Last-minute hand adjustment gives a sense of puppet opera scale.
Last-minute hand adjustment gives a sense of puppet opera scale.

Puppet Opera in Focus

Field review by the editors.

Rolling Meadows, Illinois

You may not believe that you'd ever be interested in puppets or opera -- or puppet opera -- but a few hard-working people in a suburban Chicago basement are trying to change that.

Justin Snyder demonstrates puppet mechanics backstage.
Justin Snyder demonstrates puppet mechanics backstage.

"Puppets and opera do seem like two totally random things," said Justin Snyder, principal puppeteer and artistic director of Opera in Focus, the only puppet opera in the U.S. "The concept is obscure," he said, "and a little weird." Still, Justin and the Opera's merry band of puppeteers are convinced that if you attend a performance in their custom-built theater -- in the lower level of the Rolling Meadows Park District building -- then you could be converted to their cause.

The puppet people have a surprisingly long record of success. Puppet opera has been a cultural fixture in Chicago since the 1930s -- certainly one of the city's stranger claims to fame -- and regular performances, several times each week, have drawn audiences to the puppet opera theater in the Park District basement since 1993. Passionate fans attend the shows, staking out the best seats. "Not everybody gets what we do," said Justin, "but the people who get it, they really get it."


"Not Only For Amusement" lets the audience know that this puppet show is serious business.

The puppets in Opera in Focus are not stringy marionettes, or what Justin called "goofy sock puppets" (although hilarious socks do have a constituency elsewhere in Illinois). Instead, the Chicago puppets are manipulated from beneath the stage with a unique (and patented) system of barely visible rods, levers, and cables that evolved from the Opera's early days, when they were built out of scraps of Erector Sets. They are like Lilliputian cyborgs, mesmerizing to watch. This is a very innovative, nuts-and-bolts, American puppet show.

Puppets in storage, waiting for their turn in the spotlight.
Puppets in storage, waiting for a turn in the spotlight.

The artists behind Opera in Focus also understand that making a general audience sit through all three acts of Die tote Stadt won't win many converts. So they've devised a Greatest Hits format. A typical performance lasts only one hour, and features a mix of scenes and songs from a repertory of nearly 200 operas, operettas, and vintage Broadway musicals.

The house lights dim, a narrator introduces each piece with a brief summary, and the puppets then launch into their dramatics and melodies to recorded voice and music. Underneath the stage, only five feet wide and two feet deep, up to five puppeteers are working at the same time, manipulating the puppets with subtle gestures of their fingers and wrists. Justin said that women were historically hired for puppet opera because they were regarded as more refined with their movements. "They didn't have to try as hard as men to not be clumsy."

Puppet manipulation demands good eye-hand coordination, strong fingers.
Puppet manipulation demands good eye-hand coordination, strong fingers.

According to Justin, despite the cramped under-stage working environment -- which we likened to an Apollo moon capsule -- the puppeteers all get along well, even though a single puppet show can take a toll on the arms and lower back. "When I came home after my first day, I felt like I had been shot. It was that painful," Justin said. "Try sitting down, tilting your head up, and holding your hands in the air for an hour. It's not easy. But eventually your body becomes accustomed to it."

Justin holds a portrait of William B. Foster, Opera in Focus founder.
Justin holds a portrait of William B. Fosser, Opera in Focus founder.

At the end of the show the puppeteers emerge to take a bow, which often startles the audience. "For an hour you're in this miniature world where everyone is 16 inches tall, and at the end these giant people come out," said Justin. "It's like Godzilla."

Everyone is then is invited backstage for a tour of the inner workings of Opera in Focus. "A lot of puppeteers are like magicians; they keep things secret because they don't want to spoil the magic," said Justin. "But we're the exact opposite. We think it's important for folks to come back and see how everything is done. We want them to realize that there's no automation here." Justin said that everyone who works at the puppet opera should be able to do everything, including the lights and special effects, as well as designing and making the costumes and scenery. "There's no Puppets R Us where we can buy furniture and props."

And every puppet, from Mephisto in Faust to the goat in Porgy and Bess, has to be built by hand. "No matter how much effort you put into your regular puppets," said Justin, "the audience always loves the animals more than anything."

The goal, said Justin, is to get people enthusiastic about puppets, opera, or both, who may not have felt that way before. For those willing to take the plunge, Opera in Focus does stage an occasional full opera -- three to four hours long -- with catering in the lobby during the intermission. Justin said that those performances are physically "extremely brutal" for the puppeteers, but also satisfying. "When the people come backstage they're sometimes holding Kleenexes and crying," he said. "That's a great compliment, because then you know the illusion is working. You've done something special."

Puppet Opera in Focus

Rolling Meadows Park District Headquarters

Address:
3000 Central Ave., Rolling Meadows, IL
Directions:
In the basement of the Rolling Meadows Park District Headquarters. From I-90 exit onto Hwy 53. Drive north one quick exit to Algonquin Rd. Drive east and take the second left onto Barker Ave., then turn right onto Central Rd. The park headquarters will be on the left, across from the tennis courts.
Hours:
Shows are W 4, Sa 1:30. Reservations required. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
847-818-3220
Admission:
Adults $14.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
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