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Fringe arts The man who created Zurich’s shoe box-sized opera

Vogelsang with his tiny puppets
(Emanuel Ammon/AURA)

The world’s smallest opera scenes are on display in the Swiss city of Zurich. They are the work of the late artist Bernhard Vogelsanger.

He was an impresario of a kind, clad in jeans, flamboyant T-shirts, a leather jacket with the ACDC logo and large rings on his fingers. Vogelsanger, who died in 1995, was a trained decorator who led the smallest opera in the world. He was at the same time a conductor, an orchestra, set designer and director as well as actor and tailor.

tiny setting from opera with hands of puppeteer
(Emanuel Ammon/AURA)

The truth is there was no space for more than one person. Vogelsanger’s opera stages were the size of a shoe-box, and there were just eight chairs for spectators to watch his performances in a room on the second floor of a house in Zurich’s Schwamendingen district. A select group of people were regularly invited to attend these performances of great operas. 

Vogelsanger moved carefully designed paper figurines around the stage by hand to the music from a gramophone. Sometimes, he would also sing to fill the gap while changing the records.

Visualised opera - A Night in Venice
(Emanuel Ammon/AURA)

Vogelsanger, the son of a craftsman, was born in 1920. When as a teenager he saw a performance of Simone Boccanegra, an opera by the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, he knew he had found his dream job.

He wanted to join the stage world as a set designer, but he could not get an apprenticeship. Instead, he trained as decorator for the Globus department store, preparing scenes for the consumer world.

(Emanuel Ammon/AURA)

But his soul remained in the opera world. In the 1950s he began to create puppets and figurines, surreptitiously at first. They could be moved with wires and were dressed in tailor-made clothes.

Vogelsanger also designed lush stage sets in miniature. Later, he invited his friends and played for them, free of charge.

Visualised opera - The Beggar Student
(Emanuel Ammon/AURA)

When Vogelsanger died in the mid-1990s, his Schwamendingen opera died with him. But an exhibition by the Musée Visionnaireexternal link in Zurich, which specialises in outsider art, has temporarily resurrected some of his more than 60 stage sets.

They are now on display, together with other objects by local characters from Zurich. 

Vogelsang in seinem Mini Opernhaus
(Emanuel Ammon/AURA)

Adapted from German/urs,

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