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A Classic Story Given New Wings: Opera Company Of Philadelphia & Jun Kaneko’s Production Of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly



Soprano Ermonela Jaho sings the title role in Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY with tenor Roger Honeywell as Pinkerton in the Opera Company's Jun Kaneko production of the classic opera.The audience buzzed with excitement as they entered the Academy of Music for the Opera Company’s 2009-2010 season opening production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, directed by Cynthia Stokes. Although Puccini’s classic melodies are a staple in any opera company, the seasoned audience could not anticipate the affect that the contemporary costume and set design of internationally acclaimed artist, Jun Kaneko would have on the beloved performance.

The loud chatter simmered to whispers as the lights dimmed throughout the theater, our eyes drawn to the lit curtain covered in brightly colored kimonos that had not yet started to ascend. Before we could settle into our seats, a voice over the loud speaker encouraged us to rise and sing the national anthem, an uncommon introduction for a classic opera. As part of the performance, the audience rose and sang along to sounds of the orchestra playing The Star Spangled Banner, a song that would find its way into many melodies throughout the rest of the opera. This national song set the tone for the production filled with cultural references and contrasts between Japan and America that would be sung in Italian with English translations.

For those not familiar with the back-story of Madama Butterfly, “ The beautiful, young geisha Cio-Cio San has renounced her family and surrendered all of her love and faith to her new American husband, Lieutenant Pinkerton. Intoxicated by her innocence, he pledges his love for her ecstatically, only to leave her behind when he returns to America. After waiting patiently for his return, she is met with unbearable heartbreak and, ultimately, the choice between life and honor.” Although classic in song and in story, Jun Kaneko offered a new perspective with his contemporary set design and costumes made at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum. Known for his ability to create movement with abstract yet simple patterns and bold colors, Kaneko designed costumes with sunny yellows, cobalt blues, strong polka dots, & thick stripes along with bright digital imagery displayed on large screens, which only seemed to deepen both the vocal and instrumental performances.

A topic of controversy at intermission, many seasoned audience members shared their differing thoughts on the marriage of the contemporary design with a classic performance. Madama Butterfly is in fact rooted in duality, exploring two diverse cultures and a marriage of lovers with very different perspectives on love and life. That being said, the set deign only emphasized these contrasting emotions and vocal ranges. Kaneko's modern aesthetic differed from the elaborate stage design and costumes expected in a traditional opera, which allowed the vocal performance to have an even greater presence as the vibrant colors paralleled and intensified the vibrato and swelling sounds. 

Colorful costumes and digital displays set the stage afire with bright light. Carefully considered elements such as the tea set, shape of the kimono dresses and the customary paper wall of a Japanese home, anchored the scenes in tradition. A minimal aesthetic was also established with a backdrop often lit with a solid color, a limited use of props and a blinding white floor. Although minimal at times, the set suggests movement with curvaceous lines, colorful ribbon ascending from the sky, the flow of kimonos, a swirl of a parasol and the delicate flight of petals lovingly tossed in the air. The clean set design allowed each movement to be experienced in singular moments, strengthening the visual and in turn emotional display. Roger Honeywell, who masterfully sang the part of Lieutenant Pinkerton, noted that this particular staging of “Madama Butterfly is so visually stunning and the use of color is spectacular. He creates a wonderful visual atmosphere that supports the music and the story so fully and is so quintessentially Japanese. I know the audience will be bowled over by the beauty of this piece.”

Even though the visual elements fostered debate, one did not seem to question the vocalists' breathtaking performances and awe inspiring instrumental numbers conducted by Corrado Rovaris. Ermonela Jaho, who sang the role of leading lady, Madama Butterfly, truly performed above and beyond my expectations. Her ability to express the power and emotion of family ties, new love and a marriage dissolved, while still capturing and conveying the innocent and childlike qualities of a teenager, was sincerely outstanding. It is obvious that Jaho truly had a deep connection with and firm grasp of the role as she noted that, “I am drawn to her sincerity, her passion for true love, her determination to hold what is dear in life, her extraordinary force to let go what she really loves the most in this world.”

The most spectacular scene in the entire performance was that of the bridal procession, as Madama Butterfly and family seemed to float onto the stage and towards her husband-to-be, which can be seen in the first twenty seconds on this video montage provided by Atlanta Opera from the 2008 production. It was at this very moment that the orchestra, set, lighting, costumes and vocal performances seemed to unite and then erupt with sound and sight, offering an emotionally charged sensory experience. The vibrant colors, bold shapes, moving music and swelling vocals of this season's opening production of Madama Butterfly truly set the bar for the Opera Company's future performances, as it inspired a city with groundbreaking yet classic sights and sounds.

Madama Butterfly

by Giacomo Puccini

Academy of Music


October 9, 11m, 14, 16 & 18m, 2009



Before The Performance:

Preview Kaneko’s work before the performance in the citywide celebration, On the Wings of Music: Art, Opera & You which features 11 of Jun Kaneko’s large scale art objects that are currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art-Perelman Building, Philadelphia City Hall Courtyard, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Commonwealth Plaza, & Locks Gallery.