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The Salzburg Marionette Theatre: 100 years of family tradition. Read more about the history and the building.

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THE SALZBURG
MARIONETTE THEATRE

A Century of Family Tradition

For almost 100 years the Aicher family was the defining force behind the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, and a pillar of the town’s cultural life. Three generations directed the theatre with  loving care and artistic skill, well aware of their responsibility to maintain this highly specialised art in Central Europe. It was by no means foreseeable that a small marionette stage might develop into one of the leading institutions of its kind; only by means of astute strategies, artistic far-sightedness and choosing the right course at the right time, was it possible to run the theatre successfully as a private institution – for a whole century.

When the Styrian sculptor Anton Aicher (1859-1930) attended a performance in Munich at the famous marionette theatre of “Papa” Leonard Schmid, he had already long cherished the dream of building a marionette theatre of his own in Salzburg. A graduate of the Vienna Academy of Art, Aicher was offered a teaching post for sculpture at the state vocational college in Salzburg. In 1885 he married Rosina Deutsch, daughter of a landowner near Graz. They had three children – Notburga (1886-????), Karl (1873-????) and Hermann (1902-1977); all three grew up in the family home near Leopoldskron Palace, and as children they were surrounded with toys carved by their father. He had meanwhile made contact with “Papa” Schmid – now aged almost 80 – who generously allowed him to look around the world of marionettes.

However, Anton Aicher did not want simply to copy the high art of the Munich puppeteer; he dreamed of a theatre with technical facilities and an artistic language all its own, a theatre which could maintain its position within the tradition of the Salzburg “Kasperltheater” [roughly equivalent to the “Punch & Judy” show]. Thus for years the Salzburg “Kasperl” – a character far more  sensitive, gentle, sometimes even melancholy, than his earthy Munich counterpart “Larifari” – remained the epitome of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre. This fun-loving but insightful central figure, which introduced children to the world of fairy-tale as well as to that of adult theatre, proved a wise communicator for young and old alike.

To realise his unusual idea, Anton Aicher persuaded some of his students to help, on a freelance basis, with the construction of the first small stage, in his studio in the Salzburg Künstlerhaus. As a sculptor, he himself was the motivating force; today, his small (only 20-30cm tall) marionettes still provide the artistic basis for the Salzburg Marionette Theatre. It was largely their fine detail and unsurpassed expressive force that made it possible for the theatre to play a major role in illusionist puppetry (where the puppeteer is not visible and the puppet moves in a lifelike way). The imaginative, skilfully overdrawn characterisation is a trademark of their creator. Anton Aicher’s innovation was not limited to shaping the figures, however; he also improved the technical operation of the marionettes, developing a new kind of operating cross, a perfected form of which is still in use in the Marionette Theatre.

27 February 1913 saw the first public performance, with Mozart’s Singspiel Bastien und Bastienne. This was a success, and further small operas followed during the ensuing years, but the main focus was still on the Salzburg “Kasperl”. Actor friends performed the live spoken roles, and a musical accompaniment was provided by piano or string quartet. Notburga looked after the business side of things, and her brother Karl assisted their father in all artistic matters.

 

Aged only 11 at the first performance, the youngest son Hermann continued to be an enthusiastic puppeteer; he also attended sculpture courses in Vienna, but then returned to Salzburg. Karl served as a soldier in World War I, returning home with a serious illness of which he died. Anton Aicher now came to rely completely on his younger son who, on his marriage in 1926 to the young singer Elfriede Eschenlohr, received the Marionette Theatre (which had by that time moved to the Old Borromäum) as a wedding present.

Hermann Aicher immediately set about renovating the theatre, keeping up with technical innovations for the stage while taking into account the wish for fantasy in the repertoire, with utopian plays including Die Raumrakete [The space rocket], Das Weihnachtswunder [The Christmas Miracle], and Der Frühlingszauber [Spring Magic]. His young wife took over the costume department and directed the singers and actors under the stage. Their daughters Friedl and Gertl were born in 1926 and 1928 respectively, and during the 1930s the young family made extensive trips abroad to publicise the Theatre.

In 1936, they changed to larger marionettes and a large stage, for an extended tour in Russia. The following year, in a puppet-theatre competition at the Paris Exposition, they were awarded the gold medal.

After the Anschluss, the Marionette Theatre became an instrument for propaganda, undertaking many tours through Germany; during the latter war years it was used as a “front theatre” for the entertainment of the soldiers. In September 1944, all theatres were closed; only at Christmas were a few performances permitted. After the collapse of the Third Reich, the Salzburg marionettes at first played exclusively for the Allied forces, in return for urgently needed provisions.

Hermann Aicher still had at his disposal a sizeable ensemble, which allowed him to perform in Salzburg all year round, while at the same time undertaking tours. However, the Borromäum was in a state of serious disrepair, and when the authorities closed it down in 1950, the theatre was forced to abandon hundreds of stage-sets adapted to the premises. A period of rationalisation set in. Hermann seized the opportunity offered by new recording techniques and commercial recordings; at last it was possible to produce major plays and operas – and in different languages. The world was opening to the theatre, and from 1951/52 they toured in America and Asia, establishing a reputation as a miniature opera-house and ambassador for Austrian art.

The young stage-set designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen started his career with the Salzburg marionettes, and remained with them until 1991, designing countless productions. He often insisted on technical innovations for the stage, and encouraged the puppet-makers to further refine the mechanics of their marionettes. This met with the approval of Hermann Aicher, who had by this time made Mozart’s operas the nucleus of the repertoire.

In 1961, temporary quarters were found in the Kapitelsaal, where the theatre remained until 1971, when it was at last able to move into its permanent home in the Schwarzstrasse – surely a major highlight in Hermann Aicher’s era.

Hermann died suddenly in 1977, and his daughter Gretl, who had trained and performed in the theatre since her youth, took over the artistic direction. Under her ægis, further generations of puppeteers were trained, and with her precise technique and expressive force, she achieved prominence for the marionettes. One of her chief concerns was to present marionette performance as an art, and to have it recognised as such. In addition, she persuaded internationally distinguished stage directors such as Götz Friedrich and Wolf-Dieter Ludwig to work for the Marionette Theatre. The repertoire was expanded in the field of music theatre to include The Nutcracker and The Tales of Hoffmann, and the trio of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas was completed, with The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte. There followed co-productions with the Salzburg Festival (Oberon, Peter and the Wolf, Bastien und Bastienne) and the Salzburg Landestheater (Josa with his Magic Fiddle, The Little Prince, The Ring of the Nibelung). The new millennium started with further international successes: Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and the musical The Sound of Music. Gretl Aicher’s sudden death in March 2012 has now ended the 100-year Aicher family history. The Salzburg Marionette Theatre will continue to build on the vision of its founder and director.

 

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