Composing puppet opera - an interview with Ergo Phizmiz

Musician, writer and artist Ergo Phizmiz talks about his role as composer for the forthcoming puppet opera ‘Gala’, which focuses on the affair between Gala Dali (wife of surrealist artist Salvador) and the young actor Jeff Fenholt, then playing Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway.

As ‘Gala’ is specifically a puppet opera, did you approach this project differently to your previous compositions?

It’s a continuation for me as I’ve worked with puppet opera a few times before and my own productions have also incorporated a lot of primitive puppetry. I find puppets do lend a completely different air to the telling of a story, allowing for a different perspective. The music has to alter to fit with the puppetry.

'Gala' was originally going to be a very different piece as it was first envisaged as a piece for actors. I had pictured the music to be quite shrill but now, as a puppet opera, it has become almost a parody of or a reference to Venetian opera. It also bears similarities with 1940s Hollywood cinema as well, as a consequence of becoming a puppet opera – how or why I’m not sure!

Why do puppetry and opera fit so well together?

I think opera itself is quite detached from reality. It’s a completely unnatural, artificial way of presenting a story so I think in some ways, puppet opera is a natural extension of opera because it’s another step forward into artifice and into a much more stylised way of presenting or telling a story.

What initially appealed to you about the ‘Gala’ project?

In terms of the subject matter, it was fundamentally Gala’s character. She’s complex and quite unlikeable but she’s also magnetic, alluring, powerful and cruel. She has a lot of charm in a slightly sadistic way. She’s sexual, domineering and overall, a rich, complex character.

How has the collaborative process broadened this project for you?

When making music you can spend a lot of time in your own thoughts and in your own head, so to spend time collaborating is my preferred mode of working. I’m usually involved in having to solve logistical problems to do with staging but Isobel Smith (puppetry director) and Bill Bankes-Jones (director) just told me to go with my imagination and not to worry, so this collaboration became very liberating for me when writing the opera.

There is a machine of Salvador Dali in the opera, much like a fortune telling automaton, which Isobel is designing. The point is that I could actually write for this automaton to perform actions, such as when the machine draws an image that represents Dali’s final painting. I felt my imagination could be opened out a little more when writing because I didn’t need to worry about how actions such as this would be accomplished.

You also practise as a visual artist and create collages. Did this experience help when writing the opera, considering Gala Dali’s own involvement in the surrealist art world?

Yes definitely. I think with everything I do, I tend to work with visual ideas first. The initial visual idea for this was the Salvador Dali machine. Within theatre, the imagery tends to lead the sonic elements.

I have tried to avoid being led by Dali’s artwork – there are two small appearances in the play of simple, primitive pieces that Dali made – there’s a picture he made when he was in his early 20s called ‘Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of my Mother’ and the final painting he made, not long before he died, is featured at the end too.

I used these very simple line drawing pieces of Dali’s to frame the whole thing and he appears intermittently outside of the drama inside this machine. That said, I don’t want it to become a celebration of Dali’s work but to be more about the main two characters, Gala and Jesus Christ Superstar.

What instruments have you used to create the music for ‘Gala’?

I used a xylophone, a trombone and a violin. I did a session with some violinists and I also used cymbals and lots of bits and pieces from my workshop. I’ve been describing it as a slightly gone-off Baroque Disneyland. It’s quite lush and romantic but with a really sour topping! It also has a bit of tango in it and waltzes. The tango came into it because of a film made by Dali [‘Un Chien Andalou’, 1929] that he backed with Argentinean tangos.

I tend to use lots of references to melodies and pieces of other music to counter the story, so the music contains little phrases and pieces of other music that comment on what is happening – much in the way that the soundtrack to Loony Tunes cartoons used to!

Why do you believe the Tête à Tête opera festival is an important showcase?

It’s genuinely a very unpredictable festival and is full of surprises. There are not many festivals where you don’t know what it is you’re going to see from piece to piece – it offers such a broad representation of new work being presented. I think just the sheer volume of new work being presented there is impressive and it draws in quite a curious audience and that can be a difficult thing to do.

What advice would you offer to other composers hoping to work with puppetry?

I would say to do it! Go out and meet some puppeteers or make your own puppets. It’s a lovely medium. Puppetry is similar to the approach that it’s possible to have with radio, where you don’t have to think about making impossible scenes or landscapes because the imagination is left to play.

With puppetry, you don’t have to consider whether or not something is going to appear realistic or convincing because, in puppetry, there is always a way to tell stories. You can shrink them, you can expand them – there’s a much wider gamut of storytelling with puppetry.


‘Gala’ is co-produced by Puppet Centre and Tête à Tête, in association with Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.


"I’ve worked with puppet opera a few times before and my own productions have also incorporated a lot of primitive puppetry. I find puppets do lend a completely different air to the telling of a story, allowing for a different perspective. The music has to alter to fit with the puppetry."

Additional Info

'Gala' plays on the 1 and 2 August at Riverside Studios. Tickets are £7.50.