Category: Education

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.


“A delightful evening”: a student review of Haydn’s Life on the Moon

ETO_Moon161014_imagecreditRichardHubertSmith-7599Having been to watch the opera Life on the Moon, I can say with certainty that it is a hugely enjoyable experience for one and all.

The set was fantastic: the complexity of Buonofede’s garden in Act 1 provided an excellent contrast with the simplicity of the supposed moon in the second act. I believe that this juxtaposition added to the comedic effect of the opera, as it is somewhat ironic that Buonofede was enthused by the concept of leaving his beautiful stately home to visit the plain and barren land of the moon.

From an analytical point of view, I was able to see that beneath the mask of comedy, the writer perhaps intended to make a statement about feminism, as the other characters are able to trick Buonofede – a sexist man – and make a mockery of his ridiculous view of women as sexual objects and property of men. The plot itself gave the audience a cathartic experience, as we watched their prank become successful, leaving Buonofede to be the sad, old man that he is.

The quality of singing was exquisite throughout – I believe that the operatic format of this piece added to the comedy, and had it been an ordinary play, it may not have been quite so hilarious.

I would definitely recommend this production to others; everyone over the age of twelve would be sure to find it both interesting and humorous. My only criticism is that some members of the audience struggled to follow the story due to the speed of some of the singing; however, this issue could be easily resolved had the subtitles been shown on the screens. Overall, I was very pleased – a delightful evening indeed.

Karis – Y11 student, Framwellgate School, Durham
Karis attended our production of Haydn’s Life on the Moon as part of Stepping onto the Moon, a series of free workshops aimed at secondary school students, exploring the world of opera and how it is produced. For more information visit ETO’s website.

Coincidences and wonderful sessions

So the second opera with Reay is steaming ahead, and turning in interesting directions. There’s something about the story that seems to have caught everyone’s imaginations, and we have had a few days of exceptional creativity (even by Reay’s high standards). The smaller groups from other schools, as well as the wonderful adults, are integrating beautifully, and the challenge is really only to decide when we have enough material. The singing is astounding – somehow everyone seems to pick up the songs instantly, and there is not one child who is off pitch. Hilarious session using authentic cockney slang: where’s the kermit miss?  I discovered last night that at the beginning of the war my mother used to play as a child in the fields around Edenbridge (she had friends there)  and knows it well. I had no idea of this coincidence, and had picked Edenbridge as a likely town and promising name for an opera on a hunch. I hope it’s a good  omen!