Puppets two feet tall, puppets 15 feet tall, they're all in Houston Grand Opera's production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. The opera follows the misfortunes of Herman, a penniless young man desperate for the love of Lisa, a girl of noble birth. Lisa's grandmother, a Countess is called the Queen of Spades. As a young woman, she loved playing cards and is said to have been given the secret to winning. Thinking money will help his situation with Lisa, Herman decides to steal the secret from the Countess.
Puppetry Director Pirie, (just Pirie, like Madonna or Cher) one of the artistic directors of the Green Ginger troupe in England which performs in Queen, tells Hair Balls that he doesn't want to give too much away, but he thinks audiences will be surprised in the way that puppets are used. Among other roles, they appear as stand-ins for some of the main characters during a card game (those are the puppets that are two feet tall) and as an avenging ghost (those are the ones that are 15 feet tall).
Of course Tchaikovsky didn't write Queen of Spades with puppets in mind, so adding them to the mix without reworking the plot or the music was no small feat. "We're faithful to the music," says Pirie, "and it all looks like it's going to plan, but we then start to put in a few twists. We've worked very hard to integrate the puppets into the opera, so they feel right. We made sure that everything flows."
Pirie and the other members of Green Ginger make no attempt to hide themselves while they are onstage working the puppets (this isn't the Muppets). They are clad in black clothing but other than that they just move about the stage openly. Pirie says the audience quickly forgets that the puppeteers are there, as they get caught up in the emotion of the dramatic story. " We're all on view, there's no hiding away. This is all hands-on puppetry, no strings involved. But we try to make sure the focus is on the puppets and what they are doing," he tells us.
"Even though you can see our faces, we try to remain as neutral as possible. We never take our eyes off our puppet, so that if an audience member looks at us, that will take them right back to the puppet. Hopefully, they will never get anything from us."
"What we're doing is channeling," he says. "You're talking about trying to channel emotions through inanimate objects. Your first instinct as a puppeteer is that have to make it believable, you have to give it breath, and give it life. Then it's a series of layers of emotional qualities or physical states. You have to take yourself to those emotional states. If you want to show shock or horror or fear, you have to find that emotional state and then transmit it through your arms and hands into the puppet. But you have to remain neutral yourself so that you're not grabbing the focus.
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The puppets are more than just an added novelty. They interact with the live characters in such a way so as to move the story forward or reveal the background of the character.
"[One of the characters] dies and reappears to Herman in a dream, in his bed," Pirie says. "So we animate the bed in a very alarming way. It appears as huge skeleton, about twice human size. There are four puppeteers bring that whole sequence alive. It's a stunning piece. The audience is looking down on Herman thrashing around in a bed. And it's a vertical bed, that's way up high, as if the audience were watching from the ceiling. So it's a strange sense of vertigo that we're giving to the audience. Also, it's a doorless room. There's a window, where the light comes shining in across the bed. But other than that, it's just four walls, there's no door which is kind of disturbing in its own way."
The puppets also function in another way, not as a character, but as a conduit for a character. "At one point, two soloists are standing behind the puppets and sort of sing through their heads. We don't lip sync the puppets, their mouths aren't moving, but they are gesturing. When it's done right, its quite a powerful sequence."
Russian tenor Vladimir Galouzine performs the role of Herman, soprano Tatiana Monogarova makes her Houston Grand Opera debut in the role of Lisa and mezzo-soprano Judith Forst appears as the Countess. The Queen of Spades opens today at 7:30 p.m. and continues through April 28.The Wortham Center, 500 Texas. For a full schedule, call 713-228-6737 or visit www.houstongrandopera.org. $23 to $276.