Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Puppet Opera in Rolling Meadows Enchants Quite Delightfully, With No Strings Attached

Attraction / Performance Review

Opera in Focus - Puppet Opera
Current production featuring selections from South Pacific, Rigoletto, Sweeney Todd, Cats and Les Miserables
Rolling Meadows Park District Theater
Thru June 22 (other productions year-round)

There are few things in life I love more than seeing great performances, so this past weekend was pretty terrific. 

Friday night, I saw The Rolling Stones at the United Center and found them to be absolutely astonishing. 

I also saw a stellar movie, Before Midnight--Richard Linklater's latest installment in his Before Sunrise/Sunset series--and watched (on TV) the Blackhawks win playoff games on Saturday and Sunday. (Yes, I also watched them lose last night.)

But another highlight in the name of witnessing talent and artistry was considerably more unique and surprising, and all the more gratifying for it. 

Operating in the basement of a park district building in Rolling Meadows, as it has for 20 years--with origins that date back to 1958--is something called Opera in Focus, which in shorthand form is a producer, creator and presenter of puppet opera. 

Yes, puppet opera. 

I won't bore you with too much of the backstory--which you can read more about on the Opera in Focus website and in this Chicago Tribune article by Christopher Borrelli--but it adds a good deal to how impressed I am with the entire operation.

Basically, there was a guy named William B. Fosser, who worked as an Art Director and Set Designer for movies, but was also an avid puppeteer.

He created "rod puppets"--the only of their kind in existence--founded Opera in Focus and presented puppet operas for many years at a Chicago restaurant called Kungsholm that closed in 1971 (it was where Lawry's: The Prime Rib now is, on Ontario).

In working at the Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera, Fosser oversaw full-length puppet operas, but also initiated what I'll term "medley shows," including a mix of scenes/songs from opera, Broadway musicals and movies.

Fosser brought Opera in Focus to Rolling Meadows, where it continues to operate within the Rolling Meadows Park District Theater at 3000 Central Road.

Fosser passed away in 2006, but along the way a pair of brothers from the Southwest suburbs--Justin and Shayne Snyder--became his apprentices and they now run Opera in Focus with help from two other puppeteers and, as needed, a costume designer.

Per the Tribune story, Justin (shown above) and Shayne are both now in their early 30s, and with full-time jobs and long commutes to Rolling Meadows, their commitment to creating high quality puppet operas--with 14 different productions in 2013, complete with sets built on site and puppets customized for each scene--is rather admirable and impressive.

As is the end result.

Although Opera in Focus has a long history and deserves considerable attention, I was completely unaware of it until Borrelli's article in the Tribune this March. And I didn't even read it; my mom did and told me about it.

Intrigued, I was supposed to go to a May performance of Madama Butterfly--the only production this year focused on a single opera, though not quite done in full--but fell ill.

Reflecting how commendably the Snyders run their operation, when told that I couldn't make the show because I was sick, they not only gave me a pass to use at any other performance, they gave me two so that I wouldn't have to go alone. (Tickets are only $12 to begin with.)

Performances take place Wednesdays at 4:00pm and Saturdays at 1:30pm--though can be scheduled ad hoc for groups of 30 or more--and my mom, who along with my sister and aunt thoroughly loved what she saw at Butterfly, accompanied me this past Saturday.

The cute, 65-seat auditorium--adorned with opera posters and the words "NOT ONLY FOR AMUSEMENT" above the puppet stage--was largely filled by patrons who not only made me feel young, they made my mom feel young (although, of course, she still is).

I don't know if there were many repeat visitors, but all seemed to greatly enjoy the show, which opened with Maestro Tosci--a puppet built in the '50s, modeled on Arturo Toscanini--rising from the stage, then turning and descending to lead his unseen orchestra.

Actually, there is no unseen orchestra. All of the music at Opera in Focus is pre-recorded, typically Original Cast Recordings and the like. But as with all the other production values, the sound system is really terrific, making you feel like you are hearing the music live and in person.

The current production, which runs through June 22, opens with four songs from South Pacific. You can see puppet Nellie Forbush above, singing "Cockeyed Optimist," and below is a video I shot of her counterpart, Emile de Becque (recorded vocals by Ezio Pinza) performing part of "Some Enchanted Evening." (The puppets are made from polyester and resin, but can be re-used as each base puppet costs about $1,000.)

Next came a few scenes & songs from Act II of the opera Rigoletto by Verdi. This was preceded by a thorough description of what we would be seeing and hearing--as no translation is provided for the Italian-sung opera--by the sonorous narrator, Tony Mockus.

The photo at the top is from Rigoletto and should depict how great the costuming and staging was for this piece. Plus, there was something particularly delightful about seeing the puppets perform actual opera.

But though I imagine I would have greatly enjoyed their take on Madama Butterfly, I tremendously liked Opera in Focus' renditions of Broadway classics that I knew and loved, so I think the "medley show," worked well for my first encounter.

The final three songs were three great ones: "My Friends" from Sweeney Todd, "Memory" from Cats and "Master of the House" from Les Miserables.

As the photos should reflect, the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into creating the costumes and sets--particularly for a single 4-minute song that gets performed eight times over the course of a month--is rather remarkable.

The back of the Opera in Focus program thanks a long list of donors, and the Tribune article notes a grant the group received from the Illinois Arts Council, but even rudimentary economics suggests the Snyder brothers and their cohorts are doing this primarily as a labor of love.

Which is proven out after each performance, as Justin demonstrates how the only-of-their-kind rod puppets operate, then invites everyone in attendance backstage for a tour to see how the shows are performed. And based on brief conversations with both brothers and another pair of puppeteers--all who roll around on modified office chairs under the stage--it's clear that Opera in Focus is a first-class operation in every respect.

To be clear, not only was this my first exposure to Opera in Focus, but I have absolutely no connection to the Snyders or anyone else involved.

But as someone who has written a travel guide about Chicago's best attractions, I can honestly say that the Opera in Focus puppet opera is one of the most unique, impressive and delightful things I've come across in this vicinity or any other.

No, I won't be there every weekend, or take in every production, but for anyone--of any age--looking for something a bit different to enjoy, including but not primarily because of the backstory behind it, I can't recommend Opera in Focus highly enough.

With absolutely no strings attached. 

Opera in Focus puppet operas take place Wednesday at 4pm and Saturday at 1:30pm, with reservations required. Tickets are $12 for adults, with discounts for seniors and children under 12. Reservations can be made by calling 847-818-3220 x186 during normal business hours.


Here are a few more photos, followed by another video clip, of Grizabella performing "Memory" from Cats.

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