Most of us associate marionettes with childhood. The miniature proscenium, the colorful characters with outsized voices, manipulated as if by magic — this is theater for youthful audiences. Well, maybe in this country. But in Europe, where the tradition dates back centuries, marionettes are also regarded as grown-up entertainment.
A large measure of credit goes to the Salzburg Marionette Theater, which has been presenting unique versions of Mozart operas and other sophisticated fare for nearly 95 years. At home in Austria and on tour around the globe, the company has earned a devoted following for its intricately detailed, elaborately staged productions, many complete with supertitles.
This season the troupe takes the bold step of adding musical theater to its repertoire with its production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music.” The company returns to McCarter Theater on Monday, November 12, with the show, part of an American tour that marks the production’s premiere — the first time the Salzburg Marionettes have tackled a Broadway musical and the first time “The Sound of Music” has been staged with puppets.
Bill Lockwood, McCarter’s special programming director, is a Salzburg Marionettes fan from way back. “They are one of the great entertainments of the world,” he says. “There is absolutely nothing like them. It’s a very special art form and they are quintessential practitioners of this. I bring them every time they tour.”
Lockwood fell for the marionettes when he was working in programming at Lincoln Center some three decades ago. “I was the first person to present them in New York,” he says. “I’ve been a father figure to them since then, and they came often to Alice Tully Hall. McCarter has been a big part of their growth. To watch them from backstage is amazing. The little stage is like a mini-McCarter. It’s magical stagecraft, in miniature.”
It was in 1913 that sculptor Anton Aicher got the idea to stage the Mozart opera “Bastien und Bastienne” for marionettes. The idea caught on, and Aicher expanded the following year to incorporate 13 more productions. After World War I, Aicher’s son, Hermann, took over management of the marionettes. The company’s increasingly sophisticated productions were performed in a gymnasium until they acquired their own theater in 1971.
Puppeteers and technicians were joined in these performances by singers, musicians, and conductors. This made touring expensive but the company persisted. They visited the Balkans, Holland, Belgium, Russia, Sweden, and Germany, achieving international fame after World War II with a production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The company’s first American tour was in 1952 and included the premiere of its production of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute.” It was to be the first of many successful American tours.
These days taped music makes touring more economical. Hermann Aicher’s daughter, Gretl Aicher, has been the company’s director since her father died in 1977. The repertoire has increased in recent years to include ballet as well as opera. Adding the Broadway musical and wildly popular film “The Sound of Music” to the mix was a logical decision, since the story of the singing von Trapp family takes place in and around Salzburg.
“This is the hometown of the family von Trapp, and everybody loves ‘The Sound of Music,’” says Barbara Heuberger, managing director of the Salzburg Marionettes for eight years, in a phone interview from Dallas, where the world premiere of the production took place November 2 through 4.
“The strange thing about this is that the city of Salzburg has tried to do this musical since the success of the film in 1965,” Heuberger continues. “I think the city is too small to have a big, full production. But we use a tape of the score so that while it is expensive, it is not as much. So we are the first to be doing it, and we are very proud.”
The Salzburg Marionette Theatre’s 90-minute version of “The Sound of Music” is not quite the full production. The recording by the Istropolis Philharmonic Orchestra includes several actors with Broadway credits. Jonathan Groff of “Spring Awakening” fame plays Rolf Gruber and Friederich von Trapp; Christiane Noll (“Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Mambo Kings”) sings Maria; and Martin Vidnovic (“Guys and Dolls,” “Footloose”) is Captain von Trapp.
What fans of “The Sound of Music” want to know, though, is how the famous “Lonely Goatherd” scene — in which the von Trapp children use marionettes — is going to be performed in the Salzburg Marionette Theater’s production. “That’s the question,” Heuberger says. “What we’re doing is saving it for during the curtain call. So instead of the children doing it in the scene in Maria’s bedroom, we have them doing ‘My Favorite Things.’ Then at the end, during the curtain call, we open the curtain so the audience can see the puppeteers. You see them moving puppets who have little puppets in their hands. It’s very tricky.”
The Salzburg Marionettes will take “The Sound of Music” to Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, November 8 through 10, and Newark’s NJPAC, November 30 to December 2, before culminating in a run at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art December 7 through 9.
While European audiences understand better than Americans that the Salzburg Marionette productions are not just for children, the message isn’t always clear. “It is a big problem,” says Heuberger. “We are not a theater only for children. The range is between 5 and 90. But some of our productions, like ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘Cosi fan Tutti,’ don’t work for children.”
Lockwood agrees. “What they do mostly are Mozart operas, which are not really something for a four-year-old,” he says. “It’s not just a puppet show. They don’t do fairy tales for kids. They consider this a very sophisticated art form, which it is.”
Devotees of the Salzburg Marionettes are drawn to performances again and again by something intangible, Heuberger believes. “I think puppets are really an object which moves something very deep inside us,” she says. “They arouse a very deep (emotion). People are more open to putting their wishes and dreams into a puppet. Perhaps the reason is that you can make a puppet into an ideal, but you can’t make an ideal person.
“And when you sit in the dark and watch, it really drags you in and captures you. You are astonished in that first moment, but then you forget that they are puppets and not people. I am astonished, every time.”
The Salzburg Marionettes, Monday, November 12, 7:30 p.m. McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” directed by Richard Hamburger. $35 to $42. www.mccarter.org or 609-258-2787.