Opera in Focus: Puppets and opera come together

Puppeteers at the Opera in Focus in Rolling Meadows move puppets using hand devices and tracks located underneath the stage floor on Feb. 27, 2013. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)

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.

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