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The Salzburg Marionette – a Private Theatre

Three generations Aicher-family and today’s puppeteer ensemble

The history of puppetry in Salzburg

Salzburg’s history includes travelling showmen and mountebanks, as well as itinerant puppeteers; in 1673, Johann Peter Hilferding was even appointed Master of Theatricals at court. Archbishop Colloredo put an end to this in 1790 by prohibiting all itinerant entertainers, in an effort to “cleanse” the town and combat petty crime.

Perhaps it was precisely the long absence of puppetry that provided the incentive to start a major enterprise and determined the surprisingly rapid success of “Prof. Anton Aichers Künstler-Marionettentheater”. The Salzburg Marionette Theatre has existed for 105 years – seven years longer than the Salzburg Festival.

Anton Aicher (1859-1930) –  founder and artist       

It was Anton Aicher who, on 27 February 1913, mounted a performance of  Mozart’s Singspiel Bastien und Bastienne  for his friends in the exclusive “Künstlergenossenschaft Gral” [Grail artists’ association] in the Hotel Bristol. As a sculpture student in Vienna, Aicher got to know the arts scene, including the puppet show in the Prater [the large amusement park]; decades later, he realised his lifelong dream.

At the end of 1913 the Theatre was installed in the former gymnasium of the archiepiscopal Borromäum seminary, where small operas and operettas were staged with piano accompaniment and spoken and sung texts. The following year saw no less than fourteen productions, and the Theatre remained in these premises for the next 47 years.

A significant achievement of Anton Aicher was the development of the Salzburg “Kasperl” figure [a more childlike variant of Mr. Punch]. This character was modelled on the Munich  “Kasperl Larifari” created by Johann Schmid who, together with Count Franz Pocci, founded the Munich Marionette Theatre in 1858. His intuitive force is demonstrated in many puppet plays, and also in the encounter with the character of “Dr. Johannis Faustus”. The subtle, cheeky Kasperl is a kind of equivalent to Papageno in The Magic Flute, created by Emanuel Schikaneder for Mozart in the tradition of Viennese folk theatre. 

Hermann Aicher (1902-1977) –  innovator and visionary         

His elder brother having died as a result of a war wound, Hermann Aicher took over the direction of the Theatre in 1926, remaining until his death in 1977. His achievements include renovation of the stage machinery to allow unprecedented effects, and the visionary development of the theatre to international status. A great communicator, Hermann Aicher succeeded in arousing the interest of distinguished operatic artists for the “little” world of the marionette theatre, so that it became possible to produce “great” operas for worldwide performance. Further products of his creative imagination were based on local tradition (Im Zauberreich des Untersbergs [In the magic realm of the Untersberg]) and utopian visions (Die Raumrakete [The space rocket]).

During World War II, the Salzburg Marionette Theatre was used as a “front theatre” for the entertainment of soldiers, until Hermann Aicher was himself conscripted for war service. After the War, performances were given for Allied soldiers in return for urgently needed provisions. Later, the theatre moved to the Kapitelsaal, where it remained for ten years, until it settled in its present home. Fortunately, Hermann Aicher kept  comprehensive and detailed documentation, which has provided the basis for extensive archives. 

Gretl  Aicher (1928-2012) – doyenne and principal   

From 1977, Hermann Aicher’s daughter Gretl directed the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, in the third generation. She died aged 83 in 2012 – the 99th year of the Theatre’s history, to which she attached symbolic significance. Since then the Theatre has been under the direction of Barbara Heuberger, the long-standing managing director. 

Gretl Aicher was a keen photographer (some of the best photos of the marionettes are hers), but her greatest passion was puppetry, manipulating the marionettes. She took this art to unprecedented heights, with the figure of Papageno as the “role of her life”. From the start,  and right up to her death, Gretl Aicher was the virtuoso manipulating the bird-catcher. Moreover, Mozart’s Magic Flute – premièred in Boston in 1951, and performed continuously for more than 60 years – is certainly the longest-running production in the world of opera.

“The inner life of the puppets, which are my companions, lies in the hands… I lend my eyes to the figures, and I see with their eyes… the most important thing is to breathe with them –breath passes through the hands to the figure; the movement is in the breath” (Gretl Aicher).  

The Theatre today

After Gretl Aicher’s sudden death, Dr. Barbara Heuberger, the longtime managing director, as well as the theater’s stage manager Pierre Droin lead the privately owned theatre to the future. 10 puppeteers, one technician and five employees for administration complete the ensemble.

2016 the theatre was included in the  UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The performance technique of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre has been declared a cultural asset worthy of preservation, as the “most highly developed form of puppet and figure theatre”. “The Salzburg Marionette Theatre has been devoted to this art form since 1913. It is necessary to hand down not only the artistic skills, but also the craftsmanship required to carve, paint and manipulate the puppets, and to create costumes for them” – thus the reasons given by UNESCO. The Salzburg Marionette Theatre is the only one worldwide to offer opera performances.