art, explained

Screens evoke 'Butterfly' magic

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By Michele Langevine Leiby
Sunday, March 6, 2011

The director calls them "magical screens," and indeed they create magic on stage: the pink and white cherry blossom world of turn-of-the-century Nagasaki, the intimate interior of a new bride's home, the grandeur of a naval ship gliding silently in the distance.

In truth, they are those quaint sliding panels commonly found in traditional Japanese architecture - and they are key to conveying mood, message and meaning in Washington National Opera's production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," now at the Kennedy Center.

Director Ron Daniels, 68, avails himself of the centuries-old technology of shoji screens to help tell the classic story of Cio-Cio-San, also known as Butterfly, the painfully innocent girl who gives herself over to a dashing but faithless American naval officer. When at the end of his tour he abandons her to wed a more suitable American woman, Butterfly must travel the road so often taken in operas and end her life.

The simple sliding walls made of wood, paper and cloth open and close in concert with the plot's progression. The way they look - first prettily adorned, then by the end tattered - evokes the resplendence of Cio-Cio-San the bride, then the degradation that engulfs her as she nears her inevitable, ruinous end.

Daniels's approach can be described as classical, with a nod to his extensive background in theater: Brazilian-born, he has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Britain's National Theatre and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.

Daniels took on "Madama Butterfly" 15 years ago and has been perfecting his iteration ever since. It is Washington National Opera's longest-running production with 14 performances, closing March 19.

The director describes the creative process behind the screens:

"I had directed two productions in Japan just before I was offered this . . . and being, as it were, available to the Japanese aesthetic and to Noh theater [a type of classical Japanese musical theater] and to the Kabuki theater influenced me considerably.

"The screens are a very important element in it because not only do the characters call for the screens to open and close, doing that also allows us to create pictures behind the screens and then open the screens out to reveal the different looks and different images to the production.

"What's more, the way that the screens move is also a musical event. They move almost in time to the music so it becomes very much a sort of complement to the singing and the orchestra.

"They are moved by people we call kurogo - which means people in black - and that stems directly from the Japanese theater. These are characters who are dressed in black and have black cloth masks over their face, and they don't really exist. They are just part of the theater language. So if a singer wants a prop all he or she has to do is put out his hand or her hand and the prop happens to arrive brought by these people who do not exist.

"The designer and his assistants create a model box and present the director with the set in miniature. I remember there was one day when I turned around to the designer, and I said, 'Wouldn't it be amazing if we could see the ship travel through the garden?' and we've done it. So in the middle of the flower duet when the cherry blossom petals are falling, we see the ship traveling through the garden, and that was an idea that came after we had already developed the model. . . . And now 15 years later it is still evolving. The thing is still a living, evolving process; otherwise, you are just repeating something that is dead, and it is of absolutely no interest whatsoever."

Madama Butterfly through March 19 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. 800-876-7372 or

© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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