Putting on miniature musicals in Chicago

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, November 7th. We appreciate your tuning in to WORLD Radio to start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next:  puppets and opera. In a small basement theater just outside Chicago, a unique opera company’s been delighting audiences for nearly forty years.

It’s run by a group of puppeteers determined to continue the legacy of the show’s creator. WORLD Radio intern John Vence has their story.

OPERA AMBI: Lot 6-6-6 then. A chandelier in pieces. Some of you may recall the strange affair of the Phantom of the Opera. A mystery…

JOHN VENCE, REPORTER: You could call it a puppet show. But that doesn’t quite convey what happens here in the western Chicago suburbs. For the past three and a half decades, these puppets have graced a stage no bigger a dinner table, performing shows like: The Phantom of the Opera

OPERA AMBI: For I compose the music of the night…

Lara Rose is the newest puppeteer to join the crew. She started about six months ago.

LARA: And I feel so lucky to demonstrate on Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors today ‘cause he’s pretty cool… 

She demonstrates how she uses a series of rings and wires to make the puppets make little gestures and move around the stage.

LARA: You can also turn the head side to side. So you move his head up and down and make him talk. You could make them walk. I don’t know if you can hear that… 

When you watch this onstage, it’s easy to forget about the real humans manipulating the puppets from below. Justin Snyder, the lead puppeteer, says that’s kind of the point. Even he sometimes forgets the puppets aren’t real. 

JUSTIN: So you have these moments that are almost jarring, or kind of creepy. I totally forgot that I was doing that. I almost feel like I’m just watching a character that’s actually just living. You forget that you’re doing it… 

Justin and his brother, Shayne, joined the team in 2000. The program’s creator, William Fosser, taught them everything he knew. They learned how to puppeteer, how to build sets, how to make 16-inch tall, 4-pound inanimate objects seemingly come to life. 

Twenty years later, they’re still at work. Along with a small crew, Justin plans the shows and Shane makes the puppets. Together, they’re devoted to perpetuating the dream Fosser had over eight decades ago. 

JUSTIN: That has to do with Bill you know, because he really instilled in all of us his love for this craft. It was, it was infectious. It was contagious when you were around bill and you saw how passionate he was about this stuff…

In 1935, Fosser’s aunt bought him his first puppet, and then later took him to his first opera. After that, he developed an obsession. To him, it was the ultimate art form: music, dance, poetry, sculpture, acting, language, all rolled into one. 

And so, 50 years later, Fosser opened the doors of Opera in Focus in 1985. He put on shows every week, and always invited the audience backstage after the show. Here he is in 1999: 

Fosser: She’s from an Opera called La Rondine. She’s a very very very haughty lady. It would be nice if I had four arms. Wouldn’t it. [LAUGHTER] Then I’d have four hands and I could make them do things nobody else could ever, ever do. 

Fosser worked on the show almost every single day. Even after two battles of cancer left him with just a quarter of his right lung. 

JUSTIN: He still came here every day. He still performed, he climbed the ladders. He’d be up and off of the little stool so we all sort of took for granted that he was immortal. 

Bill Fosser died in 2006 from congestive heart failure. He was buried in his company uniform and the Puppeteers of America Lifetime Achievement award he had won the year before. He also requested that his two favorite puppets be placed next to his casket during the funeral. 

JUSTIN: And um, yeah, it was hard coming back after that, after he passed. But we, we promised him we would do it, we’d promised them we’d try. 

Fulfilling Fosser’s dream hasn’t been easy. He was very particular about how the company would operate. For example, he really disliked Mozart, and so they’ve refused to perform anything related to Mozart’s. 

JUSTIN: It would be very popular if we did like the magic flute here. We would sell a lot of tickets. But this is not Justin Snyder’s Opera in Focus, it’s William B Fosser’s Opera in Focus. And so even though Bill’s been gone all these years, we still do things the way that Bill would have wanted them done.

From turning down television publicity, to rejecting certain performance requests—if it doesn’t reflect Fosser’s vision, they don’t do it. And the crew rejects any idea of a museum exhibition that could preserve Fosser’s work. 

That’s because Fosser’s biggest fear was that his puppets would end up in a museum, that they’d be trapped behind glass and propped up on pedestals, unable to perform the way they had been since 1985.  

JUSTIN: Specifically what he said was they’re like musical instruments. And if they’re not being used to perform the purpose that they were created for, which is to perform, then why are we keeping them? 

In fact, Fosser was so afraid of this happening that he made the Snyder brothers promise that, if the puppet opera ever closed down, they would destroy everything. Every tiny prop, every miniature backdrop, and every single puppet. 

Justin says they’re not going to let that happen. 

JUSTIN: These puppets to us are like family members. So the idea of like taking a puppet and throwing it in the garbage is like taking my grandma and I’m like throwing her in a dumpster, you know, like that’s not gonna happen, you know? As long as we have an audience, we will be performing and will be performing the art form exactly as Bill trained us to perform it.

OPERA AMBI: Music of the Night Finale

For WORLD Radio, I’m John Vence reporting from Chicago, Illinois.

Justin Snyder works with a puppet (Photo by John Vence)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

Like this story?

To hear a lot more like it, subscribe to The World and Everything in It via iTunes, Overcast, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts.







Pocket Casts

(Requires a fee)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.