6:09 PM EDT, March 14, 2013
It's the damnedest thing:
Justin Snyder, his long hair parted down the middle, his head thrown back as though communing with a higher power, the hood of his hoodie grazing the floor, his mouth working silently in time with the strains and surges of an opera CD, his eyes squeezed shut and his hands raised high, orchestrating a rain forest of dangling pulleys, working a puppet — a sculpted, foot-tall puppet in an ornate, handmade dress, a puppet resembling Magda from Puccini's "La Rondine," a tiny swooning courtesan gliding through a tiny mansion.
Just the damnedest thing.
Snyder sits beneath the stage on a customized office chair. Like the other puppeteers he works with — his brother, a childhood friend and an apprentice, no one older than 33 — their chairs have been chopped and shaved down until the seats rest inches from the floor; this ensures that the tops of their heads are never accidentally glimpsed by the audience. Unlike the others, however, Snyder's eyes are closed. And the truth is, William Fosser, the guy who hired him 13 years ago, the former movie set designer who created all of this ... this puppet opera, wasn't crazy about the eyes-closed thing. When they met, Fosser was almost 70 and Snyder was 19. Fosser didn't like that Snyder had long hair and a goatee. But he did answer the ad — you try finding a young guy to commit to a puppet opera. So Fosser looked the other way.
When I asked Snyder how he is able to perform a puppet opera with his eyes closed, Snyder — who, seven years after the death of his mentor, still refers to William Fosser as "Mr. Fosser" — gasped: "It's a bad habit! I know! I didn't know I was doing that! Not until someone took a picture of me backstage during a show! I've thought about why I do it, though. I think it's because, when I squint, when I catch a peek during an aria or something, I imagine a real person. The puppet kind of disappears and I see a person, inside a real opera."
To be honest, that he closes his eyes and performs smoothly for hours this way, it isn't even the damnedest thing here. The damnedest thing is that Opera in Focus, Chicagoland's premiere puppet opera, exists at all.
Barry Southerland, whose known Snyder since high school and been a Opera in Focus puppeteer since 2006, said: "The first time I saw all this, I've got to say, it was the craziest (expletive) (expletive) I had ever seen." Anthony Satoh, a 45-year old computer programmer from Schaumburg who's been making the costumes since last summer, told me: "Like everyone else, I was skeptical at first. 'Really? A puppet opera? In Rolling Meadows? In a government basement? With its own tiny theater? Seriously? How good could this be?' Actually, pretty damn good."
Though when I asked Blair Thomas, of the Blair Thomas & Co puppet theater — and co-founder of the 23-year old avant garde Redmoon puppet theater on West Hubbard Street — if he had ever seen Opera in Focus, he said no he had not. He knew of it and had heard about it for years. If a phone receiver could snicker, then mine snickered: "Puppet opera is an old, traditional form of puppetry," he said, "and while it's great to see someone do this, in the suburbs, I don't think I need to see it, I can imagine it — is it kitsch?"
Yes, and no.
But it is wonderful.
My first puppet opera went well.
Opera in Focus performs twice a week, Saturday afternoons and Wednesday afternoons. I attended on a Saturday in November. It felt like a surprise containing a surprise: You take an elevator to the theater, to the basement of the Rolling Meadows park district building. There are you are greeted by marble columns, a fancy-shmancy lamp and some opera posters. Then you move into the performance space, a black-box theater with a remarkable tiny stage. Though the name of the company, "Opera in Focus," comes from Fosser's desire to have a stage resembling a camera lens, a microscope might have been closer to what he meant: Beneath a red proscenium — and its oddly defensive inscription, "Not Only For Amusement" — the stage is ringed with a second, semi-circular proscenium, interlocking arches, drawing you to the tiny actors.
A puppet maestro emerged from the pit.
Then curtains parted, then a parade of puppets performed scenes from "Faust," from "Boris Godunov," then — and Opera in Focus stretches the definition of opera, veering often into Broadway and movie musicals — several numbers from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera," show-stopping grandiosities featuring out-of-control miniature chandeliers and a miniature boat ride through the bowels of a miniature opera house. The music was original cast recordings; and the puppets, of the stiff, tight-lipped "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" variety, dashed, sobbed and boasted. The audience oohed and aahed at the craftsmanship.
