Creating Kabuki Illusions in San Francisco Opera’s Upcoming “Madama Butterfly”

Honored & Humbled

I’m about to embark on one of my most exciting stage opportunities to date. Tomorrow night I dive into rehearsals for the San Francisco Opera production of Madama Butterfly. It’s the acclaimed 1982 Harold Prince (Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, etc.) production from Lyric Opera of Chicago, most recently seen in LOC’s ’08/09 season.

I’ll be one of six Koken, a Kabuki-style performer and stage assistant/
attendant. Traditionally, their duties include assisting the leading cast with properties and costumes, helping create special and supernatural effects to propel and enhance key plot points, and acting as puppeteers. Although done discreetly, all of this is done onstage, in plain view.

From Behind Black Cloth

We’ll be clothed in all-black costumes, including a robe with cloth belt, partially transparent, veiled hood, cloven boots, and gripper gloves. They are not unlike tailored, ninja costumes to my eyes. In my surfing (aka research), it seems as if our costuming may more accurately define us as a Kurombo (meaning “black fellow,” for the costumes), rather than a Koken (meaning “assistant”). They serve the same function, but are typically costumed differently. Read more about Kabuki and Koken history here, here and here.

Apparently, in this production, the Koken are onstage for most, if not all of the performance. There are extended sections in which only the Koken are onstage, including a 30-minute ritualistic pre-show, involving the set up of various props, which will also be repeated at intermission.

The production also features a turntable that rotates over 25 times in both directions. The Koken connect sturdy hooks on thick ropes to slots on the turntable to simulate its turning. Thank goodness this one is ALL illusion! (Although, it sounds like I’m going to still have to have really good knees.) I don’t want to reveal any of the other illusions, lest I spoil the surprise element. There is an effective, almost jewel-box-like intimacy to this production, as you can see in the photo above, perhaps necessitated by the turntable.

Tai Chi Preparation

In order to help us master the specificity of movement required, we will be training in Tai Chi. with Cory Chan of Kei Lun. Training in a 700+ year old Chinese martial arts practice for a Japanese-themed opera, you ask? (I asked the same thing.) Well, I’d never done Tai Chi, but the small sampling of it I got in the audition whet my palate, as it seems the perfect balance of meditation and dancer-like movement. It’s a great way to really “get in” one’s body, and the intricate sequences will help prepare the mind for the staging sequences that will be asked of us.

Our Production

Performances are October 12th through November 27th. Buy tickets here. Our cast will include Svetla Vassileva / Daniela Dessì (Cio-Cio-San/Butterfly), Stefano Secco (Pinkerton), Quinn Kelsey / Brian Mulligan (Sharpless) and recent Adler grad Daveda Karenas (Suzuki). Nicola Luisotti / Julian Kovatchev will conduct, and SFO regular Jose Maria Condemi will direct this remounting.

Here goes…I’m ecstatic! How lovely to be able to add a Puccini opera to my previous experiences in a Verdi, Wagner and Philip Glass opera. This opera has never been one of my favorites (other than the few obvious musical highlights), but I’m sure this experience will spark a new love affair with the score.

I leave you now with arguably the most famous selection from the opera, sung by a legendary Cio-Cio-San:

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6 comments so far

  1. jose Maria Condemi on

    we are delighted to have you with us Paul!

  2. jumping clapping man on

    Haha…you found my post! Why, thank you for your lovely note.

  3. Rona on

    Beautifully written. Though I did have a giggle with the “black fellow” bit, as I said to myself I don’t have to stretch that part of the acting, at least physically speaking (hehe).

    Thank you for the history. I now have to find a Kabuki theater, or go utterly insane.

  4. jumping clapping man on

    Thanks Rona!

    And, indeed…you are perhaps our truest “Kurombo” ;-)

  5. Cheryl Ossola on

    You guys were awesome! I thought the concept of scene-changers as part of the show was so interesting, and it became even more so when I found out you were koken, in the tradition of Kabuki. I spent far more time watching all of you than I’m sure was intended, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

  6. jumping clapping man on

    Thanks Cheryl! I’m sad the experience has come to a close, but with 12 total performances, we certainly got to have plenty of fun onstage.


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