The Marionetten Theater, Vienna
“It takes puppeteer half a year to learn to walk. It takes three years to do impression and bow. And it takes 10 years to become a good puppeteer,” says Christine Hierzer-Riedler, one of the founders of Marionettentheater Schloss Schonbrunn. Hardly surprising then, that Hannah and I can barely get a wave out of the laconic
Mr Biedemeir, and under Matthew’s operation he appears quite drunk. But then maybe he is drunk. “The puppets can take on a life on their own,” explains Christine, “Sometimes they seem to do it on their own. I think did I make that move or did you do it?” she says, half talking to us, and half to one of her favourite puppets; Princess Pamina, the heroine of The Magic Flute.
Bringing opera to life through puppetry
In the previous two hours we watched Christine and four other puppeteers bring the cast of Mozart’s last opera to life. This version of The Magic flute is an enchanting production set in the roman ruins and zoological gardens of Castle Schonbrunn itself. With a full set, lighting, and of course the enduring operatic score, we saw Tamino and Pamina prove that love can conquer all, we saw Papageno the birdman win the heart of his feathery birdwoman, and we saw the hero take on fire, water, and a serpent in the process.
But then the serpent isn’t as large as we thought. On a backstage tour afterwards we realise the marionettes aren’t the giants they look on stage, but tiny intricate 60cm dolls, not much bigger than Hannah’s Baby Annabel. “Were they bigger in your head? It is the same for everyone,” smiles Christine. “But they are different sizes in different people’s heads. Some people imagine them this big, and others this big,” she holds out her hands at various positions and we variously nod. “It is optical illusion. The frame is small, and you think everything is bigger.”
The puppeteers are artists
Christine and her colleagues make the marionettes themselves; it takes three weeks of painstaking work to make and dress just one of them in the period costume the opera requires. Every single joint and limb is controlled by wire from the top, which gives them such a human, graceful way of moving, not like the jerky puppets Stuart and I remember from our childhood. When the Queen of the Night comes on stage in her midnight blue bejewelled gown , and then takes off in the lightening, you are drawn into her world; drawn into the magic of the opera.
But then The Magic Flute is perfect for this form of art. It’s a fantasy world, where normal rules don’t apply. “This opera is very special for marionettes because it is a fairytale opera. In the human version you would never have a Papageno that is a real birdman. And you make your own Princess; there is no human behind it.” In fact, Christine loves the opera so much that she’d like to have it permanently playing. “In Vienna it should be like a Weiner Schnitzel; you should have it on the menu all the time,” she laughs.
A unique musical experience
But in Vienna, and indeed in Austria, this show is a unique experience. The only other theatre staging opera like this in Austria is based in Salzburg. Christine set up this Viennese company as a touring theatre in 1991. With her partner Werner Hierzer, who specialises in all the technical aspects of the production, she found it a permanent home in the castle in 1994. Christine has developed the craft over 30 years and the Marionettentheater now has a repertoire of 15 plays. They regularly take them on tour, where they might play to 800 people at a time. But in this theatre, in a corner of this grand Palace dating back to the Austro-Hungarian empire, our audience numbers are no more than about 50 people. It’s a charming, intimate and personal experience with the whole audience invited to look back stage and meet the puppeteers after the show. Uniquely in this age of film and theatrical trickery, it’s unusual to be so open about how it’s all done. But that’s part of Christine’s philosophy, to share her love and passion, spread the word and develop the art, for there could be a budding puppeteer in any audience.
The rest of the crowd have now long departed to see the castle lit up, or catch the Metro. But we remain, entranced by the puppets, wondering what happens to them overnight. “They hang just here,” says Christine, pointing to the puppets, who dangle motionless from their 2 metre strings in the wings of the stage. “But at night, who knows what they do,” she laughs, and Hannah’s eyes widen as she tries to imagine their nocturnal activity.
Christine notices her interest and beckons her closer. “You know what she has under her beautiful Princess dress? Golden shoes. She told me I can show you.” The puppet maker lifts up the dress of her favourite and we see old fashioned bloomers and the promised golden shoes. Despite her tiredness, Hannah smiles. “Perhaps one day there is a career in puppets for you. But for now it’s time to say goodnight,” says Christine. Pamina, who has been through trials of fire and water and found her true love all in one night, still has the energy to move her elegant hand, with a tiny bit of help from her string. Hannah and I were a bit out of our depth earlier trying to get a wave out of Mr Biedermier. But a Princess? Now that’s a different story.
One last secret shared
“Are you going straight home or would you like stay to see the castle at night?” asks Christine as we pick up our bags to leave. We tell her the children are exhausted and need their beds. She shows us a secret way out of the palace that involves several tunnels and turning right at the Holy Mary picture on the wall. I feel like the Queen of the Night, creeping stealthily through the emperor’s palace in the late hours, and am grateful when we burst through a heavy door at the end of the long palace drive with the underground station straight ahead. But I suspect this unadvertised way out isn’t the only secret Christine has let us into tonight. For first time opera-goers big and small, perhaps she has sown a seed that may blossom at some point in the future.
Disclosure note: Thanks to Christine Hierzer-Riedler and the Marionetten Theater who provided discounted tickets to enable us to bring you this story.