Backstage at San Francisco Opera > July 2014 > Flying with Madama Butterfly
Flying with Madama Butterfly
With the final performance of Madama Butterfly on July 9, let's take a moment and rediscover how artist and production designer Jun Kaneko took his first foray into opera design. Below is an excerpt from his 2011 book.

One sunny afternoon in early Spring 2003, I received an invitation to fly with Madama Butterfly. After a few months of consideration, I accepted and my journey designing scenery and costumes for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly began.

The cover of Jun Kaneko's Madama Butterfly as well as the cover for San Francisco Opera's production  program 
I set out in a fog on August 3, 2003. Knowing nothing about opera production, this is how I felt, like I was moving through a heavy fog. I did as much research and random conceptual drawing as possible, and within a year I attended seven different productions of Butterfly across the continental U.S. Slowly the fog began to open up, and I saw some interesting conceptual directions for the opera’s design.

Act I, Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San and Brian Jagde as Pinkerton with chorus members.

One of the most difficult aspects of the opera for a person more familiar with sculpture and painting, which do not traditionally move around during an exhibition, is that nothing stays the same. There is constant movement in the music, singers’ positions on the stage and vivid lighting variations. All of these elements have to make great sense together in each moment of the performance.

Act II, Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San, Elizabeth DeShong as Susuki and kurogo.

Shortly after I started to develop the costumes, I realized that working on the scenery and costumes simultaneously would make better sense for the total artistic vision, keeping my focus on the unity of the music, singers’ voices, lighting design and the interpretations of the Artistic and Stage Directors. This complex collaboration with everyone involved in the production is the total opposite of my familiar experiences as an individual studio artist. It is a new challenge in making an artistic statement for me, full of unknowns.

Act I, Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San  

Several months into the process, I began to have a good understanding of telling Madama Butterfly’s story and the Director’s concept for the singers’ movement on stage. This was a great turning point for me and afterwards everything started to fall into position. The design’s conceptual complexity was completed by the final addition of video projections. Images moving and fading in and out gave me the opportunity to orchestrate the element of time visually on stage.

 Act II, Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San, Miles Sperske as Sorrow and Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki
I am now 28 months into my work to develop the Madama Butterfly design before Opera Omaha unveils this production at the Orpheum Theater in March 2006. This has been one of the most difficult challenges and one of the most exciting creative experiences I have had in my life. Maybe I was lucky that I did not have any prior knowledge of opera production. If you have no idea, you have no fear. I was also fortunate to have an exceptional team with which to collaborate. I have no doubt that the success of my endeavors would not be possible without having had help from this great group of people. Thank you all for giving me this fantastic opportunity to learn additional possibilities in creativity. -Jun Kaneko- Omaha 12/13/05
To learn more about June Kaneko's art, visit his website at and to purchase copies of the Madama Butterfly book visit Amazon.
Posted: 7/2/2014 10:49:18 AM by Jun Kaneko (Production Designer, Madama Butterfly)
Filed under: 2013-14Season, BrianJagde, design, MadameButterfly, production, visual, visual-artist


Backstage at San Francisco Opera is a fascinating, fast-moving, mysterious and sacred space for the Company’s singers, musicians, dancers, technicians and production crews. Musical and staging rehearsals are on-going, scenery is loaded in and taken out, lighting cues are set, costumes and wigs are moved around and everything is made ready to receive the audience. From the principal singers, chorus and orchestra musicians to the creative teams for each opera, in addition to the many talented folks who don’t take a bow on stage, this blog offers unique insight, both thought-provoking and light-hearted, into the life backstage at San Francisco Opera.


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