Mimmo Cuticchio
talking to Enza De Francisci

Meeting Mimmo Cuticchio in his laboratorio, when I was visiting Palermo, for my research, meant a great deal to me. He is a master puppeteer, here in Sicily.

In Sicily, Puppet Theatre, has a history that goes back to 1800. It is called The Opera dei Pupi . No operatic singing but a powerful retell of medieval French poems.  It is so skilled form of art that The Opera dei Pupi  it has now been declared a UNESCO masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage.

The performances of this theatre has known fame beyond the shores of Sicily. It featured in the films The Godfather (1990) and Baarì(2009)and recently, the Cuticchio family collection of Sicilian puppets was acquired by the Sicily Foundation in 2015 which is now exhibited in Palermo’s Palazzo Branciforte.

The narrative is a theatrical representation of poems of medieval French literature of the Chanson de Roland or the Orlando Furioso, which highlight the clashes between knights and Moors, in which the puppets are the expression and symbol of the desire for redemption and justice of a social class.

Mimmo Cuticchio, the son of The Opera dei Pupi (Puppet Theatre), maestro, Giacomo Cuticchio, opened his own theatre in Palermo, Figli d’arte Cuticchio, in 1973. Its aims to protect and promote the tradition of the Opera dei Pupi.

How did you first get involved with The Opera dei Pupi?

The Opera dei Pupi tradition is one which has been passed down from one generation to the next. You learn the trade and all the different voices of the Pupi (puppets) from your forefathers. I learnt my craft from my father Giacomo Cuticchio, and now my son, Giacomo, is learning from me. We come from a long line of pupari (puppet masters). My father Giacomo was influenced by two maestri respectively, Ermenegildo and Alessandro Greco, sons of and Achille Greco in the 1820 and 1830s and went on to set up his theatre company in 1833 in Via Bara all’Olivella in Palermo. I was 15 years old when I started helping my father. I would just watch him while he worked. My father wouldn’t ever explain how he had designed the pupi or how he manoeuvred them: he used to say that you could learn by watching. So I learnt how to watch. My father would do all the voices of all the different pupi. He performed 40 voices – these were human voices including female voices. He was not imitating the voices in a make-believe kind of way but representing the feelings of the particular characters. From this, I learnt how to perform these voices as well. I have a refined voice and could do the female voices.

How did your repertoire develop?

In the early opera dei pupi tradition of the 19th century, most of the shows were centred on the stories from The History of the Paladins of France, with the occasional ‘serate speciali’ (special evenings) usually performed over the summer period which were based on the works of Shakespeare, namely his Romeo and Juliet, or tales about a patron saint or a notorious bandit. Early performances were only open to men. While high society attended the opera lirica, working class men attended the opera dei pupi. The opera dei pupi performers represented episodes of serialised stories derived from this epic-chivalric literature of medieval origin. Each evening would be based on a particular story and subsequent evenings would show how the stories unfolded, similar to the way in which we watch a Netflix series today. By the 1950s and 60s, my family started to introduce Sunday matinées and these were open to women. While the performances from the standard medieval-based repertoire revolved around different episodes of the same text for by-and-large the same male audience, the matinée performances were based on just one episode only.

How have you gone about updating your practice over the years?

When I took over the family business in the 1970s, I began to update our repertoire. My father had started to notice that audience numbers were dropping and those who mainly attended his theatre were visitors from abroad. As a result, I was inspired to create new roles and puppets, and devise new productions to place these in. To date, I have created over 80 new roles and 700 new puppets. Each has been constructed with a specific message and meaningful lesson in mind. For instance, the shows based on St. Francis are used to represent peace; those based on Aladdin are used to represent integration; and there are a range of stories used to warn against feminicidio (violence against women). New madrigals have also been introduced to our shows: these are part-songs composed for several voices which are usually unaccompanied. The new productions have attracted attention world-wide, including in Boston where we recently staged a new adaptation of The Soldier’s Tale (1918) by the Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky.

Do you perform in Sicilian only?

No, we have updated the language over the years and our performances are in Italian. My father, compared to others, got an education and wrote his scripts were in Italian. During my father’s era, unless you went to school, only the élite spoke in Italian – most people used to speak in dialect. But now we are more modern and use Italian in our shows. Dialect is only ever used in farses or to represent characters from the working community, as a servant or a cook.

How would you describe the future of The Opera dei Pupi?

Over the centuries, pupari have staged epic stories of love, war, betrayal but now we need a new language: we need to tell the same stories but in a different way – in new plays tailored for new generations. We can write scripts around stories from Ancient Greece, battles of war, the Liberation of Jerusalem but we also need new puppets who can speak to the world in which we live in today and ultimately construct a new opera dei pupi. I hope that the roles and repertoires I have created are helping to keep the opera dei pupi tradition alive. The pupi are not mere puppets to be hanged in a museum – they are representations of us. They help us to see things in a new light and notice the smaller things in life. I hope that my approach to the artform will not only help to safeguard this vulnerable tradition, but also to update and modernise our valuable cultural tradition.

For more information about Mimmo Cuticchio’s theatre company, see https://www.figlidartecuticchio.com/