At our first meeting about visuals for Lotus Lives, composer Su Lian Tan said she’d pictured a Malaysian-style shadow puppet show during the Folktale section of the opera. This would become the centerpiece of the video projections, a 14-minute film designed for eleven screens, plus the stage, walls, and ceiling of the concert hall.
Wayang Kulit is the name for traditional Malaysian shadow puppetry. A temporary shadow stage is constructed outdoors in a village, and a single puppeteer operates and voices all the characters. Each puppet is supported by a single stick, propped up while the puppeteer operates a hinged arm with a second stick. The performance usually tells the classic tale of Ramayana, and lasts late into the night for several days.
In contrast, Chinese shadow puppets are more articulated, supported by rods connected to the torso, legs, and each arm. Their movement is acrobatic, as they spin and fly through the air.
Lotus Lives is about the transition between the worlds inhabited by three generations of women: the lead soprano’s (Lily) life in 1980s London and the present, her grandmother’s in 1920s China, and her mother’s in Malaysia in between. The Folktale is where the struggle between traditions comes to a head.
I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore to research Wayang Kulit and the Peranakan culture, and collect images for the opera.
The Peranakan are Chinese immigrants to Peninsular Malaysia, dating back to the 15th century. Lily’s grandmother (and Su Lian Tan’s own family) moved into this community after leaving China in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Peranakan Chinese adopted cultural elements from Malaysia, and later, Europe colonialism. We wanted to represent that blend of influences in the look of the opera, so I used a mix of both Chinese and Malaysian-style puppets.
Traditional shadow puppets are made of rawhide leather, but that isn’t a skill you can master in a week. So I decided to stick with what I know: pen and ink and lasers.
After coming up with a sketch of each puppet, I outlined the different puppet parts with blue pencil, and filled in the negative space with solid black ink.
I photographed the drawing and brought it into Photoshop for cleanup. I also copied repeated patterns like lace, and added holes at the joints.
Next, I converted the artwork to a vector image with Illustrator. Then more cleanup and scaling, and over to local hackerspace NYC Resistor to use their laser cutter.
This process allowed for multiple copies of each puppet, with different sizes of each. There is a large version of the Little Girl when she is on her own, and a smaller version when she appears next to her mom.
The puppet bodies are heavy card stock, with joints connected by thick, knotted embroidery thread.
It was tricky finding support rods that were thin and strong, which could be bent without cracking but won’t flex when in use. The winner was the poles on the little neon flags used for marking buried lines, like sprinkler systems or invisible dog fences.
I made handles from oak dowels, and attached each rod to the puppet with a single link made from art store armature wire.
The Malaysian style puppets were easier to rig, with wooden rods tied to the stock.
Authentic leather shadow puppets are painted, and the color shows up through the translucent skin. After some experimentation, I decided to keep the puppets black and white with tinted backgrounds, more in the cinematic tradition of Lotte Reiniger’s stop-motion silhouettes. (The Fine Lady’s carriage in Lotus is a nod to the carriage in The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).)
I considered compositing the images optically, using projectors and layered fabrics in a toy theater. In the end, I decided to gather clean optical elements and then composite everything digitally.
The puppeteers performed against a white screen, with marks for set pieces to be added later. The background and props were mostly pen, brush and ink.
I did build a simple toy theater frame for photographing backlit paper textures.
The Folktale climaxes with the Moon Goddess’s transformation from puppet into a dancer, with performance by Arika Yamada. Her choreography contains another blend of elements: classical ballet and modern dance.
I wanted Arika to be against a black background. The best way to do this without losing the shadow details was to shoot her against an evenly lit white wash and invert the image to negative. Also, the blue hue works for the ghostly Moon Goddess.
Even though the puppet show was pre-recorded, the music and narration were all performed live. I split the video into shorter sequences with loops at the end, to be triggered with the music. This way the musicians could concentrate on their performances without worrying about keeping in time with the video. (For a lot more detail about that, read here.)
There were a lot of parts, and in the end they all worked together as planned.