Squallis Puppeteers and Bourbon Baroque Give French Opera a Wild Makeover

Louisville’s Bourbon Baroque and the Squallis Puppeteers are teaming up to take an 18th century opera for a walk on the wild side. Their zoomorphic adaptation of Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s baroque opera “Les Sauvages,” which they first produced in 2012, runs for four performances this weekend.

Think of it as opera by way of The Muppet Show. In this adaptation, the Native American princess pursued by three suitors is transformed into Zima, a revered white buffalo, and her suitors take on animal guises that match their human temperaments – a fiery Spanish stallion, a foppish French peacock and a cuddly Native American coyote. Each competes to win Zima’s hand – er, hoof – in marriage.

Reimagining an early-18th century French opera about a New World woman pursued by conquering Europeans into an all-ages puppet show is the work of period music ensemble Bourbon Baroque and the Squallis Puppeteers. Bourbon Baroque artistic director John Austin Clark says this adaptation takes a softer, more inclusive approach, especially with regard to the Native American characters.

“The first polarizing effect of this show is the fact that it’s called ‘Les Sauvages,’ which means ‘The Savages’,” says Clark. “It’s the European perspective of Americans in the 18th century. They were referring [to Native Americans] with a derogatory term, but what we have done is change the storyline around to make it as though they are upheld and revered, with the white buffalo as the princess.”

“We are trying to find out which suitor she will select for herself,” he adds. “It’s a very simple story of love.”

The one-act, one-hour opera runs for four performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday new Squallis Puppeteers performance space in Highland Community Ministries at the corner of Breckenridge Street and Barret Avenue.

Saturday and Sunday matinees are free to kids under 18. Clark says this productionm which clocks in at about an hour of running time, is designed to appeal across generations. 

“In this day and age, all of our attention spans are manic, and it’s hard to keep people locked in,” says Clark with a laugh. “So our philosophy is to give a taste of something that’s fantastic, and come back and see us again in another guise.”

“Les Sauvages,” which premiered in 1736, is the fourth of five acts in Rameau’s “Les Indes Galantes.” French baroque style opera-ballet productions frequently included several stand-alone movements connected by a theme. “Les Sauvages” is one of the most frequently staged acts of the larger work.

The parts are performed by opera singers, backed by an 18-member chamber orchestra. But the characters have been transformed from humans into ten-foot-tall animals, which will be operated by puppeteers, with some smaller hand puppets appearing among the chorus. Clark says the combination of the animal theme and the Squallis aesthetic made this collaboration a perfect match.

“Their work is spectacular,” he says. “We love the style. It’s very grassroots, with old pieces of material sewn together, but so artfully crafted. They’re gorgeous creations.” 

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