Illinois Parks & Recreation
May/June 1995 • Volume 26, Number 3
Opera in focus
Spectacular (Programming of Miniature Proportions
Artistic Director William Fosser creates the scenes, overseeing every single detail.
by Amy Charlesworth, CLP
It's opening night at the Rolling Meadows Park District. The orchestra is finely tuned and the lights have been dimmed. As the curtain opens the scenery takes us to a far off place. The costumes are so intricately detailed it seems they are spun from gold. The melodious strains of a world famous soprano fill the air. Fine arts programming of this quality at a park district? Sounds like the fabric that dreams are made of, and these dreams have come true.
Opera in Focus has been the dream of Artistic Director William Fosser for most of his life. A passion for puppetry and opera gave birth to this wonderful artistry in miniature. Opera in Focus specializes in presenting familiar scenes from famous operas, performed by a cast of highly articulate rod puppets. Three to four puppeteers perform a repertoire that currently covers thirty-two scenes from seventeen operas.
The artistry of Opera in Focus has been finely tuned over the years. Mr. Fosser developed this unique approach to performing operas while serving as the Artistic Director of the Kungsholm Miniature Grande Opera. The puppets that performed these well-known operas were the perfect cap to the dining experience at the Kungsholm in Chicago. When the Kungsholm closed, Mr. Fosser continued his career in performing arts and persisted in developing his one-of-a-kind puppets.
Rolling Meadows Park District officials learned that Mr. Fosser was searching for a permanent home. It was agreed that this type of fine arts program would not only enhance our arts programming, but would offer opportunity to develop more arts programs. An agreement was reached; the Park District, the City of Rolling Meadows and Mr. Fosser began to set the stage.
A multipurpose room became a theater. Special flooring was laid so that the puppeteers could move freely beneath the stage. The gilded stage with its delicate fabric and royal house boxes was moved in. Electrical changes were made for the lighting and sound. The park district maintenance staff as well as the City Public Works department worked together to complete the renovation of the room. Graduated tiers were built to hold 55 theater seats. An intimate theater setting was created by simply hanging framed posters from famous operas.
The marketing of this fine arts program was utmost on park district officials' minds. Fees were set at $8 per ticket with discounts for seniors and groups. A schedule of one matinee and two evening performances per week was set. A brochure was designed and mailed to all IPRA/IAPD agency members as well as various civic organizations, the regional convention and visitors bureau, libraries and churches. The press was informed through telephone calls and mailings. The park district television show. Rolling Meadows Today, featured Opera in Focus. A pre-opening night viewing and social were planned, and the press was invited.
While these preparations were taking place, Fosser and the puppeteers began rehearsals. Madame Butterfly, Rigolleto and Aida are just a few of the puppets. They are 16 inches tall and made of a cast polyester resin. Each is intricately detailed. The fully dimensional puppets operate on a series of rings and pulleys and are worked from below the stage. Fosser's puppets can sit, bend, kneel, bow from the waist and make the dramatic gestures for which opera singers are famous. Fosser's career in set design is evident in the elaborate scenery he creates. These detailed backdrops provide the necessary setting to tell the story. After each performance the audience is welcomed back stage to meet the puppeteers and see how the puppets operate.
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After the performance, theatergoers are introduced to the puppets and are invited backstage to see the operations.
From the beginning this fine arts program has been a success. From Chicago television newsman, Harry Porterfield, to Chicago Tribune chief critic, Richard Christensen, to local newspaper columnists, the reviews are raves. The opening show, A Christmas Offering, was a huge success. Many of the shows have been sold out. Every six weeks new scenes are introduced, and a season ticket package has been developed.
Although the stage is only five feet wide and two feet deep, the illusion of live opera prevails. The puppet opera performances are capable of charming a wide range of audiences from the lover of opera to the child simply fascinated by the fine art of puppetry. Critic Richard Christensen sums up the performance best by saying, "The pleasures that puppet opera gives may seem a bit precious and genteel in this bumptious age, but to hear these beautiful recordings and to see them realized in such loving detail in costumes, scenery and lighting provides quite a special treat." Bravo, Opera in Focus! The park district is proud to have you home.
Note: Opera in Focus was the 1994 Dottie Mullins Arts and Humanities Class IV award winner at the National Park and Recreation Congress in Minneapolis last fall.
Amy Charlesworth, CLP, is Superintendent of Recreation at the Rolling Meadows Park District.
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Sam S. Manivong, Illinois Periodicals Online Coordinator