An elderly couple beside me leaned in during intermission: They wanted to know, Had I seen this at the Kungsholm Restaurant on Ontario? Opera in Focus began there, they reminded me, in the 1940s. I said that I hadn't, that the restaurant had closed in 1971, and besides, for decades after, until settling in Rolling Meadows in 1993, the Opera was nomadic. They said, it's still delightful, but at Kungsholm, it was special.
My second puppet opera was several months later, on a Wednesday afternoon. Before it began, I stood with Snyder at a podium on the ground floor of the park district building. Slowly, audience trickled in and Snyder took reservations. They wore Members Only jackets and baseball hats commemorating World War II platoons; they were all mostly elderly and entirely smitten with their memories of the Kungsholm.
"Hello!" Snyder bellowed to each new group. "You found us! Thank you!"
He told them he would give them a backstage tour after the show and each time, they were floored by the gesture. They asked if he was a relative of Bill Fosser, and he said, again and again, "Not a blood relative." As they told their memories of Fosser, he folded his hands at his chin and nodded, happy and wide-eyed.
Snyder is 31. He serves as the company's artistic director. He is, as several people story put it, an old soul, far more comfortable with old people than young. He has a sing-songy voice and grew up in the southwest suburbs, where he still lives, in a trailer with his mother and his bother, Shayne, who is 32 and serves as both a company puppeteer and its principal builder of new puppets and sets. The Snyders look almost identical, with large dark eyes, stringy hair and the gaunt faces you see in old Civil War photographs.
Fosser was so thrilled to have young blood willing to learn puppetry that less than a week after Justin started, he was performing. They started him with "South Pacific." He says now: "I remember that I was very nervous but that I had found a place where I belonged." After Fosser died, the brothers took the company's mission to heart and vowed never to quit. Shayne, who works in a toy warehouse, commutes an hour to Rolling Meadows, twice a week; and Justin, who works as a monument carver on the southwest side, takes the train in, often arriving coated in a layer of chipped stone and dust. Looking homeless, he adds. The other day, on the train, he fell asleep and when he woke, someone had covered him in a blanket of newspapers.
But they have earned the respect of the small, cloistered world of puppeteers: Dave Herzog, the Great Lakes regional director of the Puppeteers of America, said, "It's kind of amazing, how these two young guys have taken it upon themselves to literally preserve a man's lifelong work. And not only preserve, but enrich it." Chuck Voight, of the Wisconsin Puppetry Guild, said Opera in Focus is magical and unique; he seemed genuinely delighted to know it was still going. In fact, the Chicago Puppetry Guild holds meetings in the small Rolling Meadows theater. However, Justin said: "They do get sad. You hear a lot about video games and rap music and how puppets just don't have the same place in children's hearts that they once did."
It was nearing showtime.
The lobby was empty. Off duty, Snyder stood at his podium a bit longer, on the off-chance someone did order tickets and would walk in to buy a ticket to a puppet opera on a Wednesday afternoon. Wednesdays are slower than Saturdays: About 30 people had bought tickets, and the theater seats 65. So we stood in silence for a minute or two, then Snyder checked his watch and walked across the hall to the park district office. He dropped a stack of unused programs on the front desk and shouted, "OK, doing the show now ..."
Bernadette Zeppetello in HR looked up and she said offhandedly, "Great, have fun..."
Puppet operas were huge once. Centuries ago, in Europe. Also, in Chicago in the 1950s. Said Kenneth Gross, a professor of English at the University of Rochester and author of a 2011 appreciation, "Puppets: An Essay on Uncanny Life": "A company like this is not as odd as it sounds. People have been doing opera with puppets since the 16th century. They were popular at street fairs. Which is where we get Punch and Judy. They were popular satire, politically charged. Though not high culture. Still, I think puppet opera works because when you come down to it, extreme human voices being pipped through caricatures? It fits opera."
Chicago, of course, has a long history of TV puppetry, notably Kukla, Fran and Ollie. But Opera in Focus' history is longer. It began with the Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera in the early '40s, starting in the fourth-floor ballroom of the Kungsholm, a Swedish restaurant that once dominated the old McCormick Mansion on Ontario Street (now Lawry's steak house). Fosser, who began working at the restaurant at 14, "decided the Kungsholm puppets could be taken further technically," Herzog said. "They crude wire-frame things, just heads and feet and some cloth draped over." So he designed his own, molding the heads and bodies and devising a control system of rods and pulleys. Fosser also thought the Kungsholm's tradition of staging full operas, hours long, was insane: So Opera in Focus, created in the late 1950s, was focused on scenes.
