Pulling strings. Salzburg marionettes in US tour

PAPAGENO and Papagena, holding hands, make their curtain call. The applause quickens. He takes a deep bow, she an elegant curtsy. The curtain falls again, and they are hurried off stage - the puppeteers controlling their movements breathe a sigh of relief, smile at each other, and hang up the marionettes until tomorrow night. Within minutes the 12 or so people who worked this performance of ``The Magic Flute'' disappear from the ``bridge'' (a scaffolding above the stage where the puppeteers stand). There is no one scurrying around with costumes, no one hastily removing makeup, no one settling into a dressing room with fans at the door.

Only Prof. Gretl Aicher, the director of the Salzburg Marionette Theater, stays late, tying up the details for the group's first American tour since 1970. She quietly hums to herself as she considers this evening's show.

What the audience witnessed was a near-perfect illusion - spellbinding scenes of Tamino's rescue from the dragon, Papageno's twittering birds flying about the stage, the Queen of the Night descending with the crescent moon - all a product of the skill of the puppeteers. Audience enthralled

The marionettes stand about two feet tall. They have expressive carved wooden faces and hands, and intricate and colorful costumes. When the lights dim and the prerecorded music begins, they come to life. The audience of adults and children - Salzburg natives, and Italian and American tourists at the performance I caught in Salzburg before the company embarked on its US tour - sits enthralled. Most have never seen marionettes do the things these do: fight with swords, waltz together, write with quill pens, drink and eat. Movements complicated

The dances that take place on the stage, though, are nothing compared with those on the bridge. Watching from above destroys the illusion, but it shows a different aspect of the performance. How incredibly complicated is each movement of the marionettes! The hands of the puppeteers seldom stop moving. If a marionette is to cross from one side of the stage to the other, the puppeteer must also cross from one side of the bridge to the other - letting go the strings with one hand, reaching around the person next to her, changing hands, reaching around the next person, and the next, all without interrupting the action.

During each performance there are tricky handoffs from one puppeteer to another. Sometimes one person operates two marionettes at once. But even if things seem chaotic behind the scenes, the audience never notices any of it.

Like actors, the puppeteers become the characters they play - they identify with their marionettes and delight in their movements. While their marionettes interact on the stage, they interact above the stage. During the courtship scene between Papageno and Papagena, for example, Ms. Aicher (Papageno) and Andy Jerfy (Papagena) whisper excitedly back and forth, laughing at each other's marionettes.

Most of the cast have made a lifetime commitment to the theater. Their virtuosity makes the craft look easy. It is not. It is an old tradition, but today there are only a few great marionette theaters left - besides the Salzburg company, the Obrasov Marionette Theater in the Soviet Union, and the Budapest National Puppet Theater. Initial performances

Aicher's grandfather, Prof. Anton Aicher, started this theater 75 years ago. The first performances were put on for friends and family, and out of this grew a company that employs about 20 people full time: puppeteers, set designers, costumers, wood carvers, and administrators.

Now Ms. Aicher is the driving force behind the theater, as well as the most skillful of its puppeteers. She grew up helping out in the theater, playing minor roles, gradually taking on more responsibility. A few years ago she took over for her father, Prof. Hermann Aicher, who had transformed the theater from a local event to one of world renown.

Does Ms. Aicher occasionally have nightmares about tangled strings? ``Of course there are always small crises behind the scenes,'' she says. ``But it's like playing an instrument. When you're a world-class pianist, you no longer worry about hitting the wrong notes. It's the same for us.

``To be able to perform at this level, you must completely master the technique. You also have to have an innate feel for it, just like any other craft, any other art form.'' The puppeteers have to know opera and acting - to make the illusion successful they always need to be a moment ahead of the action (and the sound recording). Even behind the scenes it's important to have a great deal of stage presence. Rightness of the medium

Marionettes bring a new dimension to opera, especially to a folk opera like ``The Magic Flute.'' When Tamino plays the the magic flute and the animals of the forest - an elephant, a pelican, two penguins, a giraffe, a flamingo, and a lion - gather around to listen, it seems that Mozart might have written his opera for just such a performance.

The repertoire of the Salzburg Marionette Theater includes 14 shows. On its United States tour it will offer ``The Magic Flute,'' ``The Barber of Seville,'' and ``The Nutcracker.''

Remaining tour dates are New York, Nov. 7-9; Boston, Nov. 11-13; Louisville, Ky., Nov. 15-17; Nashville, Nov. 18-20; Sarasota, Fla., Nov. 22-23; Fort Myers, Fla., Nov. 25-26; and Clearwater, Fla., Dec. 1-5.

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