Smash Pages Q&A | Alek Shrader

The opera singer and comics writer discusses the graphic novel adaptation of ‘Carmen’ that is currently being crowdfunded by the Arizona Opera.

Alek Shrader is a an opera singer and director, and the writer behind the new graphic novel Carmen. It’s an adaptation of the opera by Georges Bizet, one of the most popular and successful operas of all time, which has been adapted to other mediums a lot of over the years.

Joining Shrader on this project is the great P. Craig Russell, who has adapted many operas in the past, and artist Aneke, who is drawing the critically acclaimed Bylines in Blood on the stands now. The project from Arizona Opera is being kickstarted now, and I spoke with Shrader and about his background as a comics reader, his approach to adaptation and his thoughts on the opera.

Alek, tell me about your background as a comics reader. What do you love, what did you love?

I’m big into comics! The oldest surviving comics from my childhood collection are of Superman and the X-Men— mid-Bronze Age stuff. My favorite single issue is X-Factor #24, the (re)birth of Archangel! But as a kid, the one series I collected completely was the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (Deluxe Edition). This was before the internet! OHOTMU gave me encyclopedic information and new characters/storylines to track down in back issues. These days, I’m grabbing anything written by Tom King or Brian K. Vaughan. I also love Eric Powell’s The Goon, Mignola’s Hellboy, Walker/Brown/Green’s Bitter Root, Liu/Takeda’s Monstress, Thompson/Casagrande’s Black Widow… there are so many books I love.

So the Arizona Opera was looking for a different kind of project and what made you think, a comic?

Most American opera is funded by wealthy philanthropic individuals lovingly called “patrons.” Arizona Opera held the OnPitch Business Challenge to pursue alternate sources of revenue that would not rely on those large donations. My sister found out about it and sent me the info. Then we brainstormed a few of our best ideas, finally landing on a comic book adaptation. Why a comic book? A comic book is relatively cheap to create and can be self-published. We felt that logistically and financially a comic book would be achievable for an opera company that is willing to step outside its comfort zone. And thinking of the opera adaptations that were already in my collection, I knew firsthand the value of such a book. It would serve to reach a much larger audience than ever before. Essentially, it would invite comic readers to the opera house.

Why Carmen? I mean there are a lot of operas, a lot of popular ones, what made you think it would be a good project to adapt?

Carmen is indeed one of the most popular operas ever created. Non-opera people probably know the music, even if they don’t know it’s from Carmen. It’s beautiful, gorgeous, dramatic, and tuneful. But the story of Carmen is as timely as it was 150 years ago: a young woman with a sharp wit wants to live her life and maintain her autonomy. She is challenged by society, misogyny, and men who won’t accept “no” for an answer. These men objectify her and vilify her, and try to control her. But she refuses to be controlled – even at the cost of her life, she must have freedom. A lot of people still need to hear that story.

Carmen has an interesting history. It was based on a novella. There is a libretto that Georges Bizet worked with, but since then it’s been changed. Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere made their own version of Carmen. Does that allow you a certain freedom as far as adapting the opera?

I feel the opposite is true! I had no interest in putting my “take” on Carmen. There’s no need! The story and drama work perfectly well, as well or even better than it did when it premiered in 1875. So I went back to the novella, and then the librettos – the main difference being the dialogue between musical numbers. I ignored all other subsequent versions – I wanted to stay true to the original story. That being said, there’s already at least two conflicting stories in those original three sources! As a completist, I wanted to put ALL OF IT into this adaptation, but a few details had to be left out due to available space. Apologies to Garcia, the one-eyed bandit, who does not appear in Bizet’s opera… or in this adaptation.

Obviously you’re retelling the plot, but what were the elements that you felt were essential for the book?

Even though the novella came first, this is an adaptation of the opera, so we followed closely to those dramatic beats. When possible, I’d revert to the novella, but this is Bizet’s Carmen as a graphic novel. In the previous question, I emphatically said this was not my “take” on Carmen, but to some it might seem that way. Because the way I read it, Carmen is an energetic young woman – but she’s not a seductress. Sure, she’s no prude. She can be sexual when she wants to, and she wields that power knowingly, but she is so much more than that. Her joie de vivre was important to me. Sometimes Carmen gets a bad rap – even from opera companies! – as a sexpot nymphomaniac that drove a good boy insane. No judgment against sexpot nymphomaniacs, but that’s just not true of Carmen. That’s not the story. José was a piece of garbage from the very beginning. He’s the villain. Those representations were essential.

