It's opera with strings attached puppets - no; They say you should never work with animals or children but what about puppets? Welsh National Opera open their new season with some unusual stars. Karen Price talks to puppeteer Chris Pirie who is bringing them to life.
HE stars of Welsh National Opera's revival, The Queen of Spades, are busy taking part in last-minute rehearsals.
With less than a week to go before opening night, there is not much time left to perfect their work.
And with so many different movements crammed into just a few minutes, it's no easy feat - particularly when the "stars" on this occasion are puppets.
The opera, featuring Tchaikovsky's music, is an intense story of obsession and fate. Herman is desperate to know the secret of three playing cards - a secret which would mean he would never lose at the card table. But in discovering this secret, he risks losing everything he holds dear, including the woman he loves and his own life.
Original director Richard Jones and designer John Macfarlane bring this story to life not only with singers but with six puppets who are operated by five professional puppeteers.
The puppets, which are directly operated by hand rather than with strings are featured during a sequence lasting around 15-minutes plus during two shorter scenes.
And for the people who are responsible for their every move, timing is the key.
"There's one little sequence in which a butterfly has to land on the hand of a puppet, who sings to the butterfly before it flies away," says puppetry supervisor Chris Pirie.
"It's a simple routine taking 30 seconds but there are 60 or 70 movements between three puppeteers during that time so it needs to be closely co-ordinated." Pirie is co-artistic director of Bristol-based Green Ginger, which started life in Pembrokeshire and makes theatre for the street and stage. He has been involved with WNO's production of The Queen of Spades since it first opened in 2000.
Since then, it's also been rented out to other opera companies throughout the world, including Brussels and Oslo, and Pirie has worked on every one. The last production was in San Francisco two years ago so he's looking forward to working with the puppets once more.
"The puppets have been around the world so they needed a little bit of care and attention this time but they've lasted pretty well," he says.
There are three human-sized puppets, which are only seen from the waist up as they are seated behind a table, but each puppet needs two operators. There are also two smaller puppets and the butterfly.
During the scenes involving the puppets, the singers, which include Misha Didyk as Herman, Tatiana Monogarova as Lisa and Ann Murray as Countess, stand behind the puppets but the puppeteers themselves can be seen by the audience.
"The puppeteers are on full view - we don't try to hide them," says Pirie.
"It's a style that seems to work particularly well in this production." Pirie has been working with Green Ginger for 22 years and says he never imagined he would end up on the opera stage.
"It was exciting for me when the opportunity first came up as opera had not been on my radar very much," he says of working on The Queen of Spades for the first time.
"I came to it with a lot of preconceptions of it being an elitist art form so it was an eye-opener.
"I was used to going on the road with four people in a scruffy white van but here I was on the road with 200 people. Members of Welsh National Opera were very interested in what we were doing as we were coming in with a new skill so they were curious about what we were bringing to the production.
"The production has since been done by a number of other opera houses but it's very exciting to be back with Welsh National Opera.
"I think WNO's chorus and orchestra really rise to the occasion.
The Welsh have the edge." Pirie admits it can be "chaotic" on stage with so much for the puppeteers to do in one sequence.
"It's both exciting nerve-wracking," he admits.
ing the dress rehearsal of one duction, a puppet's hand flew o the puppeteer dealt with it a ably. If you rehearse enough yo cover those moments and dea them professionally.
"We are very self-critical an give ourselves a hard tim something the audience pro hasn't noticed." Once The Queen of Spad staged at the Wales Millen Centre and in Birmingham by W Pirie and the puppeteers w working on a version for Ho Grand Opera, which is now ru WNO's former general di Anthony Freud.
As well as being a career hig for him, The Queen of Spade holds fond personal memorie Pirie.
His wife, Amy Rose, w alongside him as a puppeteer original production in 2000 whe was pregnant with their dau Kaya.
" She had to keep being refitt her costume," he laughs. " Kaya spent her first birthday in Bo while the opera was being perfo there and her second birthday in with Norwegian National O She's a real opera baby. Whe hears it now she recognises th ments with the puppets." The Queen of Spades is a Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, on May 13, 16 & 19 June 4. The box office numb 0870 040 2000 and "Dure prooff but admirou can l with nd can e for obably des is nnium WNO, ill be ouston un by irector ghlight es also es for worked in the en she ughter ted for a then ologna ormed n Oslo Opera.
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A production of La boheme is being given its last outing after 25 years on the road.
The Puccini favourite will be staged as part of Welsh National Opera's summer 2009 season.
The tragic tale of Parisian love sees Rebecca Evans return to sing Mimi in the last performances of this production of the opera, which was premiered in Cardiff in 1984.
The final revival also sees the return of Jason Howard as Marcello, Gwyn Hughes Jones as Rodolfo and David Soar as Colline.
It will be staged at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff on May 18& 20 and June 3, 5 & 6.
The final WNO offering this season is a concert performance of Mozart's rarely performed Mitridate, re di Ponto, which was composed when he was just 14.
Sir Charles Mackerras returns to conduct the performance and alongside the WNO Chorus will be Bruce Ford as Mitridate, former WNO associate artist Joanne Boag as Arbate, Emma Bell as Sifare, Emma Matthews as Aspasia and Marianna Pizzolato as Farnace.
It will be premiered at the Birmingham Hippodrome on May 27 ahead of its performance at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on June 2.
Puccini's final curtain
Puppeteer Chris Pirie has been working on The Queen of Spades since 2000 (main); the puppeteersin rehearsal (far left) and WNO'shead of wigs and make-up, Sian McCabe, working on a puppet (below)