Over the last 200 years, Beethoven's

Fidelio

has been the bearer - however haphazardly - of some of the most monumental music heard in the opera house. But perhaps only with its new Opera Company of Philadelphia production will it also become a living, breathing, singing piece of sculpture.

The creator is the internationally noted artist Jun Kaneko, a jovially unassuming, wire-haired presence these days at the Academy of Music, where his set and costume designs are - somewhat unconventionally - taking shape.

At a cost of $2 million, the stage being readied for Friday's opening appears to be in the middle of a solar eclipse: Half is in white light, half in the darkest of shadows, with ever-evolving, mood-evoking color coming from state-of-the-art projections. The costumes have similar duality, with some confoundingly subtle colors.

"This had to be custom-dyed in New York," says costumer Richard St. Clair, who was fitting a single blue sleeve onto soprano Ailyn Perez. "I couldn't find anything close. It's not turquoise, and it's not royal. It's so in the middle."

Why

that

blue? For

one

sleeve? The 66-year-old Kaneko can't say: "It's not right or wrong. It's purely intuitive taste."

His intuition has earned its authority over decades of creating large, dumplinglike ceramic sculptures - both in his native Japan and in Omaha, Neb., where he keeps his workshop - seen in 40 museums around the world, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Art Museum. The Locks Gallery at Philadelphia's Washington Square has a Kaneko exhibition titled "Dangos: Roof Garden Installation" through Nov. 8. And in New York, the City Parks Public Art Program has his sturdier works lining Park Avenue.

In opera, he's nearly a stranger, having designed only one,

Madama Butterfly

for Opera Omaha.

OCP producing director Robert B. Driver knows that production, and his sculptures, but it was in Kaneko's gridlike paintings that he saw the embodiment of prison life portrayed in

Fidelio

. Those signature grids became layer upon layer of solitary-confinement cells. "I like to think of this as a huge installation, and it just keeps evolving, right to the end," Driver says. "It's like a huge piece of his art."

Conservatives might ask what Beethoven did to deserve this; the answer would be what Beethoven failed to do. The opera, about a woman rescuing her political-prisoner husband from an 18th-century Spanish fortress, was always troubled and often revised (the composer wrote three overtures under the opera's original title,

Leonore

), partly because the theatrical templates of Beethoven's own time were better suited to lighter-hearted, less brutal tales, such as Mozart's

The Magic Flute

. Many elements of

Fidelio

- its spoken dialogue and comic romantic subplot - became antiquated as German opera evolved to produce weightier works such as Weber's

Der Freischutz

.

That's one explanation why, in recent decades, conductor Herbert von Karajan tried to improve Beethoven's theatrical flow by cutting the so-called "Gold" aria (which embodied the plot's mercantile ethics) and stage director Jonathan Miller cut all - yes, all - the spoken dialogue.

But flaws haven't stopped

Fidelio

from being a talisman in many corners of the opera world - it opened the rebuilt Vienna State Opera after World War II - thanks to some of Beethoven's noblest music. OCP music director Corrado Rovaris admits that mere orchestral rehearsals leave him fighting back tears.

"When you play this music," he says, "you feel lucky just to open the score."

Current relevance runs high; no doubt some enterprising producer will update

Fidelio

to Guantanamo Bay.

Whatever the production, casting is so difficult that Driver had his two lead singers, Christine Goerke (Leonore) and Anthony Dean Griffey (Floristan) under contract three year ago. Voices must have near-Wagnerian power and near-Mozartean agility. However, most heroic-voiced tenors don't have the kind of silhouette that suggests a starving prisoner. And such sopranos don't easily cross the gender line as Leonore disguises herself as a man to free the imprisoned Floristan.

Almost automatically, Kaneko's first answer, when approached by Driver to do the opera, was a simple "no."

"But he was going to do it," Driver says. "He just didn't know it."

Kaneko's relationship with music was mostly conceptual; his idea of a composer was John Cage. When younger, his experiments with sound led him to tape-record daily drives through Los Angeles to determine how sound reflected sight.

Yet the sculptor secretly admired Driver's pesky tenacity about

Fidelio

: "That meant he was pretty interested. Then I started listening to it. It's completely the opposite of

Madama Butterfly

. That gave me some curiosity. The only thing is, how do I find the time?" Nonetheless, he did.

"At one point," Driver says, "Leonore begins an aria with 'The rainbow that rests on dark clouds.' I need that represented in the visual support behind me. We went through the whole piece in that way."

Kaneko went into abstract-expressionist mode, with results that most impress Driver for their simplicity. "To come to a simple solution," Driver says, "can be the most difficult thing."

Lack of operatic knowledge was the catalyst. "When you see a young art student about 25 years old," Kaneko says, "they think they understand everything, but as they grow older, they find out how much they don't know. To not know any opera . . . was like becoming 25 years old. It allowed me to absorb anything and come up with the best ideas."

With such a visual component, the opera stands to be liberated from extraneous stage movement that keeps the singers interesting, as in the more literal Metropolitan Opera production, which had soprano Karita Mattila engage in coltish food fights with other characters. The Philadelphia production knows no time or place, and in its final moments defies physics, with Don Fernando saving the day by descending, Greek-god-style, from the heavens.

Without attempting exterior realism, Driver hopes to better elucidate character relationships. That's why much German spoken dialogue remains, with a specially hired language coach to make it feel as flowing and natural as possible. Similarly, Rovaris isn't following the sanctioned practice of inserting

Leonore Overture No. 3

into Act II before the finale. Audiences love it, but it interrupts the story.

Many elements, great and small, are still to be determined. Example: Driver envisioned Goerke's transforming from Fidelio the man to Leonore the heroic wife by letting her extravagantly long hair tumble from her cap. But she recently had her hair cut.

Also, costumes can wear the singers. The fact that Marzelline, the jailer's naive daughter, won't be wearing the usual washerwoman outfit, but Kaneko blue in meticulously sculpted shapes, is inspiring a characterization free of ambiguity.

With such clean lines, soprano Perez reimagines the character as having crystal-clear intentions that are constantly misundertood. Or so it looked on Tuesday. "I can't wait for her real shoes," she says, "to see what Marzelline is going to

feel

like."

David Patrick Stearns talks about 'Fidelio' on WRTI's 'Creatively Speaking' at

http:// go.philly.com/ stearnsonradio