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Kaneko's Next Stage

January 15, 2012

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    January 15, 2012
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    Opera Carolina News

Kaneko's Next Stage

The opportunity came as a shock.

Jun Kaneko had been a sculptor and painter for decades. But when the invitation came to create sets and costumes for an opera - "Madama Butterfly" - he wasn't even sure it was serious. He knew nothing about opera and had never designed for the stage.

That began a journey he's still on. Since spending three years on Puccini's ever-popular "Butterfly" - which Opera Carolina will perform beginning Saturday, using Kaneko's creations - he has turned to two more operas. He's now finishing "The Magic Flute," Mozart's fairy-tale opera, for Charlotte's opera company and two others.

Obviously, Kaneko said yes to the invitation for "Butterfly" - the story of a geisha whose marriage to an American sailor ends tragically. But the project's attraction was one you might not guess.

"Usually, with anything I try to do, I have a pretty good idea what might happen and how I should approach it," Kaneko says. "But in this case, I had no idea.

"I don't think too many people over 60 would have a serious challenge and opportunity to do something where they don't have any idea (what to do).

"I was fortunate that I didn't know anything about it," he says, "because that's a very pure starting line."

In the art world, Kaneko - born in Japan, a U.S. resident since the 1960s - is a painter and sculptor. One of his specialties is ceramics. He sometimes works on a scale that, for objects shaped from clay, is monumental.

Kaneko at the Mint

A 13-foot-tall Kaneko sculpture goes into place this week in front of the Mint Museum Uptown, which is dovetailing with the opera by presenting "Jun Kaneko: In the Round." The exhibit combines "Butterfly" costumes, drawings and Kaneko sculptures - including 6- to 8-foot works arrayed around the Mint's main floor.

One of Kaneko's calling cards is a series of 6-foot-tall heads. The Mint, however, is spotlighting sculptures he calls dangos - based on a Japanese word referring to a rounded form. Their power comes from their bold painting as well as their shape and size.

To Kaneko, the combination makes them "like a three-dimensional painting." If you walk around one of the dangos, he says, it gradually but continuously changes.

'Deceptive simplicity'

As a part of collaborating with Kaneko on "Butterfly," stage director Leslie Swackhamer immersed herself in his art.

"There's a deceptive simplicity to it," Swackhamer says. "There's something very visceral about it. It can be very calming to contemplate, sometimes. But it can also feel like there's something going on at a deeper level that is vast."

When Nebraska's Opera Omaha hired Kaneko in 2003 for "Butterfly," it enlisted Swackhamer not only to stage the performances - as she's doing again in Charlotte - but to help introduce him to theatrical design and opera.

"My job ... was to help him find the design that only he could design," she says. "Nobody else is going to imagine it his way."

Swackhamer met Kaneko in Omaha, where he has lived for two decades.

"He was working on one of his gigantic heads," she recalls. "He was up on a ladder, patting the dome of its head and getting it all in shape.

"He was rather jolly. He said, 'You know, I don't even know, once this goes into the kiln, whether it will crack or not.' "

The encounter tipped her off to two things. Kaneko has a dry sense of humor. And he's at home with meticulous work.

One of the challenges of creating his sculptures, Kaneko says, is that it's risky: If a sculpture, after it's shaped and fired, cools unevenly, cracks can ruin it. If it survives, though, Kaneko has a long time to ponder how to paint it. The sculpture going up in front of the Mint took a year to dry before he could pick up a brush.

Inspired by the music

So he wasn't likely to rush into making designs for "Butterfly," was he? Here's how he began.

"I just listen to the music until something comes up in my mind or feelings," Kaneko says. "Usually it takes 200 or 300 times.

"You listen to it two or three times a day for two or three months. Gradually, something starts happening. And I'll start drawing."

There was even more to it than that. Kaneko watched more than a dozen DVDs of "Butterfly." And he crisscrossed the United States attending performances.

The one that struck him most powerfully took place in a New York City church. It was so small-scale, Kaneko says, that the footbridge Butterfly crosses for her entrance was made of two-by-fours.

"It was really low-budget," Kaneko says. "But the singing was fantastic. That's what taught me - I hate to admit it, as a visual artist - when it comes to opera, music comes first.

"The visual element can help, but it can't be the main thing. ... The whole thing has to work together as one."

'Vortex of passion'

Meanwhile, Swackhamer mapped out the plot scene-by-scene. She and Kaneko discussed visual motifs to dramatize the opera's action and emotions. They created a series of storyboards, as a moviemaker might do.

"I have 50 or 100 drawings for each decision," Kaneko says.

Arriving at the overall design of the stage took months, he recalls. He began with a fairly traditional approach: a suggestion of Nagasaki Bay in the background, and a hill behind Butterfly's home with a path leading down to it. "But ... it kept bothering me," he says.

He distilled that into something simpler: A ramp that spirals down toward the center of the stage, where a round platform helps suggest Butterfly's home. The slope harks back to the hill, he says, and it enhances the visual power of the characters' movements up and down.

Swackhamer describes the visual effect as a "vortex of passion" that helps symbolize the story.

Kaneko's costumes use Japanese styles as their foundation. They gain newness from Kaneko's bold colors and design strokes, such as stripes and dots. As a result, Swackhamer says, they reinvigorate the Japanese styles that were so eye-catching a century ago, when "Butterfly" was new and Western audiences had seen little of silk kimonos or sliding-panel homes.

"Those things, as beautiful as they are, are now sort of a cliché for most people," she says. "I felt we had to find a new vision to show the strangeness and exoticism of this world."

By Steven Brown The Charlotte Observer

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