Georges Bizet‘s Carmen is one of the most famous works of theater in history. Now the Arizona Opera is looking to bring the story of Carmen, Don José, Escamillo, and the rest to a wider, non-theater-going audience in a new medium: comics. The company has announced Carmen: The Graphic Novel, a comic book adaptation of the opera written by opera singer and director Alek Shrader, with art by P. Craig Russell and Aneke and letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. The book is being funded by a Kickstarter campaign which launched earlier today.
Carmen: The Graphic Novel is the first comics outing for Shrader, a tenor whose credits include productions of West Side Story, La Traviata, and The Barber of Seville, among many others. The Beat chatted with Shrader about his personal connection to Carmen, the process of adapting the opera as a graphic novel, and more. Check that out, as well as artwork from the forthcoming graphic novel, bellow.
Joe Grunenwald: When did you first encounter Carmen? What made you fall in love with it?
Alek Shrader: I grew up with opera in the house— both my parents are former opera singers. Carmen was familiar to me early on! The first time I was in a production myself was also my very first pre-professional gig, as a summer apprentice at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. I was in the chorus, singing as both a nameless soldier and a random smuggler (but I got to hold the lantern, which was a coveted moment of stage action!). It was the first time I was getting paid to sing. It was my first step towards a career in opera. I felt like an artist and the world was green. It was magic and I was hooked. AND the music can’t be beat— there’s a reason Carmen has been one of the most popular operas for almost 150 years.
Grunenwald: How did you get involved with this graphic novel adaptation? Is making comics something you’ve always wanted to do?
Shrader: I first heard of Arizona Opera’s OnPitch Challenge from my sister, who thought I might have an idea or two worth submitting. (We have many, many ideas between us.) The OnPitch Challenge was like Shark Tank for Opera. They were looking for projects that could generate revenue that wasn’t based on donations from wealthy individual patrons (which is typically how American opera survives). I put together a business plan after some serious Googling, and I was selected as a winner from about 200 submissions. I’m a lifelong, dedicated comic book reader and collector. And I’ve always been a writer, though not quite professionally. So, yes, I always had the dream to write comics, but it’s strange to think that what got me there was my opera career!
Grunenwald: I’m hard-pressed to think of two mediums that are more different than opera and comics. How did you approach translating Carmen from one to the other? What challenges did you encounter in that process?
Shrader: When I started breaking the story into pages and panels, I wondered about some magical equation where Opera Time/Duration correlates to Graphic Space. I didn’t really crack that code, but we managed to fit (almost) everything in. It was my completist approach (starting with the source novella, then two versions of the libretto, then reconciling those sources and their conflicting narratives) versus a set page count that required us to compact the drama a bit. We even expanded the page count and I still wanted more room! But I’m ecstatic with the result. Craig, Aneke, and Hassan have created a BEAUTIFUL graphic novel that will create both familiarity and curiosity for the opera. It will serve as an invitation to come into the opera house and see the live show.
Grunenwald: So much of an audience’s experience of opera is tied to the emotion that the actors bring to their performances. What techniques, if any, have you utilized to try to replicate that feeling in comics form?
Shrader: It’s just impossible to replicate a live show. Even film isn’t the same. THEREFORE, we should embrace the different methods of consuming this story. We should expand and diversify the manner in which we distribute opera. Opera needs to get OUT of the opera house and invite people IN! Watching a show is indeed out of the control of the audience (though I can attest that audience energy is fuel for the performers). Reading, on the other hand, gives control directly to the audience— they provide the voice, the mood, the stakes. It’s actually more interactive than a live show!
There’s not a wrong way to enjoy this opera, but it would be great if this book became a gateway to the opera house itself. So, I embrace the differences in live performance and graphic novel— the differences are strengths. I never wanted to replace or even compete with the live opera. If you already know Carmen, this is a beautiful companion. If you are unfamiliar, here’s another option to experience an opera outside the opera house.
Grunenwald: You’re working with incredible artists P. Craig Russell and Aneke and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou on this book. What’s that collaboration been like for you?
Shrader: I’m learning from masters on my very first book. I will be forever grateful for the generosity and patience of these insanely talented and experienced artists for having the patience to work with a total noob like me. Collaboration has always been a joy. Craig takes my scripts and improves them by adding or removing, always with an expert’s eye to the drama of each individual page, and pacing the rhythm of each 30-page chapter overall. (I confess I completely rewrote my first attempt after getting very blunt and extremely helpful feedback. hehe) Eventually, we got to a point where I was confident enough to give him a note or two, and he accepted my artistic point of view like I was an equal. The man is a legend and a champion.
And Aneke is a dream! Her lines are beautiful and her colors are perfect! She has been constantly available for discussions and collaboration, even though she’s in Spain and deservedly very busy with her own books. Her voice is particularly important to this project!
Meanwhile, Hassan is as lovely as the other two! He responds to the art with his own sparkling creativity, and is delightful to work with. I also picked his brain about many industry questions, since I’ve long been a subscriber to his PanelxPanel mag.
Grunenwald: Why should people check out Carmen, either in opera or comic form?
Shrader: The drama is engaging and beautiful (in music or drawn). The story is timely: an energetic young woman faces challenges to her autonomy from society, misogyny, and men who don’t hear the word “no.” Once you see and/or hear this opera, you’ll be changed. You’ll be hooked.
The Kickstarter campaign for Carmen: The Graphic Novel is live now, and runs until Friday, April 29th. Check out more interior art, as well as prints by, in order, Natacha Bustos, Erica Henderson, Marguerite Sauvage, and Erica D’Urso & Marissa Louise, below.