Quick, which term don't you think of when you hear the name Harvey Pekar?
B) "American Splendor"
D) Opera composer
If you picked "D," no one would blame you. The very idea of rough-hewn Harvey in a tux at the opening of "The Magic Flute" seems laughable. But in truth, all four answers are correct.
On Jan. 31, Harvey's opera, "Leave Me Alone" makes its world debut at Oberlin College, just a 45-minute drive from Cleveland, Ohio. And as Pekar might say, if you can't make it, don't sweat it. The production will be broadcast live to an international audience at www.LeaveMeAloneOpera.com For those who can make it to the 8:00PM premiere, it's free.
To be perfectly clear, "Leave Me Alone" is not an opera in the classic connotation of the word. It's being called a "Jazz opera," which means it can be pretty much whatever Pekar wants it to be. Pekar wrote the libretto (that's the text of an opera, kids) and framed the whole presentation into a storyline. The music was written by jazz saxophonist Dan Plonsey, of the San Francisco area. Another San Franciscan, Josh Smith, is the music director, and music students from internationally renowned Oberlin College will perform and sing.
Pekar, who lives a bit east of Cleveland in the city of Cleveland Heights, is best known for his art-as-life comics and graphic novels. He was writing autobiographical comics back in the 1970s, breaking new ground. Besides Robert Crumb, who illustrated most of Pekar's early underground work in the 1970s, he's worked with dozens of artists including Gary Dumm, Spain Rodriguez, Joe Zabel and more recently Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld.
Outside the comics world, most people remember Pekar for "American Splendor," the very accurate movie based on his comic book of the same name. The writer is also known for his appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman."
Fewer people realize that Pekar is a huge jazz fan and has been writing music reviews for newspapers and magazines for years. But opera? Not so much. Pekar is the first to admit he's no opera expert. "I don't know if a lot of people would call it an opera," he told CBR News. "But the Real Time Opera Company offered me money to write the libretto for an opera, so I figured 'why not?' These days, I hate to turn money down."
Call "Leave Me Alone" what you like, but the producers have no qualms about calling it opera. "This is a piece about its own making," said Paul Schick, executive producer for Real Time Opera. "It's a jazz opera that involves improvisation. It's about the state of avant-garde art. If it makes too much sense, we failed. These people are not individually reconcilable. The show itself is not finalizable."
"Finalizable" is a classicly Pekar non-word, but the meaning is clear. Pekar was commissioned to write an opera that's sort of about writing an opera about the decline of appreciation of jazz. A jazz opera. "Leave Me Alone" is a podium to express Pekar;s feelings about society's disdain for experimental art, especially jazz.
The idea started when Plonsey wanted to write a show about the tough life of a jazz musician. Since Pekar, a jazz enthusiast, writes about how tough it is to be a comic writer, it seemed they had something in common. Plonsey posed the idea to Pekar, who agreed to write a framework for the monologues, the scenes and the musical numbers.
One of the most interesting parts of the night comes at the very beginning, a 20-minute tape of a telephone call from Cleveland to Paris between Pekar and his former collaborator, underground comics pioneer Robert Crumb. CBR readers can listen to an excerpt right here (4.5MB MP3). The guys talk about the kind of music they like and argue about who's right. "Crumb thinks no good music has been written after 1933," Pekar said. "But we talk about it."
"People don't accept experimental art, few people even read James Joyce anymore," Pekar continued. "Jazz has no following, not real jazz. The musicians have to sell their own CDs at the shows because record companies don't want them. I want to tell people if they turn their backs on anything new and different, the art form will die."
"Leave Me Alone" will also include several short sketches. Pekar hopes his wife, Joyce Brabner, will join him onstage to re-enacting a scene from their homelife. "Will Joyce be in it? Well, I'm hoping," he said. "She had plans to write a piece, that's what she intended. I don't know exactly what, or if, she wrote something. But we'll have something."
Plonsey and his wife, Mantra Ben-ya'akova, will perform a sketch revolving around the day they panicked at the imminent arrival of guests. As Pekar put it, "it's a sketch about his wife screaming at him to clean the house. It's pretty funny."
Somehow it will all come back to music, because that's what "Leave Me Alone" is all about. "People are gaga over Wynton Marsalis because he plays the old stuff," Harvey said. "Technically, he's a good musician. That's the kind of person making it in jazz. But I want to talk about the kind of jazz that people aren't listening to. It's important and people need to open themselves up to new experiences."
Plonsey will perform several jazz pieces, as will music director Josh Smith. But, as Plonsey put it, don't expect Wynton Marsalis. "Really, the connection to jazz is on a deeper level: it is jazz in that it's part of the looser, less formal side of the American experimentalist tradition," Plonsey told CBR, explaining his musical part of the show. "It's jazz because if Sun Ra wasn't jazz on every one of his albums, then nothing is. It's music that comes from being open to the unexpected and relying upon the creative input of its performers. It's jazz because if there's no one who questions that a particular bit of music is jazz, then that music isn't jazz, and certainly there's very little of my music that isn't questionable. And also: as a saxophonist, I am exclusively influenced by jazz musicians: from Ben Webster, Charlie Parker up through Coltrane, Ornette, Roscoe Mitchell, Braxton. Call it a jazz opera."
Plonsey grew up in Cleveland Heights and graduated from Cleveland Heights High School in a class with several notable comic book artists. "Though I'm a musician, I've been really into comics off and on," he said. "In high school, I wrote hundreds of little comics. Also in my graduating class were Peter Kuper and Seth Tobacman."
Pekar said if the show is successful, he would consider restaging it in a few other cities, but said that would be up to the production company. He's happy about the show being broadcast over the Internet, but confessed such things are beyond him. "I like to do things simply," he said. "Driving a car is as far as I go, technologically. People think I'm kidding when I say I know nothing about the Internet, but it's true."
The world premiere of "Leave Me Alone" will be 8 p.m. Jan. 31 in Finney Chapel, 90 North Professor St., Oberlin College. For more information, visit www.LeaveMeAloneOpera.com or call the Oberlin Conservatory 24-Hour Concert Hotline at 440-775-6933.
The performance will also be streamed live at www.LeaveMeAloneOpera.com. A poster of a six-panel cartoon by Pekar and artist Joseph Remnant, signed and limited to 300, is available for sale at the site.