Dogs, cats and geese: the role of puppets in children’s opera

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPuppetry is an ancient form of storytelling thought to have originated over 3000 years ago. Simple puppets were used in Egypt as early as 2000 BC when string-operated figures were manipulated to perform the action of kneading and baking bread. Clay puppets dating to 2500 BC have also been unearthed in India, and written records of puppetry can be found in ancient Greek text from the 5th century BC. Almost all human societies have been using puppets in one form or another, either as entertainment or ceremonially in religious rituals.

Laika the Spacedog

ETO has a history of working with puppets and puppeteers, most notably on the award-winning Laika the Spacedog in Spring 2013. The opera tells the irresistible story of the first animal to go into orbit at the height of the Space Race between the United States and the USSR.

Laika is portrayed by two puppets which look identical. One is a marionette, the most famous type of western puppet, operated by strings that animate the limbs. The other is a table-top puppet, which is used whenever the performers need to interact with Laika at close range. The puppeteer has much more control over this type of puppet, but also less distance, so in some ways more skill is needed to maintain the sense that the puppet is alive independently of the puppeteer.

The following images show the progress of the puppets from prototype to carving to painting and costume.

Borka the Goose with No Feathers

ETO commissioned and toured this opera in Spring 2014. The story was based on the classic children’s book by John Burningham, which was then celebrating its 50th anniversary. The opera follows Borka, a goose born without feathers, as she tries to learn to fly and to swim, is abandoned by her friends, and is finally rescued and taken by boat to Kew Gardens.

In ETO’s production, the young geese and the dog Fowler are all life-size puppets, while the older geese, as well as the two human characters (the Captain and his Mate) are played by humans.

Shackleton’s Cat

Shackleton’s Cat is the latest in this line of operas especially created for children in primary schools and family audiences. The opera recounts Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole, the destruction of his ship Endurance, and the subsequent tale of survival against all odds.

Mrs Chippy was the tabby cat taken on the expedition by the carpenter Harry McNish. The crew loved Mrs Chippy (who was eventually discovered to be a boy cat!) for his friendliness, his character and his ability to walk the ship’s rails in even the roughest seas.

In our production, Mrs Chippy is played by a puppet, handmade by stage designer Jude Munden. Here are some pictures of her creation process.

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