Backstage at San Francisco Opera > June 2014 > Directing Butterfly
Directing Butterfly
When I first met Jun Kaneko, he was on a ladder with clay up to his elbows, working on a gigantic head. He joked that the piece might take two years to dry, and then he wouldn’t be able to say whether it would crack when it encountered the incredible heat of the kiln. I knew then that we would have a rich collaboration! As with one of Jun’s large clay pieces, we worked for over two years to create the world that was to be our Madama Butterfly. It was an incredibly rich creative and collaborative process born out of deep respect for Puccini’s masterpiece and its resonance within Jun Kaneko’s beautiful and profound aesthetic vision.

My background is heavily weighted toward the development of new work and I approach any play or opera I am working on as if it is a new piece. I start with the story. Yes, I of course research how it’s been done before, what traditions exist, and such. But, I really strive to find a way to strip away traditions and find what speaks at the core of the piece to today’s audience. I am not seeking to be new for the sake of new. I am seeking to find the inner essence of the piece—what leapt out of its creator’s pen, fueled by an original intent and passion—and connect that impulse and essence to a contemporary audience. When Puccini originally presented Madama Butterfly, the West was in the thrall of a fascination with all things “oriental,” and most audiences had few preconceived images of things or places Japanese. They would be able to see Japan through Pinkerton’s eyes as something new, exciting, and highly seductive. For today’s audience, images such as fans, hanging lanterns, and parasols, lovely as they are, have become clichés. How could we help the audience brush away the veil of these clichés and once again enter the exotic world of this opera with fresh eyes? And so, as Jun and I began to work together, we focused on that very basic thing that is at the center of all theatre and opera: the story and the impetus to tell it.


In our approach to Madama Butterfly, Jun and I focused on the story as more closely related to Greek Tragedy than to a civilized ornate opera. We sought to create a setting with an elemental power that would reflect the vortex of passion that sweeps the characters into the abyss. The story that Puccini creates through his opera is stripped of any real subplots or unnecessary detail. What would happen if we, too, stripped the design down to what was simply and absolutely necessary to tell the story?


Jun’s set creates a powerful metaphor for the emotional journey of the opera. A curving, downwardly spiraling ramp pulls the characters into the space. Behind them, a sweeping cyclorama, also curved, saturated with color. The playing space continues a feeling of spiraling inward to an off-center raised disc, which represents the epicenter of emotion, as well as Butterfly’s house. As in a Zen garden or the rippling sea, circles radiate from that disc. The imagination of the audience is a powerful thing, and we trust that a simple sliding shoji screen instigates a world of creative imaginings of Butterfly’s house. As the story progresses, other less literal screens dissect the space, and projections upon these screens mirror and provoke the emotional landscape. Jun’s art is the unifying element. When Butterfly and Pinkerton sing of the stars and the moon, traditionally most productions actually have a stardrop and some sort of moonbox. Instead, we approach this through the projection of painterly images. Hence, for example, Jun’s trademark polka dots embellish a dark blue screen, becoming the stars and the night sky.


The costumes must also be within the world of Jun Kaneko’s aesthetic, while reflecting the story and its characters. The cultural differences between East and West are central to the story, and they are reflected in the contrast in silhouette between the Pinkerton–Sharpless–Kate triad and all other characters. Goro, who mediates between East and West, represents a synthesis of these styles, with his fedora-ish hat, western trousers, and hybrid jacket. The Japanese characters have elements of traditional dress reflected in the tabi on the feet, cut of sleeve and drape of clothing. All are rooted in traditional dress extrapolated into Jun’s aesthetic. The choice for Yamadori, a cutaway coat with top hat, derives from research into Japan at the turn of the last century, where we found many Japanese people of wealth adopting this style. As the opera progresses into the final act and Butterfly’s hope washes away, so too does the color gradually bleach out of the costumes and set until what once started as a colorful rainbow of joy and hope stands starkly in hues of black and white. The final punctuation is through the color red. As the music itself embraces the Japanese chord structures, the image of the rising sun slowly bleeds.

Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.
Posted: 6/27/2014 11:30:22 AM by Leslie Swackhamer (Director, Madame Butterfly)
Filed under: 2013-14Season, design, JunKaneko, MadameButterfly, production, visual, visual-artist


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