For the past two weeks, I’ve been taking part in the puppet opera at the Northwest Puppet Center. This year’s opera - “The Opera of Operas: The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great” – is a musical pastiche with tunes by Thomas Arne and Johann Hasse, along with English tunes and drinking songs, all set to a libretto by Henry Fielding. I sing Tom’s tunes, including a trio with the beautiful princess (another soprano) and the giantess (a bass!) who are fighting over little Tommy, but my favorite musical moment is when I get to “sing” a song for Judy, doing my best to match my singing voice to the crackly, raspy voice the puppeteer has given her!
The basis for all musical and dramatic decisions in this production has been “Is it silly?” What a fun change of pace! Opera can be a very serious affair, I’m afraid, on both sides of the stage. So the opportunity to be silly, and to be surrounded by silliness, is one that I embraced gladly. I had no choice, really, because how serious can I be when I’m singing the word “little” repeatedly on a high G? “Little, little, little, little though I be…” all on a high G! I tried so hard when I was learning the music to “really sing it.” And, well, it was hard. At the first rehearsal, I was surprised when the other musicians and the puppeteers started laughing at that point; not at me, but at the music! It is a funny moment, not a serious one, so when I relaxed my seriousness and just let it be silly, it instantly became easy.
Everyone else in the cast has embraced the silly, too, stretching their voices to take on more colors (we’re all singing for several puppets each), to make ugly sounds, or even to belch on command! Hey, this is low-brow baroque puppetry we’re talking about! I get to use my rooster crow and play a horn made from a cow’s horn (kind of creepy to this vegetarian…), and another singer has learned how to play the musical saw! So much fun. Of course, the puppeteers, the Carter Family, are the one encouraging all the silliness! The keep us on our toes – and stifling our laughter! – every show with their clever improvisations and joyful performances.
The singers and musicians sit on the lip of the stage, in front of the puppet stage, so we can see the audience. I have had such a wonderful time watching people’s faces! This is definitely an “adult” show (those naughty puppets…), but it is amazing to watch how quickly grown-ups will shed the pretenses of A Night At The Theatre and fully embrace the atmosphere of silliness. They laugh and groan at the jokes, sing with gusto during the “audience participation,” and generally forget that they are not six years old. When Tom Thumb makes his first appearance, he waves at the audience, and every night, at least one “grown-up” waves back with a huge smile on his or her face.
That’s what I feel and sense around me during every show: Joy. We are making our living by playing! Talk about right livelihood... I got to get up on the scaffolding backstage and manipulate a few puppets the other day, and this time I was the one who couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I hope I can remember this feeling next time I’m in the middle of a “serious” opera; it is still playing, and it should always be joyful.