Opera - Jun Kaneko helps the Atlanta Opera turn Japanese with designs for Madama Butterfly

Renowned sculptor Jun Kaneko had barely heard of the opera Madama Butterfly, let alone heard it, when Opera Omaha asked him to design a production of the Puccini masterwork. While the Omaha, Neb.-based artist developed his own vision for Madama Butterfly, the essential difference between visual and performing arts struck home.

"Every time I make a piece, that's a visual statement. When you're setting up a show, you figure out the floor plan, which piece goes where, you put the lights on it – and once you set it up, that's it. A piece of sculpture's going to sit there until the end of the show."

Kaneko discovered that opera wasn't nearly so static. "It keeps changing. It's a three-dimensional environment designed by me, with singers in costumes designed by me, but they're moving every minute. So every minute, the relationship changes the whole feeling of the stage set. Opera is fluid, like water flowing in a river."

Kaneko successfully rode those currents when he designed the sets and costumes for Opera Omaha's acclaimed production of Madama Butterfly in 2006. The Atlanta Opera uses Kaneko's designs when it opens its 2008-2009 season with Madama Butterfly Sat., Oct. 4, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Joseph Rescigno conducts Richard Leech as callous American Lieutenant Pinkerton and Joanna Kozlowska as the doomed Japanese bride who gives the opera its title.

Kaneko designs a look that differs sharply from traditional versions of Madama Butterfly and makes the sculptor one of the show's behind-the-scenes stars. In an unusual showcase for a production's visual elements, SCAD Atlanta's Gallery See hosts an exhibit of sketches, paintings and photographs of Kaneko's work that deepens the audience's appreciation of the creative process.

Kaneko was born in 1942 in Nagoya, Japan, but that didn't make him initially more receptive to designing Madama Butterfly, which takes place in Nagasaki. When Opera Omaha first offered him the commission, he didn't want to do it at first, never having designed a stage show before. "It's a heavy commitment, especially if you don't know anything about opera. As a studio artist for the last 45 years, I don't work with that many people. I'm not a control freak, but I like to be responsible for my own decisions. The studio gives you a different level of security for what you've done. Opera doesn't allow that. With Madama Butterfly, I ended up with about 200 people working together."

Then, after months of deliberation, research and attendance at 12 performances of Madama Butterfly in one year, he thought, "Maybe I can do it."

Kaneko began with designs inspired by Japanese history, then shifted to ideas that were more modern and radical. "I started to design scenery and costumes that nobody had ever done, that didn't have any similarity to Japanese culture. And I thought this is maybe going a little too far. It should have some kind of connection there, some kind of visual relationship."

As he immersed himself in Puccini recordings, he surprised himself by deciding that the visual imagery had to be subservient to the music. "I listened to Madama Butterfly three times a day, for eight or nine hours a day, and after three or four months, I really started to realize the importance of the music. Usually if you put too much information in creating a strong visual impact, the music part suffers. We really don't have the ability to pay 100 percent attention to both the visual and the music. That's when I thought the design should be very minimal."

The SCAD exhibit not only presents dozens of colorful sketches and paintings of Kaneko's designs, but also offers glimpses of the artist at work through photographs and stage directions for the performers and other artists. Some of Kaneko's set and costume drawings feature extensive notes in the margins, such as "Butterfly changes her wedding kimono to night gown. This act must be completed within one minute."

Kaneko attended every rehearsal, and before the premiere thought he was completely prepared to see how his work would play to a live audience. "On opening night, 500 people jammed into the theater. I didn't think the audience would influence the feeling of the stage, but I couldn't believe how much it did. Somehow there's an exchange of energy between the singers and the audience."

Stage director Bernard Uzan has helmed Madama Butterfly 16 times (but not the Opera Omaha version), and is intrigued by Kaneko's unusual vision as he prepares Atlanta Opera's production with a completely different cast and crew. "The Jun Kaneko design is extremely interesting. Most of the time, Madama Butterfly is done in a very traditional style. I wouldn't say that's redundant, because nothing is redundant with Madama Butterfly. It's one of the greatest operas in the repertoire. But Kaneko's design has more symbolism and an apparent simplicity. Visually, it's exquisite. It's like a series of incredible paintings, and gives more opportunity for the story to bring emotion."

Uzan says that Kaneko's design subtly influences his choices in staging the show. "What is different is not the way I treat the characters, but the juxtaposition of the design and the characters. It creates another language. If you have someone crying in front of a bare wall, and the same person crying in the same way in front of an ocean, the message will not be the same."

Previous versions of Kaneko's production impressed audiences and critics. In 2006, the Wall Street Journal stated, "The Butterfly production ... grafted Mr. Kaneko's sculptural sensibility and vivid, distinct palette of patterns and colors into a vibrantly visual experience of the opera, at the same time modern and timeless."

Kaneko, meanwhile, finds himself drawn back to the opera in spite of himself. On Oct. 10, the Opera Company of Philadelphia presents Beethoven's Fidelio, with Kaneko's set and costume designs. It sounds like the stage bug – or maybe butterfly – has bitten the studio-based sculptor.

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