Arizona Opera translating classic stories, starting with ‘Carmen,’ into comic books

Jan 13, 2023, 4:25 AM
(Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)...
(Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Opera usually conjures to mind images of a stage, a cast of performers, the sound of booming music and the feeling of a collective audience.

So, what happens when those feelings and images are translated into the pages of a comic book?

“Carmen: The Graphic Novel” releases digitally this week, the result of Arizona Opera’s On-Pitch Business Challenge, a program started during the COVID-19 pandemic to recontextualize famous works.

Writer Alek Shrader, an Arizona Opera alumni and singer of nearly 20 years, said as a first-time writer and longtime comic fan, the process could feel both intimidating and exciting.

“It was like Shark Tank really, this allowed me to stay in the realm of opera but expand the art form to new audiences,” Shrader said.

Several rounds of pitches were required, including a video presentation and five-year plan, showing what kind of revenue the projects could bring in.

“The word ‘niche’ was heavily featured in my pitch because both opera and comic fans know what they want,” Shrader said. “Opera is just looking for new things to do and the cost of making one of these is really not much compared to a stage production.”

The opera version of “Carmen” premiered in 1875, written by acclaimed composer, Georges Bizet, and based off Prosper Merimee’s short story of the same name. It follows the titular character as she is pursued by a general who falls in love with her in 19th century Spain.

Previous adaptations include Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 silent film, Carlos Saura’s Academy Award nominated film from 1983, and even a 2001 made-for-TV version starring Beyonce and Mekhi Pfifer. A new film adaptation, starring Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal, is set for release sometime this year.

Shrader says, despite the legacy of the source material, it was the opera and the novella he looked to most, since the opera only tells one of the novella’s four parts and felt the most topical to adapt.

“We have a young woman who is very lively, who wants to live her own life on her terms and she is faced with men who would rather control her,” Shrader said.

“It’s a story that feels very present to today’s society.”

Among the comic book professionals Shrader reached out to was artist P. Craig Russell, who won two Eisner awards — highest honors in comics — for his adaptation of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Shrader said while he initially reached out for advice, Russell jumped at the opportunity to both develop and work on the project.

“That really took a lot of the weight off my shoulders that he would manage the layout and the drama of the story, and since I knew he was an opera fan, I knew we could rely on Craig to stay true to the opera but also appeal to the readers we hoped to recruit.”

The team also wound up including “Catwoman” colorist Aneke, who also designed the book’s cover, as well as “Red Sonja” letterer Hassan Ostmane-Elhaou.

The project was primarily funded by Arizona Opera and a grant from Opera America Innovation, but the team also raised $40,000 on KickStarter to fund the book’s distribution costs, more than double their initial goal. Backers received perks ranging from copies of the book to custom artist prints to tickets for opera productions.

Shrader says that support spoke to how much interest there is in broadening what opera can be.

While he isn’t sure if other graphic novels are in the works, he’s proud to have helped bridge the gap between two mediums and two fandoms that, at first glance might seem completely different.

“If you give opera a chance, you will find something that speaks to you,” Shrader said.

“Comics has that same capacity to draw in the reader into a world completely of their imagination and we should find the intersections between both.”

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Arizona Opera translating classic stories, starting with ‘Carmen,’ into comic books