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all photos: Kate Warren

The first thing you realizes as you walk onto the set of Washington National Opera’s new staging of Madame Butterfly is that, well, it is NOTHING like what you thought it would be.


Puccini’s classic tragedy is one of the legendary grand operas, the kind of experience where you expect everything, from wigs to kimonos to backdrops to, yes, tears to be opulent, over-the-top, larger than life.

In short, you expect (some variation of) THIS:


Instead, the vision of Jun Kaneko (whose stunning, large scale, pop art inspired sculptures welcome you to Hall of Nations at Kennedy Center, almost as a preview of things to come), is a sleeker, more minimal affair, though equally dazzling in its precision and restraint.

In short, you get something like THIS instead:


Still, this simplicity takes an army to execute.  To quote Kaneko’s interview with Washington Post: “The experience of designing in the opera really added an amazing design point of view in my visual art. Opera is definitely everything: sound, lights, space, just the whole natural world on the stage.”

The backstage is brimming with sketches and inspirations.


The wig room team is not even sure how many wigs they’ve made in the process (while we are there, there is some attempt at counting but it is quickly put to rest as the wig team has no time for rest or counting).


The costumes are laid out with the precision that almost feels architectural. “The black stripes next to the white polka dots next to the red sleeves” is the kind of dynamic we walk in on.


And the make-up rooms are a kabuki masterclass, as we watch Ermonela Jaho, transform from a modern European soprano to Madame Butterfly herself.


Still, it all feels very, almost eerily calm, especially compared to some of our other visits to Kennedy Center where 100’s of ruffles and tulle and ringlets seems to be flying all around. It is as if Kaneko’s precise designs have installed an inner zen in everyone. Which is good, because, amazingly, the company has only been rehearsing this for three weeks, with only one week here in house for director Leslie Swackhamer and WNO Music Director Philip Augin to put the final touches on the staging.


Most of the cast, has performed the opera before, though not together and not here. We overhear chats of London and New York productions, Omaha origins and German tours. But, for the next few weeks, they will live and breathe this music together.


And, of course, it all comes back to music. Madame Butterfly is how many opera fans fell in love with the form in the first place. The soaring score, the intensity of emotion, including one of the most memorable and heartbreaking finales in all opera. This production is a great reminder of that, with special treats sprinkled throughout including extended Act I love duet and the Act II soprano showcase “Un bel dì (One Beautiful Day).”


As the cast gathers for their final dress rehearsal, waiting for the sun to rise above Nagasaki you could hear a pin drop backstage.


The stage is set for Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San’s courtship and the betrayal, shame, sorrow and ultimate sacrifices that will follow. How it all unfolds, well, you have to see, and hear, for yourself.


Madame Butterfly opens this Saturday, May 6 and runs through May 21. More details and tickets here.