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Opera Omaha enlists Jun Kaneko for new take on “The Magic Flute” – co-production of Mozart masterpiece features stunning designs setting the opera world abuzz

February 1, 2013 7 comments

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opera Omaha enlists Jun Kaneko for new take on “The Magic Flute” –  co-production of Mozart masterpiece features stunning designs setting the opera world abuzz

©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.

 

 

 

 

 

Kaneko’s process

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.

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Anti-Drug War manifesto documentary frames discussion: Cost of criminalizing nonviolent offenders comes home

February 1, 2013 2 comments

Until the documentary The House I Live In the best film I’d seen about drugs was the Steven Soderbergh drama, Traffic.  The director of the doc, Eugene Jarecki, does something very much akin to what Soderbergh did by taking a multi-perspective look at  the insidious grip the illegal drug culture and the so-called War on Durgs exerts upon every one caught up in this human chain of destruction.   My story below for The Reader is based on a recent screening and panel discussion of the film in Omaha.

 

Anti-Drug War manifesto documentary frames discussion:

Cost of criminalizing nonviolent offenders comes home

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The much-feted 2012 documentary The House I Live In provokes dialogue wherever it plays for its critique of America‘s domestic War on Drugs. Following a January 22 Film Streams screening before a full house a local panel discussed the film’s potent themes.

Director Eugene Jarecki’s (Why We Fight?) film indicts the war as failed public policy that’s wasteful, unjust and morally bankrupt for targeting nonviolent minority offenders. He suggests its true cost lies not only in the vast expenditures for arrest, prosecution and incarceration but in the disruption caused to families and communities. Every drug case has a spiral of consequences that can span generations.

The consensus of the experts and persons directly engaged in the war whom Jarecki enlists to comment on camera is that blacks are disproportionally targeted and punished. He explains he came to tackle the issue upon inquiring why a black family he knew from childhood struggled with poverty and crime. Its matriarch, Nannie Jeter, blames drugs for taking her late son James and leading other members down destructive paths.The film tells story after story of families impacted by addiction and imprisonment.

 

 

 

Eugene Jarecki

 

 

One observer notes, “We are engaged in a great experiment. What happens when you take large numbers of people, remove them from their neighborhoods, their families. What does this do to the broader community?”

Everyone from author Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) to a prison chief of security agree the prison industrial complex has superseded prevention-intervention by incentivizing arrest, conviction and confinement and thus making it a big business prone to corruption that puts profit before humanity.

David Simon, creator of The Wire and a former journalist who covered the drug war, says, “Think about all the money spent on drug enforcement, on prisons and probation officers, on judges, on narcotics agents, on interdiction and everything else. But to what end? We’re the jailingest nation on Earth, yet drugs are purer than ever before, they’re more available.”

America’s draconian approach, he said. doesn’t work.

During the panel Impact One Community Connection founder Jannette Taylor reiterated a theme in the film that the war is actually a campaign to “marginalize people” that leaves  havoc in its wake. “We need to look at the broader picture of the collateral damage from this fake war on drugs,” she said. “We need to be more realistic about what this fake war on drugs really is and how it affects poor communities and the people in it.”

She knows first-hand the personal fallout. The father of her daughter has served 17 1/2 years on drug charges. “My daughter has never had her father in her life. He was out only a short period of time before he resorted back to selling drugs and got caught up again and it’s basically because you become so marginalized. You can’t get a job, you can’t find a place to live, so you resort back to what you know – you resort to the economy that pays you.”

Jarecki introduces us to individuals for whom using and dealing were all they saw growing up. Naturally, they followed suit. Picking up a point Simon makes in the film, Taylor said the drug trade may be “the only flourishing economy” in some inner city neighborhoods and “given the limited opportunities poor inner city residents have it’s a rational decision to deal drugs.” Similarly, she said drugs become a way to medicate “if you’re living in a constant state of poverty, in depressed living conditions.”

Taylor said despite never using, dealing or serving time “I’m dealing with the same things, just from a different perspective. My daughter is caught up in this drug war because she doesn’t have a dad, so she’s being raised by a single mom. It was very hard. Once somebody gets sentenced into the system because of drugs their family’s affected. It’s like a crazy avalanche. The kids no longer have both parents, the other parent is pressured into making more money and that takes them away…It’s a domino effect. It’s a cycle and it never ends.”

Scholar Richard Lawrence Miller draws comparisons in the film between the war and “the chain of destruction” he says the ruling class historically applies to minorities in order to target, control, demonize and isolate them. He and others point to profiling, mass incarceration and mandatory minimum sentences as its manifestations.

Simon terms the drug war “a Holocaust in slow motion.”

“This is basically slavery in a new form,” said Taylor, who with others cautions, “If someone else’s rights can be compromised and violated then yours can too.”

Panelist Rodney Prince, who served a federal drug sentence, said, “I believe this war on drugs is a means, a guise to deal with a segment of the population no longer needed in this transforming economy. The intention for me doesn’t really matter, this thing is happening to people.”

Taylor and others advocate America recast the war as a public health issue that gives nonviolent addict offenders treatment rather than jail time.

Prince said, “This is an economic issue. If we know our economy can’t absorb everyone now then we have to push our elected officials and business leaders to act responsibly and to make more room for people in the economy.”

Douglas County District Court Judge Marlon Polk said education is the best deterrent to being caught up in the drug culture. Nebraska Corrections Youth Facility director Marilyn Asher and other panelists suggest we all have a stake in giving people the support and skills they need to prosper.

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