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THE PINOCCHIO PRINCIPLE : Are the Salzburg Marionettes Really 'Living Creatures'?

December 05, 1991|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles covers music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition.

The voices are the voices of such operatic giants as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Birgit Nilsson, Cesare Siepi. But the bodies are only 2 1/2 feet tall . . .

The Salzburg Marionette Theatre is coming to town, to perform three Mozart operas this weekend at the Irvine Barclay Theatre as part of the Orange County Philharmonic Society's salute to the Mozart Bicentennial Year.

For nearly 80 years, these tiny figures have been wowing audiences by enacting operas--mostly by Mozart--to recorded music.

It all began in the home of Anton Aicher, a professor of sculpture who decided he wanted to entertain some friends. "There was no cinema, no TV in those days," says Aicher's granddaughter, Gretl Aicher, who runs the company today. "When people wanted entertainment, they did it themselves."

The friends were so captivated with Aicher's efforts that they urged him to seek a wider audience. His first public performance was of Mozart's opera "Bastien und Bastienne" (composed when Mozart was 12) on Feb. 27, 1913. Aicher's younger son, Hermann, took over the business for more than half a century. When he died at age 75 in 1977, his daughter Gretl assumed control.

She has found that training others properly takes a long time, as long as 10 years. It's not just a question of giving people the right musical and dramatic training, she said on the phone from Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City, where the company was performing before its California dates.

"What they must learn absolutely," she said, "is a feeling for what a marionette is-- which is not just a puppet, a wooden thing, but something that has so much artistic beauty and history."

Indeed, to Aicher, marionettes are "living creatures, beloved beings into which one can enter with all one's energies and thoughts, with whom one can be united in music and movement, with whose help previously unknown effects of light, sound, color and movement--never achieved on the large human scale--are made possible."

Marionettes (as distinguished from other puppets, such as rod, hand or shadow) are controlled by strings from above. The Salzburg marionettes are operated from "very simple controls," Aicher said. "The fewer strings you have, the more movement you can get because the marionette is free. If you have too many strings, the marionette is blocked in its action. The Japanese use 35, 40 strings. We have only eight."

Have strings snapped during a performance?

"Oh, yes," Aicher said. "And strings get tangled up with the set or a costume gets tangled up with the set or with other marionettes.

"We have to find a way to fix it during the performance, even if we have to cut the strings. Sometimes this doesn't work. If nothing works, we have to close the curtain; we have to. It disturbs the whole atmosphere for people to see a humans go out on that stage."

Illusion plays a major role in more ways than one might expect.

"The head is the most important point of the figure because of the eyes and the expression of the face," Aicher said. "But it's the lighting that makes the faces seem lifelike. You have the feeling that the mouth is moving, that the hands are moving. But the mouth doesn't move. The hands don't move. They're wooden."

Still, she maintained, "the wooden faces of the marionettes can say more than an actor can . . . . Like a mask can do more than a human face can do."

She noted that one can sense the different personalities of the puppeteers in the behavior of the marionettes.

"If you have seen two different operas in the theater, you know who is controlling the puppets. Each of my company members has a special movement, like (he or she) would move on stage. You know exactly, as with good actors, who is who."

The 10-member troupe consists of six marionette manipulators (including Aicher), a sound engineer, a light engineer and two stage hands. But when an opera calls for a cast larger than six characters--as in the priest scenes of "The Magic Flute"--all 10 members pitch in. "Sometimes," Aicher noted, "we manipulate more than one marionette."

Altogether, the troupe has more than 450 marionettes for use in productions, plus some others kept for historical value. About 200 of them are brought on the road.

The auditorium in which they perform in Salzburg seats only 350 but is not lacking in up-to-date technology. Using laser beams, the technicians can project holographic three-dimensional sets onto what actually is a bare stage.

And "marionettes look much bigger on stage than they really are," Aicher said. "It's an optical illusion. The average size is 2 1/2 feet. But they look 4 or 5 feet high. Audience members are so surprised when they come back stage and find these tiny, little figures. It's really fantastic."

What: The Salzburg Marionette Theatre, in three operas by Mozart.

When: Friday, Dec. 6 at 8 p.m. ("The Magic Flute"); Saturday, Dec. 7 at 3 and 8 p.m. ("The Marriage of Figaro"), and Sunday, Dec. 8 at 3 p.m. ("Don Giovanni"). The Friday performance is sold out.

Where: The Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine.

Whereabouts: On the UC Irvine campus, on Campus Road near University Drive, across from the Marketplace mall.

Wherewithal: $15 to $25.

Where to call: (714) 646-6277.

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