Carmen is one of the most famous operas of all time and now George Bizaeti’s classic is being turned into a graphic novel by writer and performer, Alek Shrader along with artists P. Craig Russell and Aneke. The Kickstarter is live now, which you can check out here, and I managed to catch up with a very busy Alek Shrader to discuss the project, its humble beginnings during lockdown and how he got P. Craig Russell involved.
Olly MacNamee: As has been pointed out to a philistine like myself, George Bizaeti’s Carmen is probably the most famous opera in history. But, as an operatic tenor and director yourself, what does Carmen mean to you?
Alek Shrader: In opera, Carmen is an icon. Carmen is a legend as well as a household name. Carmen is what we call (lovingly!) a warhorse. To me personally, Carmen was the very first show I was in as a (pre) professional “young artist” at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. I was in the chorus (I played a soldier *and* a smuggler; I got to hold the lantern!) and I was covering (aka understudy) the small role of Remendado. That summer was magical to me. I felt like an artist. I felt joy. I was hooked. So, in very specific ways, Carmen changed my life.
OM: And I believe this project has its origins in the recent pandemic and the Arizona Opera’s out-of-the-box thinking of different ways to connect with their audience, and a potentially new audience too. How did you get involved?
AS: My sister first found AZO’s OnPitch Challenge and sent it to me. Between the two of us, we have about 1 million ideas to evolve opera… so after a few brainstorming phone calls, she felt this one was my strongest-and-yet-achievable idea for an opera company trying something new. So I did some lengthy Google research about comic creation costs, timeline, and market analysis, and I made a business plan. Then I submitted my pitch (with a *hilarious* video, or so I’m told, featuring my extensive personal comic collection) against 200 (or so!) other projects… and miraculously, I won.
OM: As for this potentially new audience, how would you best sell Carmen: The Graphic Novel to them?
AS: We hope this graphic novel appeals to those readers who prefer graphic novels to prose. Everything that exists as prose also exists as graphic novels these days. So, here’s our opera that they can consume in their preferred way, in a familiar experience that we hope will entice them to become curious about the opera itself. This includes, but is certainly not limited to students, library goers, art enthusiasts, impulse readers, and others! We’re also hopeful that our artists will generate interest within the comic book community— P. Craig Russell, Aneke, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou… COME ON! Plus, we have SEVEN incredible women joining us for the Kickstarter. It would certainly appeal to me!
OM: You have the legendary P. Craig Russell delivering layouts with artist Aneke putting a polish onto it all. How did you reach out to these two artists to get involved?
AS: The truth is… I reached out on social media. I was amazed when Craig agreed to speak to me on the phone, and I was absolutely floored when he offered to do the layouts. The generosity of the comics industry seems to be boundless. I am so grateful to all the artists and creators that were willing to take the time to respond to my DMs— to them I’m just some random guy with zero comics experience, trying to put a project together.
OM: As mentioned, you’re both an accomplished performer and director, but I imagine writing a graphic novel was something of a challenge?
AS: It was indeed a big challenge! I fancy myself a writer (screenplays, librettos, prose fiction), but the comic script was a new beast for me. I bought literally every how-to book I could find. All of them. Like, *all* of them. Then I struggled to fit the story of Carmen into our page count. Then we expanded the page count and I struggled some more. Then I sweatily pushed “Send” and the first draft of part 1 went out to P. Craig Russell… And shortly after that, considering some blunt and insightful feedback, I completely rewrote the first 30 pages! NEEDLESS to say, I am forever grateful to living-legend P. Craig Russell for collaborating with me and educating me from his fount of knowledge. I’m learning from a master on my very first book.
OM: Of course, this being a Kickstarter campaign, I’m keen to know of the additional add-ons you’ll be offering? Any other comic book artists of interest offering their services?
AS: There are SEVEN additional artists providing SIX limited art prints. They are all extraordinary women, and (again) I am truly grateful to them and the comics community for their willingness to contribute to a total noob’s dream project. I wonder if I can tell you their names yet… I think I can. I’ll tell you the ones I know I can tell (in alphabetical order): Natacha Bustos, Erica Henderson, Marguerite Sauvage, Erica d’Urso & Marissa Louise… and TWO MORE………
OM: One last question, Alek. Now you have the bug form writing, any further plans to bring opera to the comic book masses should this be a success? After Carmen, what are your other favourite operas that would work well in print, do you think?
AS: YES. I already have more opera adaptations in the works (and I could add more— hit me up on Twitter!). What I hope happens with Carmen is that other OPERA COMPANIES see that this is a very viable, cool, and useful thing to do. At the same time, I have a wish list of artists I want to work with specifically, and I hope they see this book and would be willing to give me a shot! My favorite operas are tied to those specific artists, so I don’t want to jinx it by being too revealing… but absolutely *any* opera has the potential to be a great graphic novel.
OM: Alek, many thanks, and all the best for the campaign. Here’s hoping you smash your goal long before the proverbial fat lady sings.
AS: Thanks! Someone get that green guy over here and SMASH!