Designing puppets for opera – an interview with Roger Lade
Puppeteer and maker Roger Lade, who works in collaboration with his wife Julie, discusses his work on ‘The Crocodile’ – a new opera featuring a large puppet beast as its star, which will be performed at the Tête à Tête festival.
What appeals to you most about working with puppetry in opera?
The sense that somehow you are surrounded by a world of music, you’re not having to do any voices yourself, you are having to operate and move the puppets in a way that moves with the drama of the music; it’s the most incredible sensation. Although I’m not performing as a puppeteer in ‘The Crocodile’, it’s lovely to be working in opera again.
The crocodile featured in the show is almost life-size – was this a daunting puppet to design?
No, but you do have to be careful with design considerations, including not making the puppet too heavy. The budget didn’t allow for expensive materials but I like working with recycled materials anyway. I do enjoy carving wood but, for this one, it couldn’t be a carved head because it’s roughly the size of a real crocodile so it would be too heavy.
What materials have you chosen to work with in creating the crocodile puppet?
The likeness and the budget made me think that working in cardboard, something I did as a child and one of the first materials I ever made puppets out of, would be right. Alex Sutton (‘The Crocodile’ director) had originally suggested a marionette puppet and my first impression was it should be operated from underneath, but then I realised two sticks would work – one coming out of the head and one coming out of the back, between the back legs. This provides all the movement the puppeteer needs.
The sticks are a couple of broom handles which have been solidly put into the head and pelvis sections – the body is mostly made of foam and a few lozenge shapes of thick card to fill it out. The whole thing – three rib sections, is covered in stockinet. On top of that, the show’s designer (Benjamin Gerlis) had a great idea – he wanted some element of the design of the set and costumes to be repeated in the crocodile.
The team had been looking at African art references and came up with a wonderful African print fabric to be used on the crocodile – it has green and brown tones, as well as gold. Something I have noticed in photo references is that crocodiles have a kind of golden glint in their eyes, so on painting the puppet with final touches, I may add some gold to the eyes.
There are many references that have informed what I’ve been using. When Julie and I were studying the puppet, we also realised it was a little bit too big to fit through most doors so we altered it and now it can be dismantled if need be. The head section comes off and the back section comes out – the next task was to cover it and work out how to fix it back together in an easy way but so it won’t fall apart when you don’t want it to!
The puppet can also stand on his hind legs – yesterday I was able to make him walk on the ceiling – he’s very light. The mouth opens wide and although the teeth are made from paper and glue, they are very sharp! He has an extraordinary smile but the teeth were complicated. Some stick up and some stick down and they interlock so I ended up going back to papier-mâché. When I was joining the head back together today, I found myself being bitten by the crocodile – the teeth are as sharp as they look!
Where has your main inspiration come from?
In a way, the lines of the crocodile design have simply come from looking at photographs of crocodiles and trying to approximate all the extraordinary shapes in the head – I don’t think I’ve ever really looked at pictures of crocodiles that profoundly before! They are incredibly beautiful in a kind of prehistoric way and it’s fascinating to try and make those shapes and lines out of materials.
Funnily enough what’s also helped me make the crocodile is that I’ve been playing a lot of Mozart operas – the sense of energy in that music has helped me get through some quite complicated moments with cardboard and teeth!
The show is a comedy – is this reflected in the puppet itself?
The director said he didn’t want the crocodile to be scary, he wanted it to be like a pet and interestingly, through his style of movement the crocodile can behave like a dog; he can bounce around and galumph. With any puppet, how you move the figure is partly what gives it character, but the movement itself comes from the way the puppet is put together – it’s all linked.
The designer wasn’t keen to have more than one puppeteer animating the puppet and that was another important consideration, to enable it to be animated by one person alone but someone else could work the rear so there are options. The crocodile moves a bit like an excitable dog at times and he’s not so scary! His teeth give a wonderful grin, which is comical and threatening but I think in this case, he will be more pet-like.
When creating puppets, how do you and Julie split the work between you?
I tend to do more of the sculpting, gluing and carving and Julie does the work with soft materials, which I’m really hopeless at but she is brilliant at! She’s great at patterning – I will come up with a puppet body and she will cover it and costume it beautifully. We’ve worked together like that for a long time, as well as performing together. Through our own company, Widebeam Theatre, we have created several productions together and most recently we were working in association with the Little Angel theatre and the Royal Orchestra on ‘Mozart with Puppets’. Julie has a brilliant eye for soft materials.
What’s your next project?
I have all sorts of projects on the go, hidden in boxes in my workroom and, every now and then, I go back to them and pull them out. We have done a try-out for a show based on medieval carvings and mythical creatures. I have created a man who turns into a dragon, a sphinx, a wild man, a bear and a mermaid. They are table top puppets mostly and the show doesn’t have an official title yet but I’m very interested in developing it.
'The Crocodile', an opera by Llywelyn ap Myrddin, plays at the Riverside Studios on the 15 and 16 August.