Miniature Storytellers Suburban Puppet Theater Group Does Opera with No Strings Attached
Gowen, Bill, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Bill Gowen Daily Herald Classical Music Critic
Combine a love for music with the gift for showmanship, and you have the passion seen in every performance of Opera in Focus by its founder, William B. Fosser.
Since December 1993 Fosser's award-winning puppet opera theater has been offering a unique brand of entertainment that blends classical music and puppetry.
Do you want to see and hear the immortal Rise Stevens perform the "Habanera" from Bizet's "Carmen?" Or baritone Robert Merrill sing the "Toreador Song" from the same opera?
Visit Opera in Focus between now and April 7 and you'll have that opportunity. Only in this case, Rise Stevens and Robert Merrill are 16 inches tall, wearing authentic costumes and performing roles that made them famous four to five decades ago.
Fosser, who worked as art director of the former Wilding film studios in Chicago, decided in 1957 to produce his own version of one of the oldest performing art forms - puppet opera, a tradition that dates back centuries - first in a storefront operation on Argyle Street on Chicago's North side.
"I was looking for a home for it, and it took many, many years for that to finally happen," Fosser recalled. "There were some false starts, and well, you just keep plugging away."
Fosser's Opera in Focus is an outgrowth of a Chicago tradition that dates back to 1930 with opera enthusiast Ernest Wolf, who built a miniature opera theater in his home. He and his family designed a puppet that was operated not by strings from above, but one that moved about on a miniature stage in slots, operated from below by puppeteers using wires.
"I do build the puppets myself, although I have the metalwork done elsewhere," Fosser said. "But as far as the carving of the puppets and all of that, that I do myself. And I design the scenery, which goes back to my days as a motion picture art director and set decorator."
Fosser and the opera puppet theater concept converged at The Kungsholm, a Scandinavian restaurant on Chicago's Near North side, which first hosted Ernest Wolf's miniature opera theater in 1941 after the show had proven a big success at the New York World's Fair of 1939-40 under the sponsorship of the Victor Recording Company (a predecessor of RCA Victor).
Fosser, then 14, first worked at The Kungsholm in 1943, and 20 years later he became its artistic director.
"I was involved with The Kungsholm off and on for several years," Fosser said. "And I met a lad there 38 years ago - Paul Guerra - and he and I have been doing puppet opera ever since 1964."
Guerra, the stage director and principal puppeteer, also designs and builds detailed costumes used in the show.
This truly collaborative effort also features several other major artistic and technical contributors.
Will Harder, another master puppeteer, who manipulates the conductor-puppet "Tosci" (modeled after Arturo Toscanini) during performances, also directs lighting and sound effects, including rear-screen projections.
"Will was the first person I met working in the movies," Fosser said. "He is an expert in audio-visual, taught for a while at Columbia College and ran a division for Fred Niles Studios for many years. He's semi-retired and he joined us. He does all our lighting, graphics and so forth."
Other members of the creative team include puppeteer Leslie Foster, narrator Tony Mockus and sound designer Daniel P. Anderson.
Fosser is currently on the lookout for an apprentice puppeteer to join the Opera in Focus company.
"We'd like to find a young man who is dedicated, not afraid to work odd hours and earn little money," Fosser said. "We had a young man who joined us at age 12 and stayed with us until he was 19. But he decided to settle down and maybe raise a family. It was just time to move on."
The road to Opera in Focus' home at the Rolling Meadows Park District was filled with plenty of twists and turns . …