Just over 30 years ago, Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company made its Spoleto Festival USA debut. It was the start of a long relationship: The Italian troupe, unmatched in its ability to bring wooden puppets to life onstage, makes its seventh Spoleto appearance in 2018 with productions of The Pied Piper and Il matrimonio segreto. In honor of World Puppetry Day, here are five facts surrounding the world-famous company.

(left) Carlo Colla II with iconic Gerolamo puppets dating back to the 1800s, photo via Fondazione Carlo Colla & Figli; (right) Marionettes from Ballo Excelsior, presented at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, in 1970

1.  The company has a seriously long history. While Carlo Colla and Sons officially dates back to the mid-1800s, founder Carlo Colla came from a long line of puppeteers—and subsequently passed the craft down to his own children (and beyond). In the 1900s, the touring troupe found a permanent home in Milan, Italy, where it has remained since. Under the direction of the late Eugenio Monti Colla (who was a fifth-generation director), the company performed during the 1970 and 1971 seasons of the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy.

Puppeteers of Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company (top) work their magic during Spoleto Festival USA in 1987; photo by William Struhs

2. The company’s first Spoleto Festival USA appearance in 1987 was also its American debut. The troupe brought its legendary production of Excelsior, first presented in 1884 and adapted for marionettes by Carlo Colla II in 1970, and two short ballets: La Serenata di Pierrot and Lo Spirito Folletto.

3. The company members are true artists. Not only is the group responsible for manipulating the puppets themselves, the artisans also hand carve and hand paint each puppet, build sets, create costumes, and maintain/preserve each piece. Take a look:

 

The Pied Piper runs May 25 to May 27 at the Emmett Robinson Theatre at College of Charleston. It’s performed in English; children’s tickets are available. 

4. Over the years, the company has amassed nearly 3,000 marionettes. They’re all kept at company headquarters in Milan—used in a wide range of productions, from opera to ballet to theater. The Pied Piper, presented May 25 to 27 at the Emmett Robinson Theatre, features 11 puppeteers manipulating more than 400 puppets. That’s a lot of string!

Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company production of Handel’s Philemon and Baucis at Spoleto Festival USA in 2010; photo by William Struhs

5. Wait…puppet operas? Yes! Composers of yore often created scores specifically for marionette companies. For instance, Joseph Haydn composed five puppet operas in his day, including his 1773 work Philemon and Baucis, which Spoleto Festival USA and Carlo Colla and Sons presented in 2010. Domenico Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto (onstage May 28 to May 30 at the Emmett Robinson Theatre) wasn’t originally created for marionettes, but with vocal accompaniment of Westminster Choir members and music from the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra paired with the puppet mastery of the Collas, Cimarosa might wish he had.