A 32-foot serpent attacking the hero. A flock of 12-foot animals falling under a musical charm. A trio of spirits levitating in triangular pockets as they spout wise words.
Tying everything together: video projections that immerse the stage in a constant play of deep colors and dramatic contours.
That’s the fairy-tale world of “The Magic Flute” as devised by Jun Kaneko. Beginning Saturday, Mozart’s story of a prince’s quest for love and wisdom will reunite the Japanese-American artist – designer of last winter’s vibrant “Madama Butterfly” – with Opera Carolina’s audiences.
While “Butterfly” called on Kaneko to create his own vision of a real-world setting and of characters as tangible as a U.S. naval officer, “Flute” set him loose on imaginary characters and situations.
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The hero’s sidekick is half-man, half-bird. Enchanted bells neutralize a band of bad guys. At the climax, the hero and heroine prove their devotion by walking through fire.
“ ‘The Magic Flute’s’ fantasy is a really exciting thing to deal with,” Kaneko says. “As soon as Act 1 opens, this big dragon is right there,” he says. “The designer has to grab people’s attention as soon as the curtain opens. … I spent probably a few months designing the opening scene.”
Kaneko spent three years on “Magic Flute,” he says, setting aside the painting and sculpture that have been his specialty for more than three decades. As he did with “Madama Butterfly” – his first opera design, created nearly a decade ago – he began by immersing himself in CDs and DVDs of the opera.
As he watched DVD performances, he was struck by something: “Magic Flute” unfolds in a series of short scenes – some comic, some serious – and directors and designers struggled to keep them moving.
“That was the first thing I started to think about,” Kaneko says. “Was there anything I could do about this? I wanted to flow with the music a little smoother. … So I thought of video projections.”
Did he ever. While Kaneko’s “Madama Butterfly” draws on video at a few crucial points, video unfolds in “Magic Flute” from start to finish – taking over for traditional sets.
Kaneko’s “Butterfly” is “visually compelling and creative. This is almost overwhelming,” says James Meena, Opera Carolina’s general director. He saw Kaneko’s “Flute” during its premiere in summer 2012 at the San Francisco Opera.
“It creates for the eye a great feast,” Meena says.
For example, Meena points to two scenes that feature the Queen of the Night – the heroine’s mother and the opera’s villain. When she first appears, pretending to be grieving, Kaneko surrounds her with rich cobalt blue. When she returns and drops her pretence, Kaneko changes the aura.
“In the second act, when the queen is ranting at (her daughter) Pamina, it’s very dark. It’s an ominous feeling.”
When Kaneko’s images are at their most intense – especially with deep blues or reds – the effect is “stunningly exciting,” Meena says.
In “Butterfly” – as in Kaneko sculptures that the Mint Museum Uptown exhibited last year – bold graphic patterns are integral to Kaneko’s artworks. They are in “Flute,” too, where many images are dominated by stripes.
By manipulating the stripes’ thickness, color, spacing and other attributes, Kaneko says, “there are a million qualities of feeling you can develop.”
“You could do one color, a very quiet stripe, and it keeps shimmering and moving and changing into different things,” he says.
“It’s almost like music, to me. Music is sound and silence, and composing that makes the music. With stripes, you compose the lines and the space in between.”
The whole project took three years. The San Francisco Opera followed up by proposing that Kaneko design “Salome,” Richard Strauss’ tale of the Biblical princess infatuated with John the Baptist. Kaneko declined.
“Flute” will be his last opera, he says. While he was working on it, he had to neglect his painting and sculpture entirely. Now he’s back to work on those – including sculptures headed for Chicago’s Millennium Park.
“I’m back in the studio every day,” Kaneko says, “trying to catch up on the lost three years.”