Sculptor Jun Kaneko helps make an artful Madama Butterfly

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      Sometimes to totally reinvent a classic as well-known as Madama Butterfly—a work as likely to pop up in Hollywood thrillers as in dance remixes—you have to look outside the world of opera. And so, four years ago, when Opera Omaha approached Japanese-American sculptor Jun Kaneko about designing the production, it had found the perfect neophyte. Sure, the acclaimed public artist and ceramist had heard of the Giacomo Puccini work, but he had certainly never listened to or seen it. In fact, the phone call requesting his collaboration caught him completely off guard.

      “It was a total surprise to me, because I don’t have any idea about designing sets and I’m not even an opera fan!” says the veteran artist, who’s best known for his monumental, kiln-fired sculptural heads, three of which recently sat along New York City’s Park Avenue. He’s talking to the Straight from his home studio in Omaha, Nebraska, before heading here for the debut of his Madama Butterfly design in Vancouver Opera’s production of the aching tragedy, from Saturday (March 29) to June 10 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. “I’m a studio artist and all the decisions are made by me and I’m responsible for it, but for an opera, there are probably a couple hundred people involved.”

      Kaneko asked for three months to research the opera to see if he could handle such a complex project. He immersed himself in DVDs of Madama Butterfly, travelled to about a dozen productions of it, and listened to the music at least a couple of times daily. “That’s about five hours a day,” he stresses. “In three months, that’s close to 200 times listening to the opera. But that’s my way of working—and not only in opera: the critical decision-making is made very intuitively. I don’t know how those things happen within myself. I don’t know why I paint a red painting or use the colour black. But if I listened to the music over and over, somehow I thought an intuitive idea for the design would come. And it did.”

      The result is, not surprisingly, an artful Butterfly unlike any that audiences have seen before. Vancouver fans can expect a boldly visual and yet minimalistic, abstracted take on an opera that is usually presented in exotic, historical Japanese detail. This lovelorn geisha Cio-Cio-San (highly praised Japanese soprano Mihoko Kinoshita, in her most in-demand role) will wear a contemporary, graphic kimono, and she and her double-crossing naval officer, Pinkerton (tenor James Valenti), inhabit a stylized “house” with a geometrically gridded Japanese screen and a floor that swirls with concentric ovals.

      At first, Kaneko says, he kept focusing on creating a traditional house and garden for the sets. “But I felt that this is a contemporary production, and so I did a real radical contemporary design. I looked at it and that was not what I was looking for either. It created so much distance between the opera and design. So I said, ”˜There must be something between these two.’ So at the end, you could tell it’s a mixture of the traditional design and the contemporary ideas.”

      The set is striking and modern, but it has clear references to Japanese culture, both modern and traditional. “I can’t help it; I was born in Japan and I grew up there to 21 and came to the U.S. in 1963,” says Kaneko, who was raised in Nagoya. “So my early life experience is in Japan, and knowing the Madame Butterfly story, you can’t isolate that historical and cultural connection.”

      One of Kaneko’s biggest innovations was to add black-clad characters inspired by the kuroko stagehands and Bunraku puppeteers of old Japanese theatre. The shadowy figures offered a clever solution to the problem of moving furniture and props about the sleek set, but instead of traditional hoods, they wear bizarre black box-heads. “I wanted to make them look more abstract, and they’re more visible,” he explains. American stage director Leslie Swackhamer, who oversaw the Omaha original and is playing the same role for the VO rendition, liked the mysterious characters so much, she started to use them in an even more active way in the opera—including a small dance number.

      Just don’t expect to see any of Kaneko’s signature sculptures, giant heads or otherwise, amid the sets. He may use the same intuitive approach to the art forms, but not the same materials. “So far, I haven’t used any of my sculptures for a set design. If it made sense to use some of my pieces, maybe, but so far it hasn’t.”

      So has the adventure made an opera fan out of the sculptor? He’s been asked to design more works—including a recent Fidelio—and he is definitely seeing more of the art form these days. “In Omaha I’m usually so busy with my art—I work Saturday and Sunday in the studio—so most of the time when I go to the opera, I’m travelling in New York or San Francisco. I see one maybe two or three times a year.” For now, at least, he spends much more time working with clay than sets, and it’s safe to say he’s listening to those Butterfly arias a little less often.