Ben Katchor's Comic Opera

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    Three years ago, after a Bang on a Can festival in Italy, BOAC's three founders?composers Gordon, Lang and Wolfe?were approached with a commission. The idea was for the three of them to collaborate on an opera?the only major stipulation was that it be something very American, very New York. The three decided that there wasn't anything more American than comic books, and that there wasn't a comic artist more New York than Katchor.

    Katchor, whose Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer premiered in NYPress in 1988, is a quiet man in his mid-40s. He speaks in weary, slow tones that make it sound as if the words were almost being dragged out of him. Though I had heard the Julius Knipl dramatizations on NPR, an opera was something quite different. I asked him what he thought?not just of the idea of the strip being turned into an opera, but also an opera composed in the contemporary, what some listeners might call "difficult," style that Bang on a Can is known for.

    "Most people, when they think of dramatizing my work, including music in any way," he told me, "they get very involved in these period sounds?film noir, or...jazz or Eastern European klezmer music, and they really narrow it down. It's part of the strip?there's all sorts of historic references. But when I heard this, I thought, this is going to be more like what I think of when I think of the strip?it's happening in this nonhistorical reference world. If somebody called up and said, 'I have this 30s string band,' I would've said, 'No thanks.'"

    "We got lucky," Ms. Wolfe interjected. "It's challenging music?it's somewhere in no-man's-land. And luckily, [Ben's] mind is in no-man's-land, too."

    The opera is based on a single strip that appeared in Metropolis magazine last December.

    "The plot is that a delivery is made between two buildings," Katchor told me. "This takes an hour and a half."

    For a second, it sounded like he was going to leave it at that. But finally he went on. "It's an incredibly short narrative arc. But it...analyzes those moments before this happened and as this is happening... We learn about two buildings that were sort of a phenomenon in architecture?the carbon copy. One building is put up using the exact plans of an earlier building. And they've both led different lives. That gets set up, and then a delivery gets made between the two. It's exactly the narrative of the strip it's based on. I just went into it at certain points and expanded what was happening."

    While expanding the strip, he didn't write rhymes or couplets?in short, he didn't write songs, as you might expect someone to do when writing an opera. He simply wrote the strip as he would have, his characters speaking normally, and let the three composers take it from there.

    "There's a music to speech," Katchor added. "It's set in time, it has a rhythm. And a composer tries to find whatever that secret rhythm is."

    Essentially what the three of them did was take Katchor's original strip and turn each panel into an individual scene. As Gordon explained it, "Ben said, 'There's a story in each of these boxes.' Which is really what happens. You read a box...and you look at the picture and you go on to the next one. The thing that I think is really great is that everything [in the opera] has been slowed down. If you read one of Ben's strips, there are 400 witty, interesting, sarcastic, ironic, funny things in there. You read it and you get a couple of them. But when you slow it down, you have the opportunity to see how totally bonzo Ben is... Every day I wake up, and I go, 'That line is so funny...' It's almost like it takes two months to register."

    "Let's hope it doesn't take the audience two months," Katchor muttered quietly.

    "As it turns out," Wolfe added, "we went through on our own and picked off the ones we'd really like to do and the ones we really wouldn't. It turns out we picked different scenes. We were very lucky."

    Wolfe said, "Michael took one that lists lots of funny names of businesses"?a professional pants splitter, a dessert embalmer, a publisher of midget bibles, etc. "I looked at it and thought, 'This is just a list. How to set a list?' I couldn't imagine it. I went for when they're eating cherry cheesecake. I can relate to that."

    They pulled together what Wolfe refers to as a "very tight, noisy band"?guitarist, a percussionist, a reed player and a keyboardist?and set to work.

    Director Bob McGrath, instead of building sets, chose to simply bring Katchor's drawings to the stage. "Just about everything happens behind a scrim. Onto the scrims are projected Ben's drawings. From behind, in costume, the singers are the characters in the strip. So in a certain sense, the strip is alive."

    "One of the interesting things is that the slides make you feel like the scale of everything is always changing," Lang explained. "They never let you forget that you're in a comic world."

    Earlier, before the others had arrived, I'd asked Katchor how this was different from doing his strip.

    "At the last minute," he said, "you can't say, 'Well, let's throw this away,' like I'd crumple up a strip and start again. It's set into motion, and a dozen people have learned their parts. Things start a way they're never set in a comic strip... As things approach opening night, you want to have as plausible a show as possible to put on the stage."

    The Carbon Copy Building, Sept. 30-Oct. 9 at the Kitchen, 512 W. 19th St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 255-5793.