Il Ritorno d’Ulisse

This article is from 2009.

Il Ritorno d’Ulisse

Ulysses the opera brought to life by giant puppets

In parallel with Scotland’s big Homecoming theme of 2009, South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company make their Edinburgh debut with a puppet and animation interpretation of Monteverdi’s opera about Homer’s Ulysses returning from war to his homeland.

Using three-quarter life sized wooden puppets to tell the story, the challenge for the company was working out a way to make the puppets be the singers. ‘It’s possible to inhabit the puppets with words,’ says designer and master puppeteer Adrian Kohler, ‘but we really struggled at first to make the music and puppets connect.’

The trick leading to success was in the puppeteers not only learning the music as thoroughly as the musicians, but knowing precisely where the singers breath so that, says Kohler, ‘the puppets are allowed to move with the phrasing of the music. Suddenly the music and the puppets became one.’

Their first foray into opera since the company was co-founded in Cape Town by Kohler and fellow puppeteer Basil Jones, Il Ritorno is a huge development from Handspring’s original focus on educational work for children. Singer, puppet and puppeteer are all visible to the audience and although there are only seven singers, there are 18 performers on stage.

It was essential that whatever music Handspring selected for their first opera had to be adaptable. ‘We’ve cut a three hour opera down to half of that,’ explains Kohler, ‘as the weight of the puppets can’t be held for any longer. Some Monteverdi purists didn’t like us tampering, but it is all in the nature of an experiment to see if the puppets could sing.’

Animated film using charcoal drawings by director William Kentridge is part and parcel of the production, which opens with Ulysses lying in a modern hospital. He wakes up, gets better and is finally reunited with Penelope, his wife.

King’s Theatre, 473 2000, 23 &, 25 Aug, 8pm, £10–30.

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