Opera Omaha Enlists Jun Kaneko for New Take on ‘The Magic Flute’ – Coproduction of Mozart Masterpiece Features Stunning Designs Setting the Opera World Abuzz
Opera and Omaha may not be synonymous in your head but this grand and venerable art form and this conservative Midwest city have quite a relationship. In fact, Opera Omaha has a reputation for groundbreaking work that you wouldn’t expect from a company its size and or from this part of the country but for many years now Opera Omaha has taken on ambitious productions, staged American and world premieres, and given the stage to phenomenal artists. In recent years the organization has developed a relationsip with Omaha-based and internationally acclaimed artist Jun Kaneko, whose designs for an original Opera Omaha production of Madama Butterfly drew raves and toured the nation. Now, Opera Omaha has partnered with several other companies to have Kaneko design a new production of The Magic Flute and it too is setting the opera world abuzz. My Metro Magazine cover story about Kaneko and his Magic Flute follows.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Metro Magazine
A new Opera Omaha co-production of Mozart’s masterwork The Magic Flute featuring costumes, sets and animations three years in the making by internationally acclaimed Omaha artist Jun Kaneko is making waves in the opera world. Following performances on both coasts the opera comes home to the Orpheum Theater February 22 and 24.
Flute finds Opera Omaha in good company
Opera Omaha’s among five producing partners of this Flute, whose world premiere last June in San Francisco earned raves for Kaneko’s boldly imaginative designs. The coproduction of San Francisco Opera, Opera Carolina, Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha and Lyric Opera Kansas City is expected to draw national attention here.
Not since the Kaneko-designed Puccini classic Madama Butterfly in 2006 has the metro’s hometown opera company been in the spotlight like this. Executive director Roger Weitz says sharing the production with the likes of the prestigious San Francisco Opera “puts us on a similar footing as these major opera companies,” adding, “It maintains and furthers Opera Omaha’s reputation as a company known for quality, exciting, adventurous new work. Companies of our size aren’t always able to be that adventurous and cutting edge and Opera Omaha has a reputation over its history of national and world premieres, commissioning artists like Jun Kaneko and launching singers like Rene Fleming.”
He suggests Flute represents the best Omaha has to offer:
“Great cities have great arts and the fact that Opera Omaha can be a producer of great art is really important. We’re a cultural exporter, and that’s great for Omaha.”
Collaborating with others also has “a practical” side. “When you think about these amazingly complex and expensive operas in these big houses, we could never afford to have the kinds of production values we have in this without combining our resources together and entering into a coproduction,” he says.
The visual palette that stands this Flute apart is entirely Kaneko’s and only came to him after he repeatedly immersed himself in the opera’s music.
“I listened to it at least twice a day for two or three months,” Kaneko says. “That’s the only way I know how to start an idea for opera – in a very true, direct way. Without music there’s no opera anyway. You can’t help it, that is the foundation. And, sure, theater, the visual part of it, the set and costume designs, those things are part of it but music has to be the starting point.”
Much of his process involves leaving himself open to inspiration.
“My way of working is pretty much intuitive. I don’t have any (preconceived) ideas when I start. You start developing an idea and it’s just like a big river running in front of you. You cant say stop and say, ‘I’ll be back tomorrow and start again from that point.’ It doesn’t work that way in my mind. Once it gets going you have to go with it.”
The concept for the seamless projected animations that distinguish his Flute revealed itself as he searched for a way to streamline the many set changes he felt interrupted the opera’s flow.
“That sort of bothered me, that it’s not graceful enough, so I started to think, Can I do something to change all that? That’s how I started to think about projection. I started to play with that idea and after a couple months it just made sense for me to get that basic movement of the opera change really smooth using projection.”
Omaha’s Clark Creative Group animated his abstract paintings.
“I wasn’t trying to do something new or crazy,” Kaneko says. “At first the producers weren’t sure. They felt this might really be too much. So we had a lot of discussions and finally they said, ‘We think we can handle it.’”
The technical challenges of realizing his vision are immense. A state-of-the-art projection system must work in concert with the lighting, the music and the action on stage to create a harmonious balance with his cascade of images.
“To me, all of those elements have to work as one piece. I’m always thinking about the total stage,” says Kaneko.
He made sketches, he worked with a scale model maquette of the stage and saw digital renderings of his designs. When he finally saw them full size,, he says, “It really surprised me. It was much better than what I thought.”
A mosaic completed and brought to life
“I think he really has created among the most spectacular evenings in the theater I’ve been a part of,” says Flute stage director Harry Silverstein. “The movement of these spectacular animations he’s done have the effect of a painting unfolding. It’s a combination of stunning artistry and real technical brilliance that brought this production to the stage.”
Weitz says Kaneko and Silverstein pushed things to such a limit creatively and technically that it made him and his fellow opera company directors nervous.
“Because he’s such a unique artist and his Flute designs are so new we just weren’t sure. But it’s beautiful. The digital projections are on these large floor-to-ceiling screens and these images are all moving – swirling, dripping – and they’re so well done. The images and costumes are so vibrant and crisp. It’s just like a living, breathing Kaneko. You got the sense you were witnessing something new. People were just enthralled.”
The thunderous reception that followed, including a standing ovation for Kaneko, affirmed for Weitz “this is what Opera Omaha could be doing and should be doing. It was just a warm, exciting feeling. I thought, Wow, wait till it comes to Omaha.”
The wait is over. For tickets, visit www.operaomaha.org/operas or call 402-346-7372.