A Koken’s “Butterfly”: Chapter 2

The Adventures of…

“Look! Up on the stage! It’s a samisan, it’s a parasol, it’s SUPER-KOKEN!
Slower than a drifting glacier, more stealthy than a leopard on the hunt.
Able to spin the turntable in a single hook.”

Further Feats: 40 minutes of standing in a demi-plié, 6 child’s poses, 30 minutes in a forward yoga lay, 16 turntable rotations, 1 death-defying silk drop catch, and more!

But, don’t all superheroes have baggage? Thus, I deliver my diagnosis of the Koken: In need of treatment for OCD and chronic inefficiency. These Kabuki-inspired characters in San Francisco Opera’s Madama Butterfly (of which I am 1 of 6) unfailingly offer up perfectly aligned prop placement and table settings, and impossibly measured, controlled movement. SICK!

From a serious perspective, I love exploring and learning different kinds of movement (and dance). Ours requires us to be very in sync, and move nearly as one, in an energized, yet internalized way (like the Tai Chi we trained in). It’s been the best workout I’ve gotten in ages (boy, those pliés are GREAT for the inner thighs!). I’m also savoring the meditative, spiritual practice I’m experiencing through the incredible presence this technique requires.

Given that our all-black costumes are very much like those of a ninja, our presence lends an air of intrigue and gravitas to the unfolding of the proceedings.

From left: Yvette Rosedale, Ronna Alexander, Joan Dickson, P.Z., Eliza Fox, Sherman Lee,   (Not pictured: Helen Lew; Photo by Betsy Kershner)

Demystifying Illusion & Stagecraft (WARNING: SPOILERS)

I’m amazed at how transforming the art of illusion and stagecraft are, when used so masterfully. Up-close and unlit, the set shows its almost 30 years, and doesn’t really “sing”…BUT, when lit, and from the house, it emerges full bloom into a seemingly living and breathing world. The fiber board panels with overlapping green carpet look like REAL stone and earth. The perforated metal panels that up-close look too thick and heavy-handed, appear exactly like paper screens. GENIUS!

The technological trick that enables the crew to rotate the turntable a calculated amount each time is a crafty system that includes UV painted numbers on the TT rim, that when black-lit from the side are visible only to the offstage crew. This ensures exact placements every time. WOW! Yes, the cat’s outta the bag, the Koken only pantomime the TT rotation, but it’s still a workout to make it look real, with right degree of physical tension.

Make No Mistake, This is LIVE Theatre

One of the beauties of live theatre is the thrill of the unexpected. With a Company like SFO, it’s a VERY finely oiled machine, but surprises can still emerge. On opening night we encountered our very first turntable malfunction. In Act I the final 3 rotation cues were left out, thanks to the TT “losing power.” As a result, I found myself kneeling upright nearly smack dab in the middle of the love duet. That was both a great pleasure, and a horror (“What to do?…what to do?,” I asked myself). To prevent myself from causing koken interruptus during the onset of the baby-makin’, I quickly made myself scarce, and went back into a child’s pose. Thankfully, my attending friends didn’t even notice. WHEW!

Note the Koken in child’s pose at bottom center. (Photo by Cory Weaver)

I have the great pleasure of taking part in the final ten seconds of the opera, easily the biggest moment I share in, and arguably the most iconic and impactful in all the opera (we call it the “ribbon pull”). But this exciting moment has also become a nail biter for me, as I have a split second to activate a very dramatic effect. Sadly, as I write this I’m “batting” 2 for 4, no thanks to many factors outside my control. Hopefully, all the kinks have been worked out now, so it’ll be smooth sailin’.

Up-Close & Personal

Lucky me that I get to lay on the stage floor for a time and just listen to Puccini’s beautiful score. There isn’t a better “seat” in the house. As my breath bounces off the stage floor, and my mind wanders momentarily, I ponder: “If these floors could talk!” (What would they tell about legends Pavarotti, Rysanek, Caruso,
and others?)

When you’re on a set as long as we are (from 30 minutes pre-curtain to bows, excepting a 5-minute intermission break), you really start to develop an affinity for it. This set has the woody smell of an antique, Japanese tansu (how appropriate!)…one of my favorite furniture design traditions from old Japan.

Goose Bump Moment

My favorite moment of the opera and of my own experience of this production has to be the “Humming Chorus.” What a pleasure it is, as I prepare for my re-entrance with the large ship model (the “Abraham Lincoln”), to stand alone at the back of the rear stage, and see the back drop cloth from behind, with the mountain and stars projection, purple-blue lighting, while the chorus sings from off-stage, and the turntable rotates. It’s such a beautiful and effective way to communicate the passing of time, and the stillness of Butterfly keeping vigil.

Learning Valuable Lessons & Trivia

It’s fascinating to witness, and be a part of the creative process of this grand art of opera, which can be both rewarding and frustrating, just like any worthwhile endeavor. In the final orchestra rehearsal we observed Maestro Luisotti interact with the orchestra on a very personal, intimate level. These are the kinds of moments that few are privy too…where real “orchestra building” happens…where a still relatively newish music director helps steer the very large “boat” of his orchestra in the fresh directions he passionately believes in.

Ever heard of “Milk Punch”? I hadn’t (either). Well, not until Pinkerton’s line to Sharpless: “Milk Punch, o Whiskey?” Consequently, they decide to drink a toast with the whiskey instead, but it was interesting to learn that it was a bourbon beverage, consisting also of milk, sugar and vanilla extract, and served cold. Next time I sidle up to a bar, perhaps when the bartender asks: “What’ll you have?”…I’ll say “Milk Punch,” just to see their reaction.

