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OTC - Opera for Dummies

January 26, 2002
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In 1978, I saw Magic, the thriller starring Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist whose wooden dummy, Fats, slowly goes crazy and embarks on a murderous rampage. Ever since then, dummies, marionettes, and other small hand-painted facsimiles of human beings have, like, totally creeped me out.

I imagine myself rising from a warm bed at 2 a.m. to let the dog out, only to encounter a Charlie McCarthy-type character seated calmly at my kitchen table in the moonlight. "I'm glad you're awake," he'd say, his lower jaw clacking shut as his eyes dart, Kewpie-like, toward the butcher knife gripped in his white-gloved dummy hand.

Typically, I'm able to get through the day without obsessing about the sinister potential of puppets. But recently I was in Prague, where marionettes are, according to the tourist brochures, part of a "long and rich tradition."

Walking through the narrow cobblestone streets, I passed several shops selling the stringed puppets. Row upon row of still, expressionless marionettes hung limply on the walls, their hands and feet suspended in midair. There were rabbis, chefs, kings, and witches, all of them silently beseeching passersby to give them life. I shuddered.

My friend Angela looked at me. "They bother you, too?" she asked.

I nodded as I scurried past the shops.

That night at dinner, Angela and I discussed our fear of marionettes and other inanimate humans. We talked as if we were discussing something semi-rational, like politics. "The problem I have with them is their inability to reason," Angela explained, using the logical lawyer's voice she typically reserves for closing arguments.

Yes, I agreed. That was one of their deficiencies.

After dinner, we walked through town and noticed several posters advertising Don Giovanni by Prague's National Marionette Theatre. "No way," we concluded.

The next day, while we were on a walking tour of the old town, my attention was diverted by a marionette shop that was broadcasting "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson at levels loud enough to cause Prague's last remaining Communists to pack their identical government-issue suitcases and flee up the Vltava River.

On the street in front of the shop, a small Pinocchio marionette was break dancing, his red feet clomping on the cobbles at the behest of the salesperson controlling his strings.

"Look!" I exclaimed. "How cute!"

Angela stared at me as if I'd broken some unspoken covenant of the anti-marionette society. Her eyes traveled to the break-dancing puppet. "They are less threatening when they dance," she conceded.

The edge taken off, we soon found ourselves admiring the range and artistry of marionettes available for sale. We discussed how -- and why -- marionettes are still popular in a city that has survived Nazis and Communists, and now boasts sushi bars and Internet cafés. There must be something to this marionette business.

Our defenses crumbling, we scrambled for ways to keep our disdain of puppets intact. "The marionettes must just be for tourists," we scoffed. When that didn't work, we tried snobbery, ranking marionette theater on the same cultural stratum as monster truck rallies.

But the more we questioned the allure of the puppets, the more we became fascinated by them. Over a beer that afternoon, we agreed to see a marionette show, "just to see what the fuss was all about."

We arrived at the theater the next night, and when it was time for the performance to begin, instead of subtly dimming the lights as they do in New York, employees of Prague's National Marionette Theatre loudly sounded something like an enormous school bell. We didn't know whether to head to our seats, dart out the door for recess, or alert the captain that the sub was taking on water.

The show began, and the first marionette to appear was Mozart, who had curly silver hair and a round wooden face that bore a slight resemblance to Barbara Bush. He jerkily "conducted" the imaginary orchestra -- the real music was on tape -- and the other marionettes appeared. Controlled only by strings, they moved haltingly, like children walking on a rope bridge in high winds. It was going to be a looong night.

The production got under way and I noticed that the backdrops were painted in a style best described as Scenery 101. I could see the thick hands and cleavage of several of the puppeteers. I felt like I was watching a fifth-grade talent show where at any moment a little Indian girl would be tied to the stake while her parents clapped their enthusiastic approval. Most unsettling of all was the fact that the marionettes' faces didn't move. At all. Don Giovanni maintained the same painted-on, noncommittal expression regardless of whether he was seducing a peasant or being engulfed by flames.

Yet despite myself, I was smiling, a silly what's-the-harm-in-this grin that lasted the entire performance. I don't know if the grin appeared when I realized that puppeteers are supposed to be part of the act. Or when I realized that this particular production of Don Giovanni was intended to be a comedy. Or when Mozart drank too much wine and fell asleep, loudly knocking his little wooden head on the edge of the imaginary orchestra pit.

Regardless, it dawned on me that the point of marionette theater is not to convince audience members that the puppets are real in a scary Hollywood way. The point is to provide an excuse for listening to great music.

As we walked back to our hotel after the show, Angela said, sounding a bit like Mr. Rogers: "Sometimes, it takes learning about something to appreciate it."

I concurred, thinking of all the times in my life I've passed up opportunities because of fear, snobbery, or preconceived notions. I thought about how foolish my long-held, but unexamined, fears and judgments really are.

As we neared the hotel, Angela made one final comment. "You know, those puppets didn't scare me at all."
"Me either," I said, secretly wondering if I'd have time at the airport to purchase a souvenir marionette. After all, it wouldn't hurt to have a little reminder that long-held beliefs can change.

Workforce, December 2001, pp. 22-23 -- Subscribe Now!

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