Bloody good fun: turning the story of Tarrare the sideshow freak into an opera

The true story of the French revolutionary soldier was so grotesquely dramatic, we knew it had to be told – with puppets

When we first came across the story of Tarrare – a perpetually hungry 18th-century sideshow freak and French revolutionary soldier who ate live animals and amputated limbs, and who was captured smuggling military secrets through Prussia in his stomach, in a box he had swallowed – our first thought was: “Why has nobody turned this into a puppet opera?”

The true story is so grotesquely dramatic we knew it had to be told.

But with puppets? Puppets and opera are not such strange bedfellows. From Green Ginger’s larger-than-life skeleton in Welsh National Opera’s production of The Queen of Spades, to Blind Summit Theatre’s poignant young child in Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for English National Opera, puppetry has often enhanced opera productions. But The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is an extremely rare – we hesitate to say unique – example of a chamber opera written specifically for puppets. To our minds, it could not have been any other way.

The obvious things first. It would be impossible for a human actor to portray some of Tarrare’s more outlandish acts. Tarrare was reportedly a small, slight man, but his monstrous appetite meant that he consumed unimaginably vast quantities of food – once eating enough for 15 people in a single sitting and swallowing live animals such as snakes, eels and cats whole– before regurgitating their skin and bones. We had to show all this on stage, plus the autopsy of his body after his death.

Puppets also allow us to play with scale and reality in a way that reflects the drama of the piece: a tiny Tarrare, lost and alone behind enemy lines; towering 10-foot tall Prussian soldiers; our hero’s ribs yawning open in an all-encompassing embrace. There’s a delicate balance between the inevitable desire to revel in the grotesqueness of the story and the need to engage in the humanity and tragedy of this historical figure. With puppets, you can be at once visceral and poetic.

Watch a clip from The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak – video

The opera features 10 characters, but only two singers and two puppeteers are tasked with bringing each puppet to life. There’s a range of different types of puppet, but they all rely on hands-on operation by one or two people. There is no time for strings or rods. Wattle and Daub Figure Theatre have always been interested in making the mechanics of puppetry visible so the audience share in creating the illusion. The puppeteers and singers are assistants, joining forces to give life to the characters. Each puppet character is given voice by a singer, who is as much a part of the on-stage action as the two puppeteers. Our two singers even operate some of the puppets, but the separation between singer and puppet is important, and the mouth of the puppet is never moved by the singer who is voicing it.

We have been writing music together for almost our entire lives, and this, our first full-length show, feels like the fulfilment of a long-threatened ambition. Our songwriting has developed beyond repeatedly shouting a single absurd lyric over a rhythmic piano riff until we get the giggles, but the process has remained as spontaneous and joyful as ever.

Writing an opera already involves many coordination challenges at the best of times, but the puppets added more complexity. We gave free rein to our imaginations, and found we were able to treat our singers in more fantastical ways than we might have been able to do in a more conventional operatic setting. And with such strongly contrasting puppets, our two singers can sing multiple roles without confusing the audience. (We are greatly aided by the spectacular ranges of our singers: one doubles as tenor and male soprano, the other as baritone and countertenor).

Monstrous … Wattle and Daub’s The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak.
Monstrous … Wattle and Daub’s The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak. Photograph: Barney Witts

The huge variety in the puppets’ personalities, looks and movements, and the expressive worlds they inhabit encouraged us to a diverse and eclectic score. The piece straddles the often blurry divide between opera and music theatre. In fact, it celebrates it by opening with a narrated autopsy and moving through soaring arias, patter songs, love duets, song-and-dance numbers, martial choruses and a dreamlike ballet sequence. It allowed us to dream up a world in which the fantastical could coexist with a deep sense of humanity – something the operatic form is so perfect for exploring.

Watching these miraculous creatures spring to life brought a very specific energy to the show, and the puppets ended up having all sorts of unexpected influences on the music. In conventional operatic writing, generally the score will be in a fairly complete state by the time rehearsals begin. In Tarrare, the major songs were written in advance, but due to the puppets’ personalities and quirks, many of the transitions and instrumental episodes had to be written after the rehearsal and devising processes were well under way. There were moments during rehearsals when Tobi would call and tell me that a puppet was taking longer than expected to vomit out a snake. Could I write an extra 20 seconds of music to cover that?

• The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol, until 28 January. It is at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, from 30 January until 18 February. Then touring until 10 March.

Tom and Tobi Poster

The GuardianTramp

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