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Arizona Opera jumps into graphic novel biz

"Carmen: The Graphic Novel" will be released Dec. 13 on Amazon.

Arizona Opera is getting into the graphic novel business.

On Dec. 13, “Carmen: The Graphic Novel,” based on arguably the most famous opera ever written, will be released through Amazon.

The hardback book, which will sell for $35, was adapted by Alek Shrader, a budding screenwriter and veteran tenor, with page design by the legendary graphic novel artist P. Craig Russell (Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”). Artist Aneke Murillenem (“Bylines in Blood”) illustrated the book and the the cover.

“There is a history of opera in the comic book and graphic novel space. There’s this huge … industry, all these people we’ve never connected with before,” said Arizona Opera President and General Manager Joseph Specter. “At the end of the day, Arizona Opera’s mission is to connect with people through this art form.”

The hope is that “Carmen: The Graphic Novel” will appeal to non-opera fans, who might become interested enough to venture into the theater.

Shrader

Arizona Opera’s road to the graphic novel world started back in 2018, when Specter applied for an Opera America innovation grant. The organization, which supports opera companies nationwide, launched its granting program in 2016; Arizona already had one two-year grant at the time it applied.

Specter’s pitch to the organization was a plan to team up with Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the W. P. Carey School of Business to create a competition for revenue-generating ideas outside the primary goal of staging opera.

“As an industry we were trying to connect with people outside of our traditional” setting, Specter explained.

The company, in August 2019, launched the OnPitch Business Challenge, inviting people to submit proposals that would generate new revenue streams. By April 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company had selected Shrader’s idea, for which he won $25,000.

“It’s my first time adapting an opera into a comic book,” said Shrader, who has adapted a couple small operas into films but had no clue how to do that for a graphic novel.

So he bought no less than 20 books on how to write a comic book script and Googled graphic novel artists. Russell’s name came up. When he reached out to the popular award-winning comic book creator and told him what he was doing, Russell offered to do the illustrations.

“I was just thrilled to have this living legend,” Shrader said. “It was incredible that he would work with a first-timer.”

Russell is no stranger to mining opera for graphic novel fodder. He has done graphic novels based on Mozart’s opera buffa “The Magic Flute” and a 14-book series covering Wagner’s behemoth “The Ring of the Nibelung” cycle.

“He’s got a massive following and legacy. Just his involvement meant success,” Shrader said. “No matter what happens with the book, it is going to be seen.”

When Shrader and Russell finished the book, Arizona Opera launched a month-long KickStarter crowd-source fundraising campaign last March with a goal of raising $20,000 to help cover production expenses.

Midway through the third day, they met that goal, Specter said. By the end of the KickStarter run, Arizona Opera had raised some $42,000 from 829 backers, who will receive a copy of the book as an incentive.

“It’s hard to get 829 people to a full run of an opera in some cases,” Specter said. “When you see a project like this take off, it tells you the spirit of entrepreneurship is still alive.”

Shrader said placing the book on Amazon, with Russell’s involvement, could prove to be a financial boon to Arizona Opera.

“I thought that this would be an Arizona Opera lobby item for their audiences and maybe we could reach out to other comic shops and maybe we could reach out to other opera companies,” he said. “But to expand it to (Amazon) and the mass audience of graphic novel audiences, I hope that we will get new audience members out of this and I hope that that leads to future opera graphic novels that I can be a part of.”

Arizona Opera presented Bizet's popular opera "Carmen" as part of the Tucson Desert Song Festival. In this rehearsal video is mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron as Carmen and tenor Matthew White as Don José.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com. On Twitter @Starburch


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