In a small theater in the basement of a nondescript park-district building
in Rolling Meadows, a bit of magic takes place three times a week. On an
ornate crimson and gold stage, the gossamer cutain parts and the maestro takes
a bow, raising his baton and conducting an unseen orchestra in the overture.
The audience oohs and aahs as the stars appear, exquisitely costumed, traversing
the eye-catching set, gesturing, kneeling, turning and bowing as they act
out scenes from such works as Puccini's Turandot, Porgy and Bess,
and South Pacific.
It could be a performance at the Lyric or Ravinia, except that the
stage is only five feet wide by two feet deep, the stars are 16 inches tall,
and their voices come from recordings of legendary singers such as Ezio Pinza,
Luciano Pavarotti and Leontyne Price. They move along tracks cut into the
floor of the stage, their choreographed movements controlled from below by
puppeteers with wires attached to their fingers who scoot along on specially
designed rolling chairs a few inches off the ground, soundlessly singing along
as they keep the puppets in synch with the music.
Opera in Focus is the realization of a lifelong dream for Chicagoan Bill
Fosser, 73, who built a successful career as a set designer for stage and
screen but always clung to his first love - puppet opera. Fosser traces
his interest back almost seven decades, to age 5, when an aunt took him downtown
and let him pick out three puppets as a Christmas gift. He delighted in the
toys, which provided him with hours of amusement while he was confined to
the house with asthma. When he was 7, his cousins took him to his first opera.
He still remembers that night: "We were way up in the balcony, but one of
the things that was so impressive was that the curtain would go down and
come up again, and here was a whole different place, with different people
in it. You can't tell why a child responds to something like that, but I
flipped. I came home and started building stages and reading about opera."
Fosser wasn't a great student, so the nuns at his parochial elementary
school made him come in for Saturday tutoring, where he discovered a Victrola
and a collection of classical recordings. His math skills didn't improve,
but his musical education did. About that time, the Metropolitan Opera began
radio broadcasts, and Fosser decided to combine his passions for puppets and
music. He built a miniature opera house with a velvet curtain and his father
helped him create a plywood floor with slots so he could move figures mounted
on a rod from beneath the stage. Still, Fosser wasn't satisfied.
"I took a marionette apart and I stared staring
at it thinldng, How could I make you move more? One of the things I wanted
was that the puppet could move around through foliage or go through French
doors because already I was bitten by the scenic design bug. So I sat in
the basement and carved and sanded. 1 remember being thrilled when I would
get a pelvis done."
Over time, he assembled a cast of characters, and produced his first
puppet opera, Tosca.
When he was 14, he read an article about
the puppet opera at the Kungsholm restaurant at Rush and Ontario, which had
opened two years earlier. He took one of his puppets and a chandelier he
had created for a set and talked his way into a job as a stagehand.
"My first night was La Boheme,
and I was moved out of my mind
just to sit and listen to that music. Then I heard Madama Butterfly
and it was just one great singer after another"
Concerned that his work at the Kungsholm was interfering with his high-school
studies, his parents made him quit the job. Then a fire destroyed the Kungshohn
in 1947. When the owner, Frederick Chramer, rebuilt the restaurant and puppet
theater in 1950, he asked Fosser, who by then was working in window design,
to return. He stayed for three years until, in search of a better-paying
job, he got involved in commercial film and became a set designer. He also
kept working on his own puppets. He gave the first performance of Opera in
Focus, by invitation only, in a rented storefront in 1958, but he lacked the
money to run a theater. He tried and failed to get a puppet opera going at
a Detroit restaurant in the early 1960s, and he returned to the Kungsholm
as artistic director from 1963-66. (The Kungsholm closed in 1971.) He
also produced a short-lived puppet opera at the now-defunct Magic Pan restaurant
in Chicago in the late 1970s.
While he struggled to get his puppet opera off the ground, Fosser's career
in set design took off. He worked on Home Alone, Backdraft, Ordinary
People, Music Box
and Groundhog Day,
as well as many television
movies and theater productions for the Candlelight, Ivanhoe, and Drury Lane
theaters. For 10 years he kept the puppets he had crafted in a seminary
at Touhy and Harlem, hoping to find a home where he could once again mount
That opportunity finally came in 1993, when the Rolling Meadows Chamber
of Commerce contacted him about moving into the new park-district building..
Fosser retired from the film industry ("I hated working in movies. It's
this great sense of impermanence," he says) and devoted all his energies
to Opera in Focus.
Over the years Fosser developed a philosophy about puppet opera. First,
keep it short - no more than one hour in length. And within that hour,
present two or three scenes from different operas or musicals to help hold
the audience's attention.
"When I was at the Kungsholm, we did entire operas," he says, "and I discovered
that a portion of the audience would always leave before it was over. I
might love opera, but that doesn't mean everyone does. And although
I am a devoted puppeteer, you have to face the reality that puppets can only
do so much. Ours are more sophisticated than those at the Kungsholm,
but you can only do so much and pretty soon people are going to say, 'I already
saw that.' Put those two things together and you realize that people
are not going to sit through whole performances. My mother said, 'You
want them to come back for more instead of saying, I'm glad that's over.'
That gave us the format we have here."
Fosser works today with two longtime friends. Will Harder, who met
Fosser in the late 1950's while both were working in commercial film, handles
the design and execution of the rear screen projections and manipulates the
conductor puppet named Tosci. Paul Guerra, who worked with Fosser at the
Kungsholm in the 1960s, serves as costume designer and principal puppeteer.
Fosser worries about what will happen to the puppet opera after he
is gone. After a long search, he recently hired a young musician and artist,
Justin Snyder, as a puppeteer. He harbors a faint hope that Snyder may
want to preserve puppet opera for the next generation. Otherwise, he
despairs over the fate of his collection of 75 puppets, each valued at about
$6000. He dreams of a philanthropist who would provide funding to perpetuate
the puppet opera, which now barely scrapes by on volunteer help, a small
grant from the Illinois Arts Council that covers administrative expenses,
and ticket sales that pay the rent and upkeep of the puppets. Otherwise,
he fears his beloved puppets will die with him.
"If we could find someone [to underwrite the opera], it would be a
blessing, but I don't think it 's going to happen. The end of it probably
- horrible as it sounds, and believe me it's hell coming to terms with it
- is to take it out and destroy it. Because if I die, who is going to
pay rent for storage? And if you store it, what are you storing it
Still, as long as he can, Fosser will keep on creating that bit of magic
that transforms a drab government building into an elegant opera house. When
the performances end, Fosser invites the audience backstage to see how the
puppets work. On a recent weekday, a group of senior citizens from a
Northwest Side church who filled the 65-seat theater are effusive in their
praise. Most mention memories of the Kungsholm. Many say they'll
be back. Fosser hopes they will bring their grandchildren.
"This is a tremendously good thing for kids," he says, lamenting the fact
that few children come to the performances. "They took me to the opera
when I was 7 and I went wild over it. Some youngsters will, and some
will be lukewarm. But this is a very inexpensive way to introduce them
to the opera. We sure would love to see more children and young adults."