The Carter Family Marionettes and the Opera dei Pupi of Sicily
“Marionettes have a long tradition of being able to bridge worlds and classes”
The Carter Family Marionettes are especially known for their mastery and preservation of the traditional Sicilian marionette theater known as Opera dei Pupi, which employs large-scale puppets manipulated with iron rods. This traditional form of puppetry flourished in the 19th century but the roots of the Opera dei Pupi stretch back to Middle Ages and earlier.
The original repertoire of Opera dei Pupi was based on the 11th-century Chanson de Roland, which recounted the legends of Emperor Charlemagne and his army of Christian knights and their battles with the invading Saracens. These legends passed through many literary re-elaborations during subsequent centuries, notably Ariosto’s Orlando furioso and Tasso’s Gerusalemme libera, served as the basis for Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero, which the Carters will be performing with Magnificat next month. In the 19th century, these tales of knights crossing swords in battle, saving damsels, and escaping from enchanted islands were assembled in popular versions that were sold in the streets in the hundreds of installments of the Paladini di Francia, a cycle that made Orlando, Rinaldo, and their fellow knights errant beloved heroes of Sicilian peasant culture for generations.
The Sicilian puppet is distinguished by the use of two metal rods, one running through the head and the other linked to the marionette’s right hand, which enable the puppets to be controlled with precise rhythmic gestures. The rod marionette actually pre-dates the string marionette in Europe but most traditions have moved to use of strings – only Sicily, Belgium and Czech Republic maintain rod-marionette traditions. At the height of Opera dei Pupi’s popularity at the turn of the last century, Sicily boasted as many as 25 puppet theaters, along with two or three peripatetic troupes. The two main Sicilian puppet schools that emerged in the 19th century in Palermo and Catania differed principally in the size and shape of the puppets, the operating techniques and the variety of colorful stage backdrops. Pupi were also found on the mainland, especially around Naples, but none of these troupes continue to perform.
The knight puppets in the Palermo tradition have four cords: one for moving the left hand, one for unsheathing the sword, one for raising and lower the visor, and one for enabling the knight to kneel – all essential tasks for a noble knight errant. The puppets are typically around three feet tall and can weigh 30 pounds or more when fully armored.
While the Opera dei Pupi was firmly rooted in the lower classes in Sicily – Stephen Carter characterizes them as “working class soap operas” – the appeal of marionettes was wide ranging and there frequent examples of marionette plays performed for nobility across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. “Marionettes have a long tradition of being able to bridge worlds and classes”, notes Carter.
Like the Carter Family Marionettes, the Sicilian puppet theaters were typically family businesses involved not only in the performance, but also in the carving, painting and construction of the puppets and the characteristically colorful stages. In the 20th century some puppeteer families immigrated to America from Sicily, notably the Monteo family, recognized by National Endowment for the Arts with a “National Folk Art Fellowship” in 1983.
As students, Stephen and Chris Carter had an opportunity to see the Monteo family perform and were so excited by the experience that they traveled to Sicily, where they met and eventually worked with the famous Cuticchio and Argento families. Stephen later received a Fullbright grant to study puppetry in Bucharest, where the Carters lived for two years, absorbing influences and techniques from a variety of puppet traditions.
Upon their return they opened the Northwest Puppet Theater and in 1993 they purchased and renovated a charming church in the Maple Leaf neighborhood of Seattle where they present an annual series of shows. The Carters are the only active practitioners of the Opera dei Pupi tradition in America today.
Over the years, the Carters have acquired a large collection of over a thousand puppets from around the world, including, from Italy, a 19th century cast of commedia dell’arte burattini (hand puppets) and a marionette from Turin, as well as pupi created by Palermo’s master puppet builder, Vincenzo Argento. The puppet collection is exhibited at the Northwest Puppet Center, which also houses an extensive library, which serves as a source of research and inspiration not only for the Carter family, but also for visiting artists, journalists, authors and directors who want to know more about puppetry.