Tête à Tête 2013 cntd.
The Tête à Tête opera festival is known for staging original fringe opera but comedy production ‘The Crocodile’ is a highlight of this year’s event, featuring a large puppet beast as its star.
Based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoyevksy, ‘The Crocodile’ is set in high society St. Petersburg during the late 19th / early 20th century and focuses on the presentation of the giant beast at a press conference. High class, materialistic social norms are shaken when, prior to the conference, a man is eaten by the crocodile, yet remains alive inside the belly of the beast for the duration of the show.
A witty view of how logic and culture can quickly crumble, the story has been adapted for the stage by composer Llywelyn ap Myrddin, who has blended 19th century salon music with 1960s jazz, gospel, tango and more to provide a collage of influences for the cast and puppeteers to work with.
Alex Sutton, director, says his interest in using puppetry within this opera was a way to create a strong contrast between the normality and customs of the world as the characters see it, and the insanity and irrationality which can occur when logic is taken out of the equation.
“The crocodile puppet had to be something playful, yet something that could invade this normal world and make it absurd. The absurdity comes from the crocodile itself, " explains Sutton. "Consider the base desires and regressions of this very cultured Russian society, which was pre-revolutionary and very rich, then suddenly you’ve got this absurd beast that comes into people’s lives, shaking up normality.
“For me, using puppetry to represent an entirely different reality became an important factor of the piece. It has been important for me that the crocodile is a puppet so we can create an entirely new world, juxtaposed against this more normal, human one,” says Sutton.
He also emphasises the importance of the crocodile puppet being able to adopt human characteristics, as if the man inside may have started to ‘become one’ with the beast, providing yet another unusual and heightened element into the mix.
Roger Lade, who designed and built the crocodile puppet with his wife Julie, explains that, in creating the beast, there were some important design considerations to bear in mind. “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,” says Lade.
“The 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.”
Having created a head with spiky teeth that are as sharp as they look, you might think this comedy opera could veer into scary territory, but according to Lade, the crocodile provides just the right balance between friendly and frightening. “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.”
The show also stars puppeteers Alexander Beck and Caroline Mathius, the latter of whom will bring her experience as a trained dancer to the stage to blend pointe work with puppetry. As Lade concludes, the puppeteers will present an animal that’s more playful than predatory.
“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 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.”
Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival is the only festival of entirely new opera in the world, where hundreds of creators at all levels of the industry come together.