Designing puppet opera – an interview with Isobel Smith

Isobel Smith, director of Grist to the Mill puppet company, talks about her role as designer and puppet director on ‘Gala’ – the forthcoming puppet opera which focuses on the affair between Gala Dali (wife of surrealist artist Salvador) and Jeff Fenholt – a young actor, then playing Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway.

What made you decide to work with puppetry in opera and why did this particular project appeal to you?

I attended the Puppetry in Opera conference at the Barbican last year which was brilliant – I am really interested in the challenge of how to present puppets and opera singers together onstage. I’ve seen a few productions where the opera singers have performed behind a screen or at the side of the stage and I didn’t think this was particularly successful, so I was inspired to have a crack at this myself and I’m enjoying the challenge.

Has the opera genre led you to approach the ‘Gala’ project differently to your previous work?

Definitely. I often work with a live musician, who sometimes appears onstage and sometimes performs in the background, but it’s different when working with opera singers as it’s very much about their voices – I wouldn’t have wanted not to have the opera singers present.

The challenge is to have opera singers being the characters and singing but to also have puppets performing onstage simultaneously, with neither being gratuitous. I am keen to integrate the two properly rather than have puppets performing, with the singers just being like a backing track.

Can you tell us a little more about the materials and techniques used  to create the puppets?

At the moment, the Jesus Christ Superstar/Jeff Fenholt character is to be played by an opera singer in costume, singing and performing as that character, leaving all of the puppetry to be based on or around Gala herself. There may not be a puppet with a face or a mouth – at the moment I’m considering using many different types of fabric and materials to animate Gala. A lot of it will be quite abstract with objects used as well as puppets.

We are looking at using puppets on a big scale too. For example, we may use a pair of great big eyes and a large mouth, as a nod to Salvador Dali’s sofa in the shape of May West’s lips. The mouth may be animated and would represent Gala’s mouth – with the puppetry I am trying to keep the focus on Gala, her dreams and her mad reality.

What has inspired you and what kind of research have you done?

I started off by looking at many pictures of Gala and Salvador Dali. I also studied the work of Ergo Phizmiz (composer for ‘Gala’) and immersed myself in his musical world. I looked at a lot of surrealist art and found links between these works and Ergo’s artworks – there is a great link there with collage and this led me to ideas regarding layering.

I also read Gala Dali’s biography, so I had a good base of research before I read the script for ‘Gala’ and I built on these ideas from there. Gala is not easy to like but she’s feisty, fiery, strong and tenacious. She’s such an interesting character and it’s quite a dark story but I like working with dark subject matter so it’s perfect for me.

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

I feel very lucky to be working with Tête à Tête as a really out-there, cutting edge opera set-up. As a festival, its hitting a whole new audience for opera – to be part of that is wonderful. Unfairly, opera may have a reputation for being high brow or expensive whereas puppetry sometimes has the opposite problem so I think it is interesting and challenging to put the two art forms together.

Why do you think puppetry and opera fit so well together?

I believe they fit well together because there’s an epic feel to opera and, for me, it’s an emotional thing – an opera could be based on a fairly mundane love story but the emotional content will be heightened to a fantastic degree. I think that gives a link between the two art forms as puppets can do the same thing – they can intensify emotional situations.

How did you find the right puppeteers to work on this production?

We are working with two great puppeteers – Teele Uustani and Darren East. I will be performing a little bit as well. It was fascinating to be present during the auditions for puppeteers as you never know quite exactly what is going to happen.

The puppeteers were asked to sing as well as perform, which could be quite daunting – puppeteers are normally lurking in the dark so to suddenly be asked to sing something, well that’s quite an ask but we needed excellent puppeteers who were also willing to sing. When we interviewed opera singers for roles, they were also asked to try out some puppetry during their auditions, so the plan is to cross over a little bit in the performance.


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


"An opera could be based on a fairly mundane love story but the emotional content will be heightened to a fantastic degree. I think that gives a link between the two art forms as puppets can do the same thing – they can intensify emotional situations."

Additional Info

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