Master puppeteer brings 'Hansel and Gretel' to Detroit Opera House
A crazy-quilt production of German composer Engelbert Humperdinck's 1893 opera, "Hansel and Gretel," originally staged in 2006 by the Houston Grand Opera and then The Atlanta Opera, opens at the Detroit Opera House Saturday, complete with a fabulous, swivel-hipped, 15-foot-tall witch.
This contemporary production uses a range of larger-than-life puppets and effects, all created by master puppeteer and director Basil Twist. The Detroit News caught up with the award-winning puppeteer Monday.
So - a 15-foot-tall witch?
Twist: "Yes. She's a big, curvy, voluptuous witch - and played by a man, Matthew DiBattista."
How in the world does that work?
"The singer is in the top half of the witch, from the waist up. He works the arms, and has this enormous headdress to create scale. His feet are strapped onto a pedestal in snowboarding boots. Beneath him, three puppeteers make her locomote, and give animation to her haunches."
Is this a hard part to play?
"Well, you have to completely relinquish control, because you're dependent on puppeteers to move you. Not every singer is willing to do that. But if you create a strong team and that trust develops, it becomes an augmented, functioning being."
Are the puppeteers in the witch's base tiny?
"No, they're normal sized. They're just tight in there. Two of them are actually riding on the witch, and the other is pushing. It's pretty amazing - they've got a little camera and a video monitor so they can see where they're going."
Where did the puppeteers come from?
"Half are people who've worked with me before, mostly from New York. And the other half are from Detroit."
Where'd you get the idea for the witch?
"Some of cartoon artist R. Crumb's fearsome and furious females were an inspiration."
Are there any characters that aren't enhanced by puppetry?
"Everyone has some kind of augmentation except for Hansel and Gretel. They're the only ones who are kind of normal. Every other character has some fantasy element or sense of scale that changes them."
Did you build the witch yourself? Sounds complicated.
"The witch was a co-creation between me and the Jim Henson Company. I designed the witch, but needed a way to make her really work, especially because there'd be a singer inside. Things had to be lightweight and strong and easy to get out of, and really performer friendly. And the Henson Co. is the best in the business. It was a total thrill to work with them."
Where has this "Hansel and Gretel" been produced before?
"Just at the Houston Grand Opera and The Atlanta Opera in 2006-2007. It's thrilling to get it up again."
So what do you say to a puppeteer before a big performance -- 'Break a leg?'
"No. We say 'Break a string.'"
'Hansel and Gretel'
Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit
7:30 p.m. Sat., 7:30 Wed., 7:30 p.m. April 12, 2:30 p.m. April 14
Family Day: April 14, complete with other puppets and craft-making