The Aicher family – three generations for the marionettes
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.
Anton Aicher: a sculptor dreams of a puppet theatre
Anton Aicher (1859–1930), born in Styria, had a dream. After graduating from the Vienna Academy of Art and taking a teaching post for sculpture at the state vocational college in Salzburg, he dreamed of establishing a puppet theatre in Salzburg, like the famous Munich marionette theatre of “Papa“ Josef Leonhard Schmid. In 1885 he married Rosina Deutsch, daughter of a landowner near Graz. They had three children – Notburga, Karl and Hermann (1902–1977). Anton had meanwhile made contact with “Papa“ Schmid – now aged almost 80 – who allowed him to look around the world ofthe Munich marionettes. But he imagined 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 “Kasperl-Theater“ (roughly equivalent to the “Punch & Judy“ show).
The first steps of the Salzburg marionettes
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 marionettes (only 20–30 cm tall) 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. 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.
The birth of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre
27 February 1913 saw the first public performance, with Mozart's Singspiel Bastien und Bastienne. This was a huge success, and further small operas followed in the ensuing years. The main focus, however, was still on Franz von Pocci's "Kasperl-Theater". In contrast to the more earthy "Larifari" in Munich, Aicher's main figure, the Salzburg Kasperl, was a far more sensitive, gentle, sometimes even melancholy character, who for many years personified the Marionette Theatre. Actor friends performed the live spoken roles, and a musical accompaniment was provided by piano or string quartet. Anton's daughter Notburga looked after the business side of things. Aged only 11 at the first performance, his son Hermann continued to be an enthusiastic puppeteer; he also attended sculpture courses in Vienna, but then returned to Salzburg. On his marriage in 1926 to the young singer Elfriede Eschenlohr, his father handed over the Marionette Theatre (which had by that time moved to the Old Borromäum) to him as a wedding present.
Hermann Aicher: investment in expansion and renovation
Hermann Aicher 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. They toured to Hamburg, Vienna, Holland, and an extensive tour in the Balkans took the marionettes to Sofia, Athens and even Istanbul. In 1936 they visited Moscow and Leningrad, where they played to audiences of up to 2,500. For this they had to make new, larger marionettes. A particular attraction was the “dying swan“, with a marionette modelled on the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova. The following year, in a puppet-theatre competition at the Paris Exposition, they were awarded the gold medal.
The Nazi period: the Marionette Theatre as an instrument of propaganda
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 Norway. Hermann Aicher was conscripted in 1944. In September 1944, all theatres were closed; only at Christmas were a few performances permitted.
The post-War years: a period of rationalisation
Immediately after the War, the Salzburg marionettes at first played exclusively for the Allied forces, in return for urgently needed provisions. In 1947, the Theatre gave the first post-War German-language guest performance in Paris, in the famous Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. 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 astate 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 Aicher 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 Marionette Theatre started touring again – first in 1951/52 in America, then Asia, establishing their reputation as ambassador for the art of puppetry.
The "little opera house" finds a big home
Under Hermann Aicher, Mozart‘s operas became the Theatre‘s core repertoire, with the support of the young stage-set designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen, who started his career with the Salzburg marionettes, and from 1952 until 1991 was solely responsible for designing all productions. He often insisted on technical innovations for the stage, and encouraged the puppet-makers to further refine the mechanics of their marionettes. A major highlight of HermannAicher‘s era was surely when, after ten years in temporary premises in the Kapitelsaal, 1971, the Theatre was at last able to move into its permanent home in the Schwarzstrasse 24, where it is today.
Gretl Aicher: a director with vision
Unique Salzburg technique as intangible cultural heritage
After Gretl Aicher‘s sudden death in March 2012, the Theatre was led by Barbara Heuberger, already managing director since 1999. The following years saw new productions such as The Ring of the Nibelung, Alice in Wonderland, The Little Prince and Fidelio. In 2013, the Theatre celebrated its 100th anniversary with the revival of Snow White. In cooperation with the Whitsun Festival under Cecilia Bartoli, The Barber of Seville returned to the stage in 2014. In 2016, the operating technique of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre was recognised by the UNESCO Commission as the “most highly developed form of puppetry“ and declared an intangible cultural heritage (Austrian list).
New paths for the Salzburg marionettes
The effects of the Corona pandemic 2020-2022 initially restricted the Theatre‘s performance and touring activities, but under the management of Susanne Tiefenbacher as managing director and Philippe Brunner as artistic director, the Theatre is receiving a variety of new impulses while maintaining its tradition: in 2022, scenic improvisations with marionettes to contemporary music were shown for the first time as part of the ARCO project. In cooperation with the International Mozarteum Foundation, productions on current topics, such as The Old Tree – or: Franzi‘s Journey to the End of the World, are regularly staged as part of the Mozart Week. In 2023, Carnival of the Animals. An Animalic Trilogy, a compilation of three classics with completely different scenic concepts, accompanied by live music, was staged for the first time. In 2024, the Theatre‘s 111th anniversary will be celebrated with a new production of Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet and a puppetry festival. In addition to its diverse projects, the Salzburg Marionette Theatre is strengthening itself for the future by training new puppeteers and focusing on environmentally conscious operations.
Since 1971, the Salzburg Marionette Theatre has been housed the historic building at Schwarzstrasse 24
– on the right side of Salzburg's Old Town, between the Landestheater and the International Mozarteum Foundation, and between the River Salzach on the one side and the Mirabell Palace with its world-famous garden on the other.
After it was founded in a studio in the Künstlerhaus in 1913, then moved to the gymnasium of the old Borromäum, and spent ten years in the temporary premises of the Kapitelsaal, the Marionette Theatre settled in Schwarzstrasse 24. This building has its own chequered history: between the Villa Lasser (now the Mozarteum Foundation) and the municipal theatre, Count Arco-Zinneberg's Kaltenhausen brewery had a restaurant and function-rooms built in 1893. The architect was Carl Demel, the master builder Valentin Ceconi. In 1897, the function-rooms were converted into the Hotel Mirabell.
Until 1968, the Mirabell Casino was part of the hotel. In 1970 reconstruction work was begun, in order to give the Marionette Theatre a new home. The former dining-room of the hotel was converted into the auditorium with the stage. It is still impressive, with its elaborate stucco-work and opulent painting. In the course of repairs to the foyer in 2000, the original stucco-work was discovered, and since 2003 the foyer ceiling can be admired in its former splendour.