An Insider Review

Offering an un-biased review from onstage is nearly impossible, but, I’d like to share some thoughts on our cast nonetheless.

Our Cio-Cio San, Svetla Vassileva is a very diminutive (Bulgarian) woman, but packs a major wallop vocally. It’s surprising just how much volume and tone she can produce. She’s actually left me very curious to see her as Turandot (it’s very unlikely to make it into her repertoire, although Liù already is). I welcome Turandots of all sizes, but wouldn’t that be thrilling in the international mix to have one that really looked the age and stature of a young ice princess?

She offers a very convincing physicalization of the role, and I find her believable as the 15 year old girl at the beginning of the opera. It’s a great fit for her voice, which has a more fragile, brittle edge, not unlike Scotto’s (who I consider the definitive recorded Butterfly), and therefore feels appropriately “Asian.”

(Photo by Cory Weaver)

She is heard to best effect in the most tragic, dramatic moments, such as “Tu, tu, piccolo iddio!”, where she tells her son, “Trouble” to look carefully at her face, so that he will remember it. Also, her almost spoken utterance of “Suzuki…Suzuki, dove sei?” just prior to that is haunting and otherworldly. And, there is a perfect tear in her voice in the tiny arietta she sings to Kate Pinkerton moments later: “‘Neath the blue vault of the sky; There is no happier lady than you are.”

Stefano Secco (Pinkerton), the tenor from the Runnicles’ farewell Verdi Requiem, as well as the recent Faust dishes up italianata, with idiomatic phrasing, and a very pleasing lyric tenor. Pinkerton receives his well deserved nightly boos during bows for being a heart-breaker and cad! Quinn Kelsey, our Sharpless could sing the phone book and I’d be rapt. He sounds a bit like a young Renato Bruson, with a dash of Hvorostovsky thrown in…this is a GREAT voice in-the-making. Every note and word is caressed along a perfect legato line.

Daveda Karenas with Trouble (Photo by Cory Weaver)

Daveda Karenas (Suzuki), one of SFO’s own has evolved a lovingly crafted characteriza-tion, scaling back her Santuzza/Brangane-sized voice for a wonderful blend with Svetla, particularly in The Flower Duet (a very difficult duet, I’m told.) Thomas Glenn offers a refreshing comedic buoyancy to his Goro. If this opera were all shadows and darkness, noone could get through it!

A wonderful young soprano Yannick-Muriel Noah is the cover for the title role. She sang several of the early rehearsals, which was a real treat for the Supers. Her low register is refulgent and burnished, but she is capable of beautiful gossamer pianissimi, including the high D at the end of Butterfly’s Entrance. Get to know her, and enjoy some of her videos on her website. For a moment we were left wondering if Muriel might get the sort of unexpected, golden debut that Angela Meade got in Ernani, and Karen Slack in Luisa Miller, both at the Met, since Svetla experienced some back strain early on.

Our Pinkerton cover, Antonio Nagore is a wonder too, a definite Otello (Verdi) in-the-making!

Director Jose Maria Condemi is a master storyteller, and is very good at drawing those stories out of each performer, inspiring telling intentionality and interaction. Thankfully, he’s also a joy to work with.

Kudos to all my fellow Smokin’ Koken and Supers, and thank you to the entire cast, orchestra, crew, and staff for their commitment to this production. It’s an honor and joy working with all of you.

Read Chapter 1: Creating Kabuki Illusions


5 comments so far

  1. Rona aka KoKen #2 on

    1)Funny when I am lying on the floor I am wondering what would I do if a spider crawled from up under the Turntable onto my mask? Would I scream bloody murder, and cry like I normally do when I see a spider run across my floor? Or would I keep my Koken cool? Hmmmmm….

    2)I think I prefer the Milk Punch and will now go and make some.

    3)”Who would write my Eulogy” never crossed my mind until reading your blogs. Though I hope it is not anytime soon, you my dear friend will be writing it. You’re a great writer.

    Thanks for the Koken entries.


  2. Jose Maria on

    You guys crack me up!
    Will see you very soon. Started working with Ms. Dessi and I have a funny story already: we have invited Helen to come practice a track as she was going on last night. We are onstage and I am talking to Ms. Dessi and, without us noticing, Helen slips in and goes lay down in front of the turntable. At some point, Ms. Dessi, in the middle of a phrase, looks at me and says “what is THAT?”, pointing at a very still Helen. And we all burst into laughter as I had forgotten to tell her about the Koken and nobody had noticed Helen get into position.

  3. jumping clapping man on

    LMAO!!! brilliant. helen is so stealth! (she did a great job as understudy yesterday!) can’t wait to start the second run, after our good, week-long break.

  4. Retired Koroko on

    Nice to hear you’re enjoying yourself in Butterfly and having fun as a Super. Just wanted to let you know that Caruso never sang in this opera house. He was staying in the Palace hotel the night before the 1906 earthquake struck and he ran out of the hotel in his night clothes that morning. He took a ferry to Oakland and vowed never to return to San Francisco.

  5. jumping clapping man on

    Thank you kindly “Retired Koroko,” for the interesting enlightenment on the Caruso departure. That does sounds vaguely familiar, now that you mention it. For some reason, I prefer the drama of picturing him stomping off the stage while he says “I’m never coming back” (in Italian, of course). 😉

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