Carmen: The Graphic Novel Interview with Alek Shrader

Monday, March 28th, marked the launch of a new Kickstarter to bring Georges Bizet’s opera, CARMEN, to life in a stunning graphic novel adaptation. I’m lucky enough to have snagged an interview with the brains behind the operation, Alek Shrader of Arizona Opera. Carmen: The Graphic Novel has a pledged goal of $20,000 and ends on April 28th, so open a new tab and check it out after the interview. On top of pledging for a digital or physical copy of the graphic novel, some tiers feature works from incredible artists in the industry, such as Marguerite Sauvage, Erica Henderson, Natacha Bustos, and more.

Moth: What’s your favorite sandwich and why is it a fluffernutter?

Alek: The fluffernutter is a bridge I’ve not yet crossed, though when I do, I imagine I’ll be changed forever. For now, it’s fried chicken on a bun for me.

Moth: What made you want to merge your passions and adapt an opera into a graphic novel?

Alek: The opera graphic adaptations that I already had are so damn good, I felt there should be more! P. Craig Russell’s many works (such as The Ring, Pagliacci, Salome, AND MORE), Thomas & Kane’s Ring, Alex Alice’s Siegfried trilogy… they make me like opera more. And when the opportunity came along to create a new adaptation with Arizona Opera’s OnPitch Business Challenge, I took my shot.

Carmen: The Graphic Novel by Alek Shrader, P. Craig Russell, Aneke, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou / Arizona Opera
Carmen: The Graphic Novel by Alek Shrader, P. Craig Russell, Aneke, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou / Arizona Opera

Moth: What’s your favorite graphic novel? Are there any that inspired some of the choices you made for this project?

Alek: True graphic novels (as defined by Alan Moore)… The Death of Captain Marvel by Jim Starlin. That book still makes me pause in a profound way. But if we’re talking about collected editions, there are many. Moore/Gibbons’s Watchmen, Mignola’s Hellboy. Powell’s The Goon. King/Gerads’s Mister Miracle. Vaughan/Staples’s Saga… THE LIST GOES ON.

Moth: What made you choose to adapt Carmen?

Alek: After Arizona Opera was committed to making a comic book, we looked at their upcoming season and picked from that list. As FATE would have it, CARMEN was right there in front of us. It’s a perfect opera to adapt, being among the most popular operas ever created, with a timely story about the autonomy of women, beautiful music, and an iconic main character.

Carmen: The Graphic Novel by Alek Shrader, P. Craig Russell, Aneke, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou / Arizona Opera
Carmen: The Graphic Novel by Alek Shrader, P. Craig Russell, Aneke, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou / Arizona Opera

Moth: Tell me more about your process of turning an opera into a graphic novel.

Alek: I started with research, which I love to do. I took the original novella and the two librettos, and reconciled their differences into one story. Then I broke that story into dramatic beats, following the act structure of the opera, and applied our set page count. Then I read 50 or so how-to-write-comics books, all of them I could find. I tried to learn how to put the drama and action into panels, and how to communicate with an artist. (I would learn more later just by working with P. Craig Russell!) Initially, I had hoped that duration of musical moments in the opera would directly translate into space on the page… it still makes a certain logical sense to me. But in the end, we served the drama and the graphic nature of this book. We honor the opera, we are true to the opera, but certain things had to be adjusted for the page. (My biggest regret is losing the character Garcia from our adaptation. He’s not even in the opera, but he’s a really interesting part of the novella, and I wanted to have him be there. Tough break, Garcia.)

Moth: Did you start with character design, the story, something else?

Alek: Since I was adapting, I tried to be religious about what was described in the novella and the librettos. That applied to setting and characters. Carmen, José, Micaela, and others are precisely described. Carmen, for example, has holes in her stockings… Aneke put those holes right on the cover. After those descriptions, it was important to be respectful of the cultures that are represented in the story, even though the story as originally created falls into a type of “exoticism.” Finally, I researched a ton about the time period and made sure we only used appropriate technology. It was my hope to make a true, historical recreation of the original story.

Illustration by Erica Henderson / Carmen: The Graphic Novel
Illustration by Erica Henderson / Carmen: The Graphic Novel / Arizona Opera

Moth: Were there any sequences or emotions you felt were difficult to portray through illustration?

Alek: Nope! Sometimes I didn’t think about that at all! Luckily, I had P. Craig Russell and Aneke to work that out! I did start by suggesting emotions in panel descriptions, but the more I worked with my artists, the less I felt I needed to say. I tried to stay out of their way and let them create! When there was a specific moment that I wanted a certain way, we’d discuss it and collaborate in real time. The best example of that is when José kisses Micaela. It always bothers me when that happens in the opera, because it can paint the two of them as some sort of hopeful romance. But José is the worst. He’s a piece of crap. He has no regard for Micaela (or women in general, except his mother), so when he kisses her, it should communicate all that— it’s rough, it’s more than she bargained for. Even though she wanted him to kiss her, it was not at all what she hoped it would be. P. Craig Russell and Aneke gave me all that in a single panel!

Carmen: The Graphic Novel by Alek Shrader, P. Craig Russell, Aneke, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou / Arizona Opera
Carmen: The Graphic Novel by Alek Shrader, P. Craig Russell, Aneke, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou / Arizona Opera

Moth: Was there anything about making the graphic novel that you found surprising or harder/easier than expected?

Alek: I had written in many dramatic formats prior to this project (screenplays, librettos, plays), but the comic script was a new beast. And even after many, many how-to books, there was little consensus in the nuts and bolts of it. I’m big on story structure, so I tried to get really specific about panels and pages in a very novice writer-y way. P. Craig Russell, in his infinite generosity, gently and bluntly gave me the feedback I needed. So I threw out the first draft and started over, giving my artists much more space to CREATE. I am so grateful to have worked with these artists on my very first book. I can’t wait for the next one!

Moth: What was your favorite aspect of bringing this graphic novel to life?

Alek: I loved getting the layout pages from Craig. It was thrilling. Electric. And then I’d get the finished pages from Aneke. Another thrill. Glorious. And then I’d get the lettered pages from Hassan. It’s real. Unbelievable. It must be what Dr. Frankenstein felt like. This idea from my head had been brought to life.

Alek Shrader, writer of Carmen: The Graphic Novel
Alek Shrader, writer of Carmen: The Graphic Novel

Moth: Describe for us the story in seven words.

Alek: Carmen is not yours to control, ever.

Moth: Are you hoping or planning to adapt other operas into graphic novels?

Alek: I am already adapting a few operas right now for various entities! And I’d love to do even more— hit me up! I have a wish list of specific operas with specific artists, but I truly believe *any* opera would potentially make a great graphic novel.

Moth: What’s next for you? Are there any other upcoming projects you’re working on that we can look out for?

Alek: Next up for me is performing with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis as Dan White in the opera HARVEY MILK, then a concert of Handel’s THEODORA in NYC, then performing as Iago in Rossini’s OTELLO with Opera Philadelphia. And premiering this fall, look out for the movie I directed of Menotti’s THE MEDIUM with the Curtis Institute of Music.

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