DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Emi Yabuta, left, handles props while Gen Boyer pays careful attention to butterfly wings.
A sculptor's work springs to life with his designs for 'Madama Butterfly'
Opera is sound and movement and color and light, and for Jun Kaneko -- an artist whose preferred medium is sculpture because "it just stays there, doesn't move around" -- designing costumes and sets for "Madama Butterfly" was daunting.
Presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre
On stage: 8 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and 7 p.m. March 8. Performances on Maui March 17 and 18
Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Tickets: $29 to $120
He had to think about the commission from the Opera Omaha in Nebraska. And think about it some more.
"And sculpture is by itself. It doesn't have relationships with other works, like the relationship between characters in an opera. A very interesting challenge," Kaneko said.
"I myself didn't actually go to the opera. Of course you want to make an amazing creation that has never before been seen in opera theater. I wanted to try hard, but I had to have time to think -- three months to decide, then three years to develop and design my ideas." He sighed. "Most opera designers only need three to six months."
It seems to have been worth the extra skull sweat. Kaneko's designs were not only a hit in Omaha, the sets also have hit the road. Hawaii Opera Theatre is using them in the local production of "Madama Butterfly."
The Omaha-based artist spent the first year hashing out the basic concept. "Obviously, there are a lot of interesting examples already out there, some very contemporary, others traditional, some right in the middle."
First to get tossed were spectacular, eye-popping designs and effects. That was, in effect, overloading the frame at the expense of the picture. "In opera the most important thing is the music and the story," he said. "You have to respect that and be in harmony with that, and so the struggle was to be totally cooperative with the work."
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The "Madama Butterfly" set, designed by Jun Kaneko, was flown in from Omaha, Neb. Paul Guncheon assembled the white stage comprised of concentric circles.
That wasn't natural. In the isolated loneliness of the studio, "I can make all the decisions. But an opera might have 160 people chained together in a group to make it a realization. It was a totally unfamiliar way of working."
He and wife Ree Schonlau began attending "Butterfly" productions around the country, dozens of them. "The first seven, I just sat and observed the complete harmony of music and story," said Kaneko, who also listened to CDs of the opera an estimated 200 times.
"I developed a real strong respect for the music, and knew soon that a strong visual statement might come in front of the music, diluting it. And people are sensitive to change. So, I went back to the drawing board and wiped my ideas out of my head and started over."
Kaneko's designs won positive response for their elegant restraint in an arena known for overwrought divas and baroque ornamentation. He started with the costumes, balancing traditional and contemporary themes, but knew that the sets and costumes had to complement each other.
"So, a simple stage design, to not distract from the characters. And to alter the feelings of the stage, from happy and joyful to a terrible disaster. How to show this? And so lighting design became a critical part of the overall package. I wanted Rothko's and Matisse's sense of color. Lighting is fluid and achieved that."
Opera has gone from being a foreign stage medium to part of Kaneko's "natural feelings about art. When you know the piece well, there are no surprises, and you can relax and enjoy the work, knowing exactly what is going to happen. It's comforting."
With the success of "Madama Butterfly," Kaneko has been approached to also do "The Magic Flute."
"I said I was going to have to think about it."