Live in the Studio: Visiting the Old Trout Puppet Workshop

Ghost opera
© Photo: Jason Stang
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Ghost opera 2
© Photo: Jason Stang
Ghost opera production shot

To reach Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop, you knock on the door of an unprepossessing Quonset hut, squeeze through the lean-to they use for an office, then finally set foot inside the studio, where an otherworldly vibe possesses you. Puppets gaze down from every corner, ghosts from the past. Despite the chainsaws and Styrofoam, somehow the ambiance is marvelous in the most old-fashioned sense. An aged sheen burnishes the rows of sorrowing faces and supplicating hands laid out on tables all around.

The team is preparing for Ghost Opera, a world premiere with Canadian composer Veronika Krausas and libretto by André Alexis. The piece is based on an anecdote recorded by Pliny the Younger about a villa made uninhabitable by an angry ghost. The family who owns the house eventually finds a buyer, a Stoic philosopher who helps the ghost find her way to the Land of the Dead. The Trouts have drawn on Classical sculpture for inspiration.

Though they spent the early years dossing down in the studio, nowadays the three founding Trouts are scattered across the country from the Maritimes to Victoria. Steve (Pityu) Kenderes is out of town, so Pete Balkwill and Judd Palmer gather round a rickety table to chat while Palmer reworks the model of a puppet head, scraping its clay features off a wig-form and starting over. Though the Trouts make initial drawings of the puppet characters to guide the team, the real creation happens in the moment, under the hands of whoever is sculpting. When complete, the model will be slathered with silicone (incredibly called Dragon SkinTM), which is then peeled off, placed in a shell for sturdiness, and filled with expanding foam that hardens into a durable, not too heavy puppet head. Many of the twenty-nine objects in the show are made using this reverse mold casting process. They are then coated in epoxy before being hand-painted and varnished with Rembrandt-ian techniques of chiaroscuro, patina, and craquelure.

Unlike some troupes who specialize in one type of puppet such as stringed marionettes, the Trouts have experimented with a range of styles, from their earliest head-puppets, carved cedar blocks bolted to a helmet, to more abstract objects such as single body parts, tiny rod puppets, and over-scale items like enormous moving eyeballs. In Ghost Opera, many dramatis personae are represented by human scale character heads dressed in flowing costumes designed by long-time Trout collaborator Jen Gareau. Depending on the action, the heads are provided with expressively carved hands and sometimes feet. However, there are also many specialty puppets of various sizes. A puppeteer on a rope operates the ghost flying high above stage, for example, while one of the smallest puppets depicts the skeleton of a dog.

Regardless of size or function, Trout puppets always have a mysterious air of being both treasured and neglected, as though they’ve been found in some attic trunk and pressed into narrative service. Maybe their taste favours the timeworn because when a thing looks like it’s been used, “It acquires almost a living spirit,” says Palmer, the clay twisting under his hands. A sense of history suits their artform, Balkwill adds. Puppetry draws on elemental feelings of wonder, as well as intimations of the uncanny and the half-forgotten.

“In a way,” Palmer goes on, “our fetish for oldness is driven by our fetish for meta-theatricality.” When creating a new work, the Trouts’ entry point is always to ask: Why is this a puppet show? The puppeteers are often in plain sight in their productions. The relationship between puppeteer and the object they are manipulating can add a compelling and dynamic meta-layer that amplifies the themes of the story for the audience.

Palmer and Balkwill explain that for reasons that started out practical (“You can’t really expect the soprano to fly, and not every opera singer is an amazing puppeteer,”) the cast on stage in Ghost Opera operate as specialists. Six performers take primary charge of the puppets. Eight singers from the Calgary Opera Emerging Artist Program voice the characters. The rest form the orchestra.

Dubbed ‘Phantasmas’ by the creators, all these performers express the show’s exploration of body versus spirit, as they enact its ghostly tale using objects that appear to have sat for centuries. In a sense, they are all puppeteers. Balkwill points out that “An instrument is the musician’s puppet. A skilled puppeteer holds their puppet the same way a violinist holds their bow. There’s a similar sense of relaxation and flow, the idea of being in the zone.”

Twenty-seven people including orchestra is on the small side for an opera, but for a puppet show it’s immense. The Trouts undertook the challenge with enthusiasm. In recent years the company has pushed past the traditionally miniature realm of puppetry to seek out more ambitious collaborations, designing Vancouver Opera’s Hansel and Gretel and a large-scale production of Twelfth Night for the NAC and Theatre Calgary.

Still, creating a brand-new opera is complicated. The libretto evolved over an initial group story boarding session with Alexis followed by many emailed drafts, undergoing even more tweaking once it was in the hands of the composer. Krausus might take a four-character scene, for example, and turn it into a quartet in which all vocal lines are sung at once. “There’s a different sense of dramatic time in opera,” Palmer says. That can affect puppet design. “Our puppets are built to be very good at one specific thing, like lamenting or picking up a cup, and terrible at everything else,” they explain. When the story changes, so might the puppets have to, which in turn can affect the script. “There’s a lot of back and forth.”

Over a couple of years, the team held three workshops to develop text and music. Meanwhile, the design and construction process ran in parallel. As they head into rehearsal the set and most of the puppets are built, a novel state of affairs for the company. As for the text, usually the most malleable element in a Trout show, it is all but locked.

That said, music plays a significant role in all Trout productions, so its demands are not new. Music and puppetry go together, after all. They always have, since the days when we told stories using what we had to hand, conjuring emotion and memory with sounds, not words. Arguably, “Puppetry touches an older way that we used to receive story,” explains Balkwill. “As much as we try to race toward the future, our imaginations are infinitely more powerful than CGI. I wish I lived back when we sailed the open seas,” he muses, as Palmer puts the final touches on the sculpture in his hands, “…There was so much wonder.”

Ghost Opera is developed with support from the NAC’s National Creation Fund in partnership with Calgary Opera and the Performing Arts Residency Program at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and features the Timepoint Ensemble. It opens in Banff in May 2019, then runs in Calgary, with plans for national and international tours in its future.

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