Ah. And did being a Water Spirit come naturally to you?
P: Not at all, in any way whatsoever. Well, the watery and spirit bit did, but not the singing.
J: I didn’t even know you sang in that.
P: It was the beginning and the end of my singing opera career, on the end of Hastings Pier.
You’ve used puppetry a lot before, usually in more fantastical works. But have you found there’s a puppet stigma in opera?
J: Puppetry can get trapped in a fairy-tale world—it gets pigeonholed there. Puppets are actually really good at sex and death and violence, and there’s a lot of that in real life.
P: We ourselves have a kind of love-hate relationship with them, really. For a while you go, “Ugh, enough with the puppets for a bit.” But I think the work we do in this is less about well-made puppets and more about how people work together to create images. If it’s just about making a really good puppet, the story is over. The reason we like using newspaper is that you can’t actually make a good puppet with newspaper. It’s bit like fire-watching or cloud-watching—the imagination has to come into it.
The gigantic puppets in Act Two are especially eye-catching. How did you conceive of them?
P: I was thinking a bit of German expressionism, but also of my own roots theatrically, with a company, Welfare State International, which was like Bread & Puppet here. They’d put big puppets on the streets in protest of Vietnam, and I wanted to pay tribute to them. In some ways, it’s a bit how Gandhi worked. To me they’re like the figures of the city, other people see them as politicians or leaders, and I’m quite happy for that to be ambiguous. I was also keen that they’d be a bit broken, that they would not move in a sophisticated way. Deliberately awkward.
J: Every now and then someone in the building comes up to us and says, “I wish the big puppets were on longer!” Which is reassuring to hear because the opposite is, “Oh God, the puppets.”
By the way, where do you get all that newspaper from?
J: All around the world!
P: And the big ones are running out as we speak. Halfway through rehearsals, one of the papers changed its size; there were all these things saying, “It’s great, we’ve gone tabloid!”
J: The last three weeks we’ve gotten all these papers from Italy and Germany, papers that are still a bit traditional in format, black and white.
P: There’s a very complicated list of demands that we irritate the props people with. Different bits of paper are better for different scenes. The paper that changed its size was Italian; the original size was great, but it wasn’t all that great for screwing up tight and keeping its tightness. It’s a very fine art.