Saturday, March 11, 2017

'Sleeping Beauty' Puppet Opera Brought to Life (Size) by 'King Kong' s Joe Blanck

Victorian Opera stages Respighi's Sleeping Beauty with full size puppets designed & built by Joe Blanck
When I look at what's happening in the world right now, it just seems to me that there is no better time to have a kind of narrative that says 'things are awful, but they will get better'.
[Director, Nancy Black]

We first saw mention of this new version of Ottorino Respighi's Opera some time ago but the poster (pictured at bottom of post) just didn't grab our attention. It wasn't until we realized there was a unique and new puppetry element to this opera that we became intrigued.

When we found out Joe Blanck (of the impressive King Kong musical and the award winning Walking with Dinosaurs stage show) was involved, and that these puppets (originally marionettes) were now larger than life, we took a closer look. What ultimately sold us on the production was hearing and reading what Director Nancy Black had to say about the themes of the tale she intended to bring out, and what she felt Sleeping Beauty had to offer us in this current social climate. That her approach was also intriguing, being inspired by Kay Neilsen's work and incorporating newly designed larger-than-life puppets by Blanck, became a bonus. 
Blanck himself also shed an interesting light on their interpretation of the tale: 
Sleeping Beauty is not your typical love story,” Blanck says. “It’s more about the tragedy, and how people deal with that. Those are the things we’re trying to bring to the surface of the story.” 
Director Nancy Black has conceived a production which sees a group of people joining together to tell a story after some kind of traumatic event. They conjure up the tale of Sleeping Beauty out of thin air. 
We’ve kind of left it open to interpretation, creating a community of people come together — whether they’re poor or refugees or something else, it’s not really said,” Blanck says. 
That happens at so many events, whether it be at a funeral, or in the aftermath of something else entirely — people come together and tell stories.” (Daily Review)
Nancy Black goes into a little more detail in the video below (it gives a wonderful overview and sneak peeks at the visuals in motion). 
The educational materials Victorian Opera are making available online for free, lead on well from her introduction. (Link at the end so you can download the whole package for yourself.)
(The whole Education Resource is available to download HERE.)

An interview Victorian Opera posted with Director Nancy Black explains further why she's so passionate about this version of Sleeping Beauty. Here are some excerpts:

In 2017, you’ll be returning to Victorian Opera to direct another forgotten gem of the early 20th century with Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty. What have you enjoyed about discovering this opera? 
Oh my goodness.  So much.  First of all the music is beautiful, very lyrical, and also funny. The opera is filled with interesting characters- from the lovers to animals to satirical representatives of capitalism. It is romantic but also lightly nuanced with philosophical and even political references.  At the beginning Respighi seems to be taking us through a traditional rendition of a well known fairy tale, but then his narrative leaps forward in time to what he imagined would be 1940, and he incorporates mid- 20th Century dance rhythms. Our vision for the work needs to incorporate all of those elements!  What an exciting challenge! 

You’ve worked extensively with puppetry in the past and will be working alongside production designer Joe Blanck to create this fascinating blend of opera and puppetry. How are you planning to approach the production? 
After reading the libretto, I knew I wanted to approach this work as though it was a community of people telling a story.  It is a village. Maybe they have come through hard times.  When Respighi wrote this Italy was still struggling with the aftermath of WWI and the devastation of the Spanish Flu. In setting the celebratory end in 1940, he could not have known what lay ahead. 
I am fascinated by our human need for story. Even before mankind had written language, we have used stories as a tool for bringing order out of chaos, for giving us meaning when reason has failed, for instilling hope. 
In our production, a group gathers around a fire; it’s a lovely night.  An ember leaps into the air. It becomes a nightingale puppet, whose song is picked up by one of the singers.  The story unfolds as a combined effort with some taking the singing parts, others the puppetry. Together they tell a story that initially takes them away from their present into a beautiful fantasy, but then weaves itself back into their reality.  
I don’t want to give away too many details, but our creative team that includes Joe, Ben Cobham, Philip Lethlean and Michelle Heaven are devising a production design that draws inspiration from the exquisite illustrations of Kay Nielsen and organic shapes from our forests.  The puppetry will use several forms, always provoking and teasing the imagination, with circus and dance skills adding to what we hope will be a visual delight.

(FTNH Ed: Puppetry, circus and dance?! We're in!)
Nancy Black, from the Victorian Opera Educational Material
 Phoebe Briggs is the conductor for the show (there is a live orchestra, as well as singers) and shared in a different interview with Limelight Magazine, why she thinks this production is likely to appeal. Respighi apparently composed the opera with a young audience in mind and though it has some darker themes, as fairy tales tend to, it's designed to have family appeal. Here are some excerpts from that interview, the whole of which will particularly appeal to those with music training:

Is this something that a child today could attend? 

Yes, absolutely. Each character is clearly defined musically and children will certainly be able to follow the story very easily, and will be swept along by the storytelling of the puppets and singers.

Many audience members are only really familiar with Respighi through his tone poems. What might surprise them about the composer of this opera? 
I think what will surprise the audience is Respighi’s ability to jump effortlessly from style to style and from mood to mood. He inserts a Cakewalk or Foxtrot in amongst the neoclassical Marches and Minuets to keep the audience on their toes and this really shows Respighi’s sense of humour shining through. The tone poems are large expansive works whereas his writing here is more compact. He uses styles that are familiar but inserts unexpected harmonies and syncopations to give a modern feel to the work. 

Respighi notably had a real sense of humour when composing The Sleeping Beauty. There are plenty of musical allusions and parodic elements in the score – what has it been like discovering them with the orchestra? 
I’ve had a few laugh-out-loud and ‘oooh’ moments when I realised what Respighi was quoting, as well as the slow recognition of more subtle moments that he has borrowed from other works. I feel that rather than being direct parodies they are compliments to other composers and intended to trigger memories and emotions for the audience.

Here's the official trailer, which gives you a very brief preview of the music as well, though it doesn't grasp the range of Respighi's accessible score:
To further pique your interest, here's a list of characters for the story:

Characters & Cast

The Nightingale Zoe Drummond
The Cuckoo Shakira Tsindos
The Frog/The Spindle Kirilie Blythman
The Ambassador Timothy Newton
The Blue Fairy Elizabeth Barrow
The Jester/Mister Dollar Timothy Reynolds
The Green Fairy Juel Riggall
The King Raphael Wong
The Queen/The Cat Sally Wilson
The Old Lady/The Duchess Liane Keegan
The Princess Jacqueline Porter
The Woodcutter Stephen Marsh
The Prince Carlos E. Bárcenas
A Villager Tomas Dalton

Note: For those local to this production, please note there are also Audio Described Performances and Tactile Tours which are kid friendly too.

You can download a copy of the program, detailing the synopsis and each of the performers, along with letters from the Director, Artistic Director and the Conductor HERE.

We've included a lot of detail and behind-the-scenes, since many of our readers won't have the opportunity to visit Melbourne, Victoria (Australia) to see this production, which is a shame, since we think it would be well received wherever it traveled. (We hope a tour is on the cards!) 

If you're fortunate enough to see this opera and would like to write a review for OUABlog, please let us know. We'd love to hear what an audience member thought of this production.
Victorian Opera
An all-new production of Ottorino Respighi's 1922 reimagining of Sleeping Beauty
11 – 18 March
Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse
11, 14, 15, 17 March 7:30pm18 March 1:00pm

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