In early May, 14 members of the renowned Colla Marionette Company — 12 puppeteers, a conductor, and the conductor’s assistant — flew from Milan to Charleston in preparation for the Spoleto Festival. Several days after that, roughly 300 of their esteemed wooden counterparts, some well over 100 years old, arrived by boat. The marionettes left Italy weeks earlier, crossing the Atlantic in a 40-foot container along with elaborate sets, hand-painted scenery, and trunks of ornate costumes.

To appreciate Colla Marionette Company’s legacy, Colla’s General Manager Piero Corbella says you need to understand the earliest tradition of marionettes, which extends back some 4,000 years to ancient Egypt. Priests attached strings to statues of gods and moved them within the temples. Marionettes were later used in ancient Greek dramas, and the Romans used them in the medieval period as a means of portraying God, Christ, and the devil — roles which men were not allowed to perform.

Marionettes were also part of 18th century culture, with Colla being founded in the late 1700s. “Colla Marionette was considered the mass media of the period,” Corbella says, explaining that the company traveled to small cities and counties where there was no outside information being brought in. When the marionette company arrived in town, it would perform plays ranging from popular Shakespearean works to contemporary works, such as the story of Napoleon Bonaparte and, later, the wars of Italian independence. “The marionettes let people know what was happening around them. They were like the newspaper.”

Colla Marionette played another important role in 19th century Italy: it spread culture. Because marionette stagings were less expensive than traditional theater, “marionettes were a way that the different types of theater, opera, ballet, comedy, etc., could arrive to all reaches of people,” says Corbella. Today, Carlo Colla III and Eugenio Colla, both of whom will perform at Spoleto, are the proud fourth generation of Colla puppeteers, representing “the historical memory of a period that is no more.”

Marionette theater was so popular in the 17th and 18th centuries that works were written exclusively for it. Philemon and Baucis, an opera being performed at this year’s Spoleto, was composed by Franz Joseph Haydn specifically for the medium. In this Roman myth, gods Jupiter and Mercury disguise themselves as mortals and visit a small village, where they are turned away by everyone except for the humble Philemon and Baucis, who graciously offer the little they have to the strangers and are later justly rewarded.

The work is brought to life by some 80 marionettes and appears much as it did when it premiered in 1773 — though it’s a small-scale production for Colla, whose productions have been known to feature up to 300 marionettes. As was standard in marionette opera, it includes spoken word as well as song. In Charleston, Philemon and Baucis will be realized by two actors, four singers, and a 10-piece orchestra led by their own conductor, all of whom perform live with the marionettes.

The romantic fairytale Cinderella is another production Colla will perform at Spoleto this year. The story is brought to life with a cast of nearly 200 marionettes. While some merely gallivant in the background (a simple motion that requires a minimum of four to six strings connected from the marionette to the wooden bridge above the stage), others are designated as lead actors, singers, and dancers — the latter is realized by marionettes with legs specially crafted to facilitate balance and mimic real dancers’ movements. For complex movement such as dance, strings can be endlessly added. While there is generally one person manipulating one marionette, the most complicated movements can require the assistance of a second puppeteer.

Elaborate scenery, painted on paper in Colla’s studio, completes the production. The scenery, like the puppets, is created using the same techniques as hundreds of years ago, and old and new seamlessly intermingle in contemporary productions. “When we make new material, we do it following the tradition so that we can use old marionettes and new marionettes, old scenery and new scenery, all in the same production. They appear the same because they are realized in the same way,” explains Corbella.

Over the past 300 years, Colla’s studio in Milan has built an arsenal of some 2,700 marionettes. When a production is being staged, they cast from within. “Obviously, if we don’t find the right ‘actor,’ we have to make a new one,” says Corbella.

First, wood is carved into a body, limbs, and head, complete with delicate facial features. Next, realistic glass eyes are inserted into the head, and human hair is woven into a wig. Corbella says that the hair is expensive, noting with a laugh that it’s the one thing they don’t make themselves. Finally, costumers go to work creating the right look for the production. The end result is a highly evocative marionette, standing about 2.5 feet tall. The creation process takes roughly a week and is the handiwork of many people, some of whom learned the craft from their fathers, and all of whom work during the season as puppeteers.

Complicating marionette production is the puppeteers’ busy schedules, which puts them on the road and away from the studio most of the time. “The puppeteers are also the sculptors, the scenographers, and the costumers,” Corbella explains. For this reason, MacBeth, Colla’s recent collaboration with Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater, took nearly two years from conception to performance.

On stage, the puppets, costumes, and sets unite to magical effect. Corbella describes it as “an illusion that is beautiful for both children and adults.” He emphasizes the need for audiences to re-evaluate their assumptions: “Yes, opera is for adults, but not only adults. And Cinderella is for children, but not only for children.” He asserts that Colla’s artistry conquers the adults, while the beautiful visuals fascinate the children. Their awe-inspiring productions are as effective today as they were when Colla made its Spoleto Festival debut in 1987, and the company is still in touch with Charleston fans who attended that first year’s show. “Come on stage after the performance,” Corbella encourages. “From the auditorium, you see everything realized within the perspective of the scenery. It creates the illusion that the puppets are tall like you. From the stage, you discover a brand new perspective. You discover the secrets.”

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