Ghost Opera brings the dead to life through puppetry

A haunting tale based on ancient Greek myths is getting retold in an entirely new way, through a first-time collaboration between The Old Trout Puppet Workshop and the Calgary Opera Company.

'You can stretch puppetry past the limitations of human mortals,' says co-director Peter Balkwill

Old Trout's latest production Ghost Opera took inspiration from Greek myth. (Jason Stang Photography)

A haunting tale based on ancient Greek myth is getting retold in an entirely new way, through a first-time collaboration between The Old Trout Puppet Workshop and the Calgary Opera Company.

Ghost Opera had its world premiere at the Banff Centre on Saturday, and will run from May 29 to June 8 at The Grand in Calgary.

Puppet master Peter Balkwill, who co-directed the production, and conductor Kimberly Bartczak, of the Calgary Opera Company, joined the Homestretch to chat about the production.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is Ghost Opera all about?

Peter Balkwill: On the surface, it's a story about a woman who doesn't want to let go of her earthly possessions. She wants to cheat death in some way.

She is extinguished by nefarious means and she becomes a ghost and she starts to haunt her house.

In a way, you're sort of watching antiquity lurch itself into life.-Peter Balkwill, puppeteer

Initially, she finds great joy in the fact she doesn't have to leave her house. But then, intruders come into her house — you know, people buy it and try to move in — and she haunts them in a very operatic way. 

And then, along comes an ancient philosopher who isn't afraid of ghosts. Her existence scrambles his own beliefs.

Q: Good synopsis. How did Calgary Opera get involved?

Kimberly Bartczak: So the Old Trout actually approached Calgary Opera two years ago with the composer Veronika Krausas, who's actually from Calgary, and the librettist [Giller Prize-winning author] Andre Alexis.

So Calgary Opera actually has an emerging artists program, and every year they try and do a showcase for the emerging artist. When they approached Calgary Opera the company really thought this would be a great exposure for the emerging artists, it would also be a great opportunity for them to be doing contemporary music. 

Calgary Opera is known for doing a lot of new works … so it's really just kind of one of their mandates to always produce new works.

So it really just made sense for the Trouts and the Calgary Opera to come together.

Q: Is it more challenging to do brand new works?

Bartczak: Oh, I think so! There's no previous recordings, the composer sometimes is in rehearsals changing music on the spot, so the singers, musicians sometimes have to just … mold themselves into this new work. 

But at the same time it's really exciting, because you get to be the first one to say "I've done this. I'm on that recording."

Q: For those who aren't familiar, these aren't your typical hand puppets. These aren't marionettes. Can you describe the puppets you've created for this show?

Balkwill: We went with more of a life-sized, scale puppet, which is kind of interesting, and it integrates into the puppeteer's body. 

You know, the Old Trouts since the inception have kind of played with the idea of exposing the puppeteer in interesting ways. 

And in this particular case, aesthetically, we wanted to reach toward a classical sculpture form, like these things have been hewn out of marble.

So in a way, you're sort of watching antiquity lurch itself into life.

Q: What is the secret in convincing the audience to look past the performer, which they will see on stage, and focus on the puppet?

Balkwill: Well, it's all about that. It's all about focus. The puppeteers focus on the puppets, we get the singers to focus on the puppets.

The focus of our attention is actually an extension of our energy toward something … the audience is going to focus on the puppet. So everyone is working together to give this inanimate object a sense of life. 

Q: Puppets, they're interesting to work with I imagine, because you can get them to do things you can't with people. Are they easier to work with than people?

Balkwill: Not necessarily. They break a lot. And they don't necessarily operate the way you thought they would in theory. 

They put you into the most ridiculous physical positions. 

[But] you can stretch puppetry past the limitations of human mortals. 

Q: Kim, you've worked with all kinds of famous operas. What stands out about the music with this one?

Bartczak: What's interesting about the music is it really shows the story. We have these ghost motifs, there's one scene where she's levitating things and you can really hear it in the music.

The orchestration itself, there's a huge percussion portion. There's a utensil chime. There's six tom-toms. You can really hear that story being told.

With files from the Homestretch


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