Most of us think we know the story of The Sleeping Beauty. The fairytale has its roots all the way back in the 14th century, and has been imagined and reimagined time and again, perhaps most famously in Disney’s 1959 animated film.
But within this fairytale about a sleeping young princess waiting for true love’s first kiss lies a dormant, dark heart, which Victorian Opera are seeking to excavate in their new production of Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s 1922 operatic version of the story.
Respighi initially wrote the opera for a Roman marionette theatre, in which the orchestra and singers performed in the pit, while marionette puppets brought the story to life on stage.
Victorian Opera’s new production, which premieres this week at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, puts its singers on stage alongside a series of larger-than-life puppets designed by Joe Blanck, who has previously worked on large-scale shows such as King Kong and Walking with Dinosaurs.
“Sleeping Beauty is not your typical love story,” Blanck says. “It’s more about the tragedy, and how people deal with that. Those are the things we’re trying to bring to the surface of the story.”
Director Nancy Black has conceived a production which sees a group of people joining together to tell a story after some kind of traumatic event. They conjure up the tale of Sleeping Beauty out of thin air.
“We’ve kind of left it open to interpretation, creating a community of people come together — whether they’re poor or refugees or something else, it’s not really said,” Blanck says.
“That happens at so many events, whether it be at a funeral, or in the aftermath of something else entirely — people come together and tell stories.”
Altogether, Blanck has designed 27 puppets, which will be operated by a small troupe of puppeteers as well as the cast of opera singers.
“Working on a large stage, we wanted to make these puppets as big and grand as possible, so you can see the facial expressions and feel for the characters.”
“The characters are quite dark and strange, and a little bit creepy, but kids love that. We’ve tried to create an original look and feel for an old classic, and looking to a younger audience than what’s normal for the opera.”
Blanck’s designs are closely inspired by Japanese animation, particularly the works of Hayao Miyazaki, the man behind Studio Ghibli. There are also influences in the set design and puppetry from Danish Illustrator Kay Nielsen.
But Blanck says the designs have to be, first and foremost, practical and able to be fulfil a wide variety of purposes.
“The puppets needed to be handed around, swapped and hidden quite quickly — we couldn’t have any big costume changes or any puppets you needed to strap into.”
Unlike his work on King Kong or Walking with Dinosaurs, Blanck has been involved in the design, build and rehearsal process, shaping and refining the puppets as the singers and puppeteers discover their functionality.
“Two days into the rehearsals, the performers were doing things I hadn’t thought of or hadn’t even built the puppet to do. But that’s a good thing — just somebody looking at a puppet differently.”