When the restaurant closed in 1971, Opera in Focus bounced around, from restaurants, to the Museum of Science and Industry, to Niles College. Fosser became a well-regarded set designer for Chicago-based film productions — his credits include "Groundhog Day," "Home Alone" and "A League of Their Own" — but he would have "done puppets entirely if he could have made a living at it," his brother Tom Fosser said. In fact, Fosser never stopped looking for a permanent home for his puppets. By the time he settled into Rolling Meadows in 1993, he had dozens of hand-made puppets and a repertory of more than 100 scenes. But he died in 2006 at 77; then Paul Guerra, his right hand man since Kungsholm, died a year later at 63. William Harder, who was with the company for 12 years, said: "I think Bill expected this thing of his to go on and on. He would never talk about the end of Opera in Focus, only the future." Then three years ago, Harder retired.
So the company, as stipulated in Fosser's will, fell to the Snyders.
Leo Rizetto, 81, a longtime fan of the company, told me: "I worry. I worry as time marches on and the connection with Kungsholm fades, as memories fade, I worry nostalgia will not be enough to keep it going." Amy Charlesworth, director of Rolling Meadows' parks and recreation department, worried, too: "When Bill Fosser died, I wondered how it could go on, and how seriously an older generation would take the Snyder's. Then one day I saw Justin talking (to an audience). He was warm and so true to Bill. I never worried again."
Though maybe she should.
After a major rain in 2011, the theater flooded, and though none of the puppets or sets were damaged, the park district had to reinforce the basement. Opera in Focus lost an entire season and more than a dozen programs of shows — and just after WTTW's "Chicago Tonight" had shot a lovely segment and interest was perking up. And yet: Fosser had worked a deal with the park district before he died. If they wanted to move, they could go at any time, and if the park district wanted them out, they would have to leave, and that's about the extent of it. The company does not pay rent, and though 45 percent of its proceeds go to the park district, the park district takes reservations for the company. A while ago, Rolling Meadows also helped Opera in Focus land a modest grant from the Illinois Arts Council. But the company has not applied for a grant since, Justin said, and whatever it does earn from ticket sales, tends to go into the next production.
On the plus side, they started a subscription program. On the minus side, they have six subscribers.
So perhaps it's fitting that the theater doubles as the park district's tornado shelter. Or that, just before Wednesday performance I found Shayne and puppeteers Barry Southerland and Leilani Barzyk — who, in her fifth season, is the newest member — slouched in the concrete basement stairwell, reading their cellphones and waiting for Justin. "OK, guys, ready?" he shouted. "Let's give the public what they want!"
During the show, the company moved silently and efficiently, the wheels of their low chairs shushing past; they nodded to each other in passing, taking every job once, moving wordlessly from puppeteer to sound. Backstage resembled backstage at any theater, but in miniature, the tiny lights with tiny scrims, tiny ropes tied to tiny props waiting in the tiny rafters, tiny costumes awaiting tiny actors. It also resembles the mess of cables behind a home entertainment center. "The first time they showed me how it works," Barzyk said, "I was beyond intimidated, but then you learn, and to get everything that fluid, from the stage to the character movements, it's just practice. We're here until two in the morning, going over cues and fine-tuning shows."
After the performance, Justin stepped before the audience. He invited them backstage; he said, if they can get 30 people together, he'll do a show, any time or day and (indeed, by request, they have performed at 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.). He listened to suggestions for new scenes; lately, "Pink Floyd's The Wall" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" have been frequent requests, but Justin wants to stay mindful of his regulars.
He also wants to stay mindful of Fosser.
Herzog said that Fosser, late in life, told him, "Dave, God sent me these boys." But the Snyder brothers said that Fosser, while he was alive, never once said he was preparing them to continue his odd work. The closest he came was the time he said, if Opera in Focus were to stop, to become defunct, he wanted them to burn everything, the puppets, the sets, the clothing — he would rather that the puppets be destroyed than sit on a shelf somewhere and gather dust. "The truth is, though," Shayne said, "we could never do that."
If they stop, this stops.
Opera in Focus
When: 4 p.m. Wednesdays, 1:30 p.m. Saturdays
Where: 3000 Central Rd., Rolling Meadows
Tickets: $12 (Seniors $11, Children $7); operainfocus.com
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