Knowing How to Pull Some Strings


Imagine an opera singer whose face and body could convey nearly every nuance of a composer’s music.

Impossible? For a human, yes. But not for the world-famous Salzburg Marionettes.

These little figures--slightly over 2 feet tall--bob and weave, bow and curtsy, fight and dance, hop and fly over obstacles--all to enact and illuminate the music in ways you wouldn’t think possible.

Don’t believe it?

Check them out in any one of three Mozart operas this weekend at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa: “Marriage of Figaro” runs Friday; “Don Giovanni” on Saturday, and “The Magic Flute,” Sunday afternoon.

“People can’t believe the marionettes don’t move their mouths,” said company artistic director Gretl Aicher in a recent phone interview from Newark, N.J., where the company was appearing as part of its current U.S. tour.


“The fantasy is so strong, people see everything moving. They see the eyes and mouth moving. But they don’t, because they’re wooden.”

Aicher is the granddaughter of Austrian sculptor Anton Aicher, who created the marionettes as home entertainment in 1913, seven years before the famous Salzburg Music Festival was founded.

While the first performance was of Mozart’s early opera “Bastien and Bastienne” (written when the composer was 12) repertory in the early years focused largely on fairy tales and traditional puppet plays.

But that changed after Aicher gave the theater to his son, Hermann, as a wedding present in 1926.

Hermann Aicher renovated and enlarged the stage and began concentrating on musical works, performing more elaborate operas. International acclaim spread. A tour to Moscow and Leningrad led to further expansion of the size of the marionettes.

Repertory also continued to expand. Besides operas by Mozart, the marionettes now enact Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” Weber’s “Oberon” and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

The marionettes perform to recordings of these works made by some of the world’s leading orchestras and singers.

When Hermann Aicher died in 1977, Margarethe--Gretl--Aicher, born in 1928, took over. She has been running the company ever since.

Actually, Gretl has been working in the 12-member company for more than 50 years. Longevity is a company characteristic, some have been with the company 25 to 30 years.

“I tell you, I do not do less now than I did 50 years ago. I do the same. I’m always active,” she said.

Though you won’t see them, the puppeteers working behind the scenes are extremely busy. They often have to manipulate more than one marionette. They also have to manage various-sized versions of the same character--including the chorus puppets--not only because of costume changes but because they must appear in correct perspective depending on how far forward they appear in the set.

“At the back, the figures are smaller,” Aicher said.

Marionettes are distinguished from other puppets--such as rod, hand or shadow--by being controlled by strings from above. The Salzburg Marionettes are manipulated by three strings attached to the head, one to each arm and leg, and the last to the back. Other kinds of marionettes frequently use up to 30 strings or more.

The fewer the strings, the more movement you can get, said Aicher. But there are limits.

“The strings are over 2 meters [about 6 1/2 feet] long. Any longer and they will tangle and not turn properly.

“The secret of the movement is the movement of the head. You always keep it up a little. That--and the right lighting--makes it lively.”

In Salzburg, the marionette theater seats 350 people. To try to scale down properly in 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall, the center plans to restrict sales to only about 700 seats. No seats in the first and second tiers will be sold.

Even so, here are two suggestions:

* Take binoculars. You might not need them or even want to use them. Some people, for instance, prefer to sit far back enough so that the strings that manipulate the figures blend into the background and can’t be seen. But if you are interested in seeing the figures and the gorgeous costumes up close, binoculars could be helpful.

* Second, if you are taking your children, prepare them thoroughly in advance. Though the marionettes are extremely entertaining and the operas are cut, the singing will be in the original languages--Italian or German. There will be no supertitles.

“They don’t go with the size of the marionettes,” Aicher said. “They break the proportions.”

* The Salzburg Marionette Theatre will enact three operas by Mozart at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. “The Marriage of Figaro,” 7 p.m. Friday; “Don Giovanni,” 7 p.m. Saturday; “The Magic Flute,” 2 p.m. Sunday. $20 to $65. (714) 556-2787.


Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at