Carmen is familiar and as you said, hugely popular. People know music from Carmen even if they don’t realize it. The plot will sound familiar and the character of Carmen is very femme fatale-ish. Does that make it easier, in a sense? That because people have a sense of it, you can focus on other aspects and not just the plot?

I think the fact that Carmen is well-known only strengthens our adaptation. Marvin Minsky said “Listening to music engages the previously acquired personal knowledge of the listener.” With that in mind (even though we’re music-adjacent), I hope the familiarity of the story will engage the reader on a personal level. Most comics do that anyway, in my humble opinion. Most operas do, too. We all know this story: girl meets boy, they’re forced up a tree, it’s not working out, a bullfighter shows up, etc. the end. I’m joking a bit, but when the story is relatable, it affects how we absorb it. Even with the exotic details of setting or time period, the story of Carmen is universal. If you know Carmen, that’s awesome, here’s a great story in a new format. If you don’t know Carmen because you don’t feel the opera is for you, even better! Check out our book and consider it a standing invitation to the opera house.

There is a famous Wagnerian term about opera, gesamtkunstwerk, which is a complicated concept but it’s about all the elements – music, acting, singing, design – coming together. And comics similarly are about the layouts and design, the art, the lettering, etc. As a director, were you seeing certain parallels in thinking about the book, in thinking about the panel borders as a proscenium? Or was that not helpful at all?

That’s a great term and kudos to you! But the term that comes to mind for how I finally wrote this thing is “smorgasbord,” because it took a variety of tactics to figure everything out. A stage director has to consider that the audience can look anywhere they want, whenever, so you have to consider that everything going on in the entire scene is potentially visible. A film director can tell the audience exactly where to look and even withhold information from the audience, or leave it to their imagination. Writing for comics kinda bounces back and forth between these two mindsets. Dialogue is also complicated. The goal is perfect characterization in fewest words. But the opera has lyrics! And I didn’t want to just illustrate the libretto – go see the opera for that! Pacing the dramatic beats from page to page – and panel to panel – had to take priority over dialogue. And so we’re back to stage versus film director. And then I realized (thanks to P. Craig Russell and his infinite wisdom) that we’re here for the art (obviously). Get the most important thing in each panel description and get out of the artists’ way. My first drafts were overwritten and jammed with details. Craig guided me to make the story richer by focusing on what the panel would SHOW and then let the artist create it!

As you said, you’re working with P. Craig Russell, who has adapted a number of operas over the years and I’m curious about working with him and were his opera adaptations useful to you as you were working on Carmen?

He’s a genius and a master of his craft. And he truly loves opera. The fact that we could have *musical* discussions became invaluable. We both wanted to get the spirit of the music on the page, and we were directly inspired by the music itself. We’d discuss musical motifs and dynamics. We were both very loyal to the libretto. His previous opera adaptations are testament to all of that. It’s obvious that he loves his work and dedicates himself in all his art, but he truly cares about opera! I had all his opera adaptations (among other P. Craig Russell opuses) before I dared to reach to him. For me, he was the wise man on the mountain! I wanted to ask him how to make a book just like the ones he already created – he offered to do the layouts himself! I was stunned!

Russell is the layout artist so he’s in a sense helping to direct the pacing, the timing, the rhythm of things. And Aneke has a different job in terms of drawing the book, the staging, the colors, the lighting. What were your conversations with her like and what does she do that really elevated the script?

Yes – Craig is the de facto “director,” following (and/or improving) the panel descriptions in my scripts, he placed characters, action, and speech bubbles. The more pages he did, the more detailed he got! Aneke then adds complete lines, finishing details, clothing, facial expressions, background – she completes the page. She also refers to my scripts and research documents so that she doesn’t have to invent absolutely everything. I love her colors as well! I like color theory, so I put into the script what overall shades I wanted for a particular scene or mood. She took those ideas and made them better! In fact, that’s usually the way we worked… She’d send me a finished page and my heart would leap. She elevated the whole damn thing.

I feel like everyone who makes a graphic novel, afterwards they either want to make more, or they never want to do anything like it again. Where do you come down?

I want to make MORE! I’m ALREADY making more! If anyone out there wants to make opera comics, HIT ME UP.

Related, after this do you want to direct a production of Carmen? Does this still excite you? Or do you cringe now every time you hear the music?

I would love to direct a CARMEN production! I think the music is GLORIOUS, and we know I think the story remains vital. CARMEN FOR EVERYONE! CARMEN FOREVER! *starts humming the overture loudly*

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