Opera in Conversation: 'Exploring Jun Kaneko's Set Design' Takeaways

Oct 17, 2019

Jun Kaneko’s renowned production of Madama Butterfly returns to the Orpheum Theater for two performances only, November 1 and 3! Tickets start at $19: operaomaha.org/butterfly

Thank you to all who attended our first Opera in Conversation for Madama Butterfly on October 15, and thank you to Stephan Grot, Executive Director at KANEKO, and Kurt Howard, Producing Director at Opera Omaha, for guiding the conversation. In case you were not able to attend, here are some important takeaways and discussion points:

Jun Kaneko’s production of Madama Butterfly, which has toured nationally and internationally, returns to Opera Omaha for its third staging in the city. It debuted at Opera Omaha in early 2006, but its story begins much earlier. Jun Kaneko and his team began work on the production in late 2003, making the debut performance the culmination of almost three years of dedicated work.

The set you see at the Orpheum Theater is the synthesis of several iterations and concepts that Kaneko explored. As much of the opera takes place inside Butterfly’s home, Kaneko focused first how to portray this setting. Earlier versions involved structures that more closely resembled a house, albeit in Kaneko’s colorful style, and included such features as a peaked roof. However, in line with his minimalist aesthetic, he simplified the set to the most basic requirements required to tell the story – first among them, the communication of privacy and openness of both setting and character. The simplification also reflects the dreamlike representation of Butterfly’s narrative throughout the opera. He settled on a gentle spiral set with a movable shōji screen, able to be easily positioned to open up or close off the stage. Blocks of vibrant primary colors are also present between the black and white, geometric elements that form much of the set.

Geometry and patterns were also important for Kaneko when designing the costumes. Kaneko and his team laboriously hand-printed patterns such as polka dots and parallel lines on large bolts of fabric, which were then used in the costumes.

A particularly innovative aspect of the production is the use of digital projection and video animation. Stephan Grot, who spoke at the event on October 15, served as Kaneko’s technology assistant and was instrumental in the creation of the projected elements of the production. Both physically distant objects and metaphorical ideas are portrayed through projections. The ship marking the return of Pinkerton in the third act and the dripping red from the Japanese flag in the final scene in which Butterfly takes her own life were two examples discussed. The action in these scenes is also tightly choreographed to the projections, and Kaneko himself made many of the decisions about timings and character movement, something usually undertaken by the director.

In certain scenes, you might spot figures dressed in all black, moving about the stage in groups yet never directly interacting with other characters. These are the Kurogo, which translated from Japanese means ‘stage assistants’, and have been used in Japanese theater throughout history. In this production, they often move throughout a scene undetected, only to become narratively important at a critical moment as shadows of Butterfly herself. When Butterfly wears her wedding gown, for example, the Kurogo follow her, holding up a large halo-like headdress.

Perspective is a key aspect of Kaneko’s production. More specifically, everything is seen through the eyes of Butterfly herself. Lighting often reflects her perspective on and reaction to events – blue lighting might indicate that Butterfly is experiencing sadness or melancholia, for example. Similarly, when Pinkerton inquires about Butterfly’s father before their marriage, other characters onstage hide behind their umbrellas, a visual representation of the guardedness Butterfly feels in that moment. When Pinkerton changes his tune and asks about lighter topics however, everyone slowly lowers their umbrellas as Butterfly becomes more comfortable with the interaction. The very shape of the set, the spiral, is also a metaphor for the downward emotional spiral Butterfly experiences throughout the opera.

One criticism leveled at Madama Butterfly in recent years is that it portrays Japan through an exotifying Western lens, and thus builds an historically inaccurate version of Japan. By privileging Butterfly’s perspective, Kaneko begins the important work of considering cultural representation and perspective in this opera. To dive further into these conversations, join us on October 22 and 29 for our other Opera in Conversation events for Madama Butterfly as we seek to tackle these complex questions and related issues.

Jack Hardwick
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow

Takeaways from October 22 Opera in Conversation: operaomaha.org/blog/opera-in-conversation-politics-of-exoticism-takeaways
Takeaways from October 29 Opera in Conversation: operaomaha.org/blog/oic-artistic-choices-obligations-takeaways

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