First, he empties his mind. Then Omaha sculptor and painter Jun Kaneko listens to the music — three times a day, hundreds of times, over and over for months. Until something happens. He waits, he says, for the fog to lift. For something to pop out from nowhere, from the middle of his vast imagination. “It's a pretty spontaneous, natural process — to just wait for it. A starting idea,” he said last week in his fourth-floor Old Market studio. Nobody designs opera the way Kaneko does.
The artist's time-consuming process has resulted in a multimedia production of Mozart's “The Magic Flute,” which debuts this weekend as the centerpiece of Opera Omaha's season. That process and its results are unique in the opera world.
Ask those who work with Kaneko when he designs for the opera, and they sing, so to speak, in harmony.
They compare the set to a painting in motion, the costumes to sculptures. Again and again, they list the same distinguishing marks of Kaneko's creative process:
His killer work ethic, his fearless ability to take risks, his mastery of color and composition. His insistence that music, story and visuals work together in balance, his meticulous attention to detail, his collaboration without personal ego.
And his ability to focus for years on end.
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For both “Madama Butterfly,” which he designed for Opera Omaha's 2006 season, and again for “Flute,” Kaneko set aside the studio artwork he's known for internationally — paintings and sculptures, especially his rounded ceramic dangos — to focus on nothing but opera for three years.
“The Magic Flute” got raves when it premiered at the San Francisco Opera last June, and again when Opera Carolina in Charlotte, N.C., remounted the show in late January.
On each opening night, the ovation peaked when Kaneko took his bow.
If you know his artwork — with its the patterned stripes, polka dots and colors vibrating off each other — you know that the look of “The Magic Flute” is all Kaneko. So is his way of working.
His design is groundbreaking in the world of opera. The set consists almost entirely of digital animated projection for the entire length of the show, something never done before. Like the set, the sculptured costumes are drenched in dazzling colors.
Kaneko's ability to focus singularly on one task is something Americans don't do well but something that's characteristic of Kaneko's native Japan, said filmmaker Joel Geyer of Lincoln, who has made many documentaries for NET and has done a 10-minute piece about Kaneko and “The Magic Flute.”
“He doesn't study Shintoism or Zen, but he knows how to empty his mind and wait,” Geyer said.
Roger Weitz, Opera Omaha's general director, said Kaneko's intense focus on the music at the outset is what makes his process work, since he is a visual artist without training in music or opera.
“When he immerses himself, he's so focused. That's how you succeed in an art form that can seem almost foreign to someone who doesn't know music,” Weitz said.
With “The Magic Flute,” what popped out first for Kaneko was the Queen of the Night, a dark character who withholds knowledge and whose daughter is the hero's love interest.
“Her position in the story is obviously the key to the whole opera,” the artist said. “You start to imagine how the visual part could be helpful for what she's singing, how we could make an impact.”
He also watched video of 17 productions of “The Magic Flute.” They all seemed visually dark to him.
Then he noticed that the dark corners were an attempt to hide the mechanics of 25 scene changes as people rushed to keep up. It felt clumsy and visually ungraceful.
He began to think of video projection, which he used to a lesser degree in “Madama Butterfly” and a Philadelphia production of “Fidelio.”
“In one split moment, you can change the stage feeling with color and image and movement,” Kaneko said.
He didn't intend to do video from beginning to end. That evolved as the work continued with Clark Creative of Omaha, which turned hundreds of Kaneko drawings into moving images. Once he started, Kaneko said, he couldn't find a good reason to stop.
“His storyboarding is truly remarkable,” said Fred Clark, president of the advertising and design firm. “He has an amazing ability to communicate what he wants — he's very clear, precise.”
Kevin Reiner, the firm's computer animator, said Kaneko's storyboards gave the look the artist wanted on video screens. Reiner's job was to make the images move from one storyboard to the next.
“Jun always wants to be subtle,” Reiner said. “Even when has has five screens going at once, he doesn't want it to steal focus from the performer or the story. He had all the creative elements in his head at once: music, costumes, lighting.”
The costume ideas, Kaneko said, generally came just a hair behind the video and were carefully integrated visually. He said doing both himself was “a fantastic advantage, to make it all as one.”
Multiple designers might have had trouble melding their concepts, Kaneko said.
Christopher Verdosci, San Francisco Opera's assistant costume director, said he loved dyeing and hand-painting fabrics to satisfy the artist's vision, because that vision was so precise. Verdosci said most opera costumes are shaped for the performer's body. Kaneko's often were unusual combinatons of texture, color and molded shapes.
Kaneko relied on the San Francisco costumers, whose work will be seen here as well, to ensure the singers' comfort by keeping materials light and functional.
The Queen of the Night, for example, enters by rising through the floor wearing a huge bell-shaped skirt. A round design wouldn't fit through the trapdoor, so the skirt was adapted to an oval shape.
“Magic Flute” director Harry Silverstein, who is based in Chicago, said his job was to make Kaneko's vision work. To do that, he and Kaneko talked about what interested them in the story and music.
The digital projections were a risk, Silverstein said. Digital animation had never before been used as scenery for the entire length of an opera. But “I had absolute confidence in his idea,” Silverstein said.
Kaneko's wife, Ree, said the producing partners took a huge leap of faith when they decided to go with digital projection of abstract images. They weren't sure it could be done technically, or how audiences would respond.
She recalls David Gockley, San Francisco Opera's general director, saying he was “leaping off a cliff” with the artist.
Kaneko said he never doubted his vision could happen, though he was curious how they would do it. The result, he said, is “pretty damn close” to what he hoped to see.
As he reflected on the long, detailed design process, Kaneko said, he was left with one nagging question.
“I didn't understand how other (opera) designers were able to make a living,” Kaneko said. “So I asked. They design four or five at a time. This took me three years, seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. Each moment has to have a complete visual expression of the stage appearance.”
When he puts a sculpture in a museum space, nothing moves for months. With opera, he said, the movement never stops making new visual demands.
He said he wonders how other opera designers solve that problem.
“If I want to improve one minute of action on the stage, it usually takes three days,” Kaneko said. “It's not just that moment. It's adjusting what happens before that moment and after, to make it as smooth as I want it to be.”
He knows it's not practical or affordable to spend three years thinking about designing one opera, Kaneko said.
He just doesn't know how to do it any other way.
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