical repertoire. The costumes are extremely sophisticated (and designed to take account of the puppets’ movement) and the sets beautifully realized. The scenic effects and lighting are particularly well considered, and set changes are precise and rapid. Paradoxically, the theatre is based on the “naturalistic” conception of theatre which both George Sand and Vsevolod Meyerhold rejected where puppets were concerned. The repertoire of the Salzburg marionette theatre features classical works with cosmic themes (often including artificial beings), such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni, The Tales of Hoffmann by Offenbach, and the ballet The Nutcracker, scored by Tchaikovsky, as well as works with a grotesque tone, such as Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) by Mozart, or productions that bring comic characters into the puppet theatre, such as Hanswurst and Faust. The two genres often meet on the thematic level, as is shown by the number of puppets, automata or simulacra which appear in works of musical drama: Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann, and the stone guest in Don Giovanni (see Don Juan) are often cited as examples of doubles and simulacra.

The Contemporary Scene

Erik Satie’s opera for puppets Geneviève de Brabant (1926), probably intended for the shadow theatre, is one of the first pieces that should be mentioned when discussing the 20th-century avant-garde. As we move further into the century, it becomes harder to define the precise relation between musical theatre and puppet theatre. However, this problem arises with the comparative analysis of any performance, given that contemporary theatre is characterized by the combining of genres. As Michael Meschke has suggested, at the point at which actor and puppet both serve as instruments, it becomes less and less relevant to distinguish them: music and character are born together and the music is never a mere illustration of the action.

Nevertheless, a number of 20th-century works – such as Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, 1928) by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill – hold a particularly important place in the repertoire of puppet companies, while some librettos touch on the frontiers of the human experience, such as György Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre (1974) based on a text by Michel de Ghelderode and written in collaboration with Michael Meschke. In his production of Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (The Combat Between Tancred and Clorinda, 1984) Dominique Houdart (of Houdart-Heuclin) raised the separation between the voice and the actor to the level of a poetic principle, recalling the work of Italian actor-director-writer Carmelo Bene (1937-2002) on La phoné which suggested that the human voice could be “played” like a musical instrument. There are also works created for a theatre dominated by visual or sonic elements, which might be considered as the fruit of ideas explored in puppet opera in the preceding centuries, such as the “little opera” Barbablù, in principio (2000) by TAM Teatromusica or the production of Orphée et Eurydice (1998) by the puppet theatre company Teatro Gioco Vita.

Of opera productions since 2000 that involve puppetry collaborations, three should be mentioned. William Kentridge’s 2009 restaging of Monteverdi’s opera The Return of Ulysses (Il Ritorno d’Ulisse) features the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Using animated charcoal drawings and life-size wooden puppets, Kentridge recreates the story for our time, placing the dying Ulysses in a hospital ward in mid-20th-century Johannesburg, South Africa.

Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, with libretto by Glass and Constance DeJong after the Hindu sacred text, Bhagavad Gita, is an opera about Mahatma Gandhi’s early years as a young lawyer in South Africa and his spiritual progress toward his concept of nonviolent protest – satyagraha (truth force). The production is a collaboration with English National Opera (ENO) in partnership with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the renowned British theatre company Improbable Theatre. The set is a semi-circular wall that looks like corrugated tin. The stage is filled with grotesque oversize puppets, stilt-walkers and aerialists, and the designers make inventive use of simple materials like pea-sticks, papier-mâché, newspaper and sticky tape.

The 2010 staging of A Dog’s Heart, the new opera by Alexander Raskatov adapted from Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 satirical novella, was directed by Simon McBurney of the theatre company Complicite. The opera is about a Russian scientist who picks a stray dog off the street and on the operating table transforms him into a human. The dog is presented as a puppet, and the production incorporates video projections. The performance features brilliant manipulation by Mark Down and his fellow puppeteers from Blind Summit Theatre. De Nederlandse Opera premiered A Dog’s Heart in Amsterdam on June 2010.