August 26, 2012

Puppet opera in Chicago: Kungsholm memories

Exterior of the Kungsholm, on a program cover
I'll tell you right now: I had a ball growing up in the Chicago area.  From the base of my lakefront home in Evanston, I got to do a lot of cool things in and around Chi-town during the 1960's, including:
· hearing inspiring recitals by the world's greatest pianists at Orchestra Hall;
· exploring the Art Institute, especially my favorite museum feature of all time: the Thorne Rooms;
· seeing Andre Dawson complete a Cubs win in Wrigley field by making a rocket of a throw from right field, nailing the potential tying run at the plate for the final out (this was on a return visit as an adult, but still...);
· attending the largest (at that time) high school in the United States, Evanston Township High School;
· seeing Luciano Pavarotti as Nemorino live onstage at Lyric Opera, and marveling at his surprising physical grace (he was still young) and the amazing musical line of his "Una furtiva lagrima";
· experiencing Beverly Sills and John Alexander wowing the crowd in a concert performance of Traviata at the Ravinia festival;
· lolling in the grass during splendid nights of music at Grant Park downtown...
...and dozens more I could list.  But none of those count as my favorite Chicago entertainment of all time.

For that, we must make a pilgrimage to a bygone era of Chicago history when elaborate productions of puppet opera at the Kungsholm provided the public with truly magical evenings of food, music and a child-like sense of wonder.

Before you Chicagoans go all jiggy on me with objections to the word "bygone", yes, yes, yes, I know all about the Opera In Focus puppet theater currently operating in Rolling Meadows.  In fact, I am indebted to Justin Snyder of Opera In Focus for his gracious assistance in providing me with the photos accompanying this piece, as well as some invaluable background information. For it is Justin and his colleagues who have continued the tradition of puppet opera in Chicagoland.

But I'm no longer a Chicagoan (at least in terms of legal residence) and have never set foot in Rolling Meadows.  I was, however, still in school during the heyday of the original Kungsholm and my memories, as partially faded as they are, still warrant a trip down, er, "Faded-memory Lane".

So travel back in time with me to the 1960's, to a converted mansion at the corner of Rush and Ontario streets just off Chicago's famed "Magnificent Mile", and let's spend a few minutes re-living the best evening money could buy in the Second City: dinner, and a performance of Tosca for the ages. 

The building (the McCormick Mansion in a former life) consists of an entryway or foyer separating two wings of the Kungshom complex: a restaurant to your left and a theater to your right.  Two large flags, one Swedish, one American, greet us above the entrance. We're just in time for a pre-opera dinner, all included in the ticket price, so we turn left and enter a large dining room dominated in the center by a long, long smorgasboard groaning with authentic Scandinavian cuisine.  Of course we can expect a bounty of traditional seafood dishes including the inevitable herring.  Not my thing, but help yourself. Hot entrees often include Veal Oscar - now we're talkin'!  There will be cheeses and dessert; the latter is what I remember most vividly.  I have spent the ensuing forty-five years trying to find lingonberry pie, a delicacy made of one of Sweden's national fruits: the delicate, tart, red lingonberry.  The pie was lusciously tart-sweet and I've never had a piece of it since then.

Dinner is over (yes, I did have a second piece of pie - what's it to you?) and it's time for the main event of the evening.  We exit the dining room and cross through the foyer into the other half of the complex.  Behold: we find ourselves in a scale model miniature replica of the Royal Opera House in Stockholm.  It's beautiful! And... tiny! How many does it seat? 50? 100? I'm no longer sure, but in my mind's eye we're now comfortably settled into our plush box seats where we regard a curtained stage.  Beneath is an orchestra pit in which we see puppets holding various tiny instruments.  These are not marionettes; there are no strings in sight. Nor are they mere sock puppets. Rather, they are little dolls, each in a tuxedo or dress, seated in chairs, holding little violins, awaiting -- what?

A craftsman puts finishing touches on a Kungsholm puppet

The lights dim, a hush settles over the audience, and a puppet conductor makes his way to the podium, turns to us and bows.  Feeling a little self-conscious, we play along with some tepid applause.  I mean, it's just a puppet, right?  Feels a little dumb, but that's okay.  We must get into the spirit of the thing. 

Our wee Maestro turns to his band; he gives a downbeat, and each little string player begins sawing rhythmically with his bow as the music begins, discreetly piped in over speakers from a recording. The curtains part, and we are in the interior of San Andrea delle Valle: Act I of Puccini's Tosca has begun.  My teen-aged ears, already familiar with standard recordings, tells me we're listening to Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco as the ill-fated lovers.  I must say, the craftsmanship and skill of the puppeteers is astounding.  It turns out that they are out of sight under the stage, each one operating his individual puppet via magnets.  They are able to convey amazingly effective nuances of body language in manipulating their Scarpia, Cavaradossi and Tosca.

Here's the most amazing aspect of our night at the Kungsholm. At some point during the show, a miracle happens: all of us in attendance set aside our disbelief and begin to buy into the drama.  It's no longer a mere "puppet show"; rather, an alchemy born of the artful construction of the dolls, their colorful costumes, the amazing stagecraft of those behind the scenes and (perhaps most of all) the power of Puccini's music has cast a spell on us.

It's Grand Opera, baby. I have to think the composer himself would be having a good time.

By the time the miniature firing squad has taken aim at our miniature tenor and Tosca has flung herself off the Castel Sant'Angelo, the audience is on its feet.  You'd think this was opening night at the Lyric Opera of Chicago a few streets over.

Are there curtain calls?  Well of course, silly, isn't that one of the best parts of any opera?  And out come the puppets to receive the adulation of we, their cheering fans.  When the prima donna puppet takes the stage for her oh-so-elegant curtsey, we shout ourselves hoarse as if it was the real Tebaldi greeting us.  We don’t feel foolish any more!
Cutaway depicting stage operation.

I'm sorry now that I made just two visits to the Kungsholm during that period of my life; I should have gone every season.  One Tosca and one Kismet, in which a big flying horse descended from the ceiling and flew in circles over our heads, comprise my total experience of puppet opera.

I'm told that today a steak house occupies the building at Rush and Ontario.  The Kungsholm was a family enterprise, operated by Frederick Chramer beginning in the 1940's.  Puppet opera in Chicago had originated years earlier as the brainchild of one Ernest Wolff, who later took Chramer to court for having "stolen" his idea when Wolff was called to action in World War II.  But it was Chramer's enterprise which became a Chicago landmark.

Chramer's failing health led to new ownership and a steady decline in both quality and profitability during the late '60's until the doors closed for good on the Kungsholm.  Many of the puppets, works of art in their own right, went on display at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Happily, through the efforts of Justin Snyder, his brother Shayne and their late mentor Bill Fosser, the sheer fun of puppet opera is still available to those who seek it.  I wish them well.  I hope to catch a show someday if my travels take me back to my home town.  True, it's not the glamour of the hustle and bustle of downtown Chicago, but magic can happen anywhere for those who are open to it.  I have only one question:

By any chance, is there lingonberry pie?

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020.


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