Portfolio of Kimberly Johans

A collection of articles created during my stint as a journalist at The Macau Daily Times

When pulling strings leads to world acclaim

Posted by Kimberly on October 6, 2007

By Kimberly Johans
Published in The Macau Daily Times
October 6, 2007, page 18 (1,094 words)

In a world where those that hold the strings have the power, Petr Vodicka, General Manager of the Prague National Marionette Theatre is most definitely puppet master.
In Macau as part of the 21st Macau International Music Festival, Petr, who has been with the Theatre for 13 years, knows pretty much everything there is to know about marionettes.
Such theatre has long been a means of enjoyment in the Czech Republic, for at least the past 150 years.
“It used to be performed for children as a theatre whether in the kitchen or on a table. I think it used to be a playmate for children in those days.
“Of course now it’s Barbie,” said Petr, adding that this sort of theatre was never meant for adults in the beginning.
A marionette is the name for a type of puppet controlled by strings, where the operator is hidden from the audience.
Of puppetry, Oscar Wilde once wrote, “There are many advantages in puppets. They never argue. They have no crude views about art. They have no private lives.”
Some historians even claim that puppetry premeds actors in theatre and there is evidence to suggest they had been used as early as Egypt 2000 BC. Then there are references to puppetry by both Aristotle and Plato, where with the latter’s work, puppetry was used to illustrate both the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’.
During the 18th century, operas for marionettes were specifically created, with the Salzburg Marionette Theatre in Austria, which was founded in 1913, still continuing the tradition of presenting full length using puppets in their custom made theatre.
Of course, with modern times, it is Disney’s story of Pinnochio, first released in 1940, that gave rise to its popularity with children’s programming. Then there’s Thunderbirds, which pioneered a technique that combined puppetry with electronics, giving the puppets the ability to “speak.”
As for the puppets themselves, the Czech ones used in the telling of Don Giovanni by the Prague group are made from lime wood and are hand carved.
“This type of wood is best for the workmanship,” said Petr, adding that “they are very heavy, between eight and ten kilograms and measure about one metre tall, with a handle [central rod] at the top for the actors to hold onto.
“The actors have the puppet on their forearm, not in the hands, which they rest on a wooden support,” he added so the actors never have to feel the full weight of the puppets.
And the price is hardly cheap, coming in at about US$1,000 for each puppet, which tend to take about a month to create, including its costumes.
Don Giovanni is, of course, synonymous with Prague as it is where Mozart, who composed the opera especially for Prague, first premiered the opera in the Estates Theatre on October 29, 1787.
“He loved Prague and in Prague we have the Mozart Theatre,” added Petr, referring to the Estates Theatre. This was also where ‘The ‘Marriage of Figaro’ was first performed in 1786 and even now, the repertoire of the Theatre consists mainly of his works.
Equally impressive is the Prague National Marionette Theatre which, according to Petr, currently holds an exhibition of the original marionettes which are of a very historical value.
“They have more than 100 marionettes form the 18th and 19th century as well as staging which are hand-painted and are now at Cesky Krumlov, a town which is protected by UNESCO, in the South Bohemian region,” he added.
Cesky Krumlov also has a marionette museum which is confirmed by Petr who added, “in this area there is a tradition of these marionettes.
The opera of Don Giovanni performed by the theatre group is one of the most successful, with the opera having been performed more than 3000 times and visited more than 45 festivals around the world.
“On the stage there will be seven marionette actors and ten marionettes,” said Petr.
“The performances is supported by a recording which was done at the Swedish castle and the music is recorded on the original baroque instruments,” he added.
Don Giovanni has also been called “the opera of operas” and will be presented in two acts, having created a reputation for being the most successful and productive puppet performance since 1991.
The first performance of Don Giovanni was given by the Theatre on June 1, 1991 at the group’s venue. On April 1, 2000, the Theatre celebrated 2,000 performances when Prague was European Capital of Culture.
The opera tells of Don Giovanni, a young nobleman, after a life of amorous conquests, who meets defeat in his three encounters: with Donna Elvira, whom he has deserted but still follows him; with Donna Anna, whose father, the Commendatore, Giovanni kills in escaping from an unsuccessful attempt at seduction and as a result postpones her marriage to Don Ottavio; and with Zerlina, whom he vainly tries to lure from her fiancée, the peasant Masetto. All vow vengeance on the Don and his harassed servant Leporello. Elvira alone weakens in her resolution and attempts reconciliation and hope that the Don reforms. Don Giovanni’s destruction and deliverance to hell are effected by the cemetery statue of the Commendatore, who had accepted the libertine’s invitation to supper.
The opera has been performed in Asia as well, including China, Japan and Seoul.
“The experience is very well received in Asia,” said Petr, although this will be the first time in Macau.
Two years ago, the Theatre hosted a stand at the Shanghai Festival where Don Giovanni was introduced. The Macau stand saw the performance and the Theatre put forward the idea to come to Macau for the International Music Festival, suggesting several ideas, of which Don Giovanni was chosen.
As for the actors that control the marionettes, they fall into two classes: either they have come from a special school that educated actors on such an alternative type of theatre or they have no prior experience.
“The study of this alternative theatre is four years long, at the end of which they are professional actors,” said Petr, who added that in his group, he has about 50 percent educated and the other 50 percent semi-professionals.
“The education is at a university level and is very professional,” he said.
Coming back to Don Giovanni, Petr sums it up by saying, “it’s genius. You can listen to it a hundred ways and never be bored.”
Considering one of the actors in the group is now 70 years old and has been with the production for 50 years, he’s not wrong.

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