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Jim Drake’s Entertainment Blog

A comic’s taste of opera brews Sept. 19-20

By JIM DRAKE Hood River News

Shannon Wheeler never thought one of his comic strips could transform into an opera. But after performances in San Diego, Portland and Albuquerque, it’s probably sinking in that Too Much Coffee Man will stick around in this seemingly far-removed artistic format.

“What surprised me about bringing comics into opera was that it was a natural fit. I tried animation, but it was a really a tough transition because my characters were dealing with internal struggles, and a lot of my humor has to do with these internal struggles. But in opera, it’s all about internal struggle. These people are singing about their feelings, their doubts, desires, and that’s what my comic is about,” Wheeler said on the phone from New York City the other day.

Wheeler was in the Big Apple for a comic convention and to stop by the office of the New Yorker Magazine, to pitch some new comic panels for publication. This weekend, however, Wheeler, along with a professional cast of singers and musicians, will be in Hood River on Sept. 19-20 with the Too Much Coffee Man Opera, at the Columbia Center for the Arts.

Too Much Coffee Man started out as conversations between Wheeler and his friend Daniel Craft, who has produced an Emmy award winning opera for PBS.

“He’s been a friend of the family for years. I would see him usually at Thanksgiving, and we’d sit around for hours, eating and drinking, talking about opera and comics and the meaning of life. We have an ongoing feud on who actually came up with the idea to do a TMCM opera,” Wheeler said. According to Wheeler, the opera is basically an unrequited love triangle. He says there's heartbreak, but the plot is uplifting and everyone finds their own level by the end.

“Too Much Coffee Man is very much an intellectual in the true sense of the word, he’s curious about the world, and he’s always trying to reach out and find things. He’s got feelings that overwhelm him, and he tries to figure out why,” Wheeler said.

At first, the lead character is falling in love with his coffee, and then he sees the barista and he falls in love with her, but he can’t express his love.

“He laments on why he’s able to talk to a cup of coffee, but not to another person. The coffee cup, which becomes a character in the show, says it’s because you won’t be rejected by an inanimate object,” Wheeler explained.

The plot thickens as Espresso Guy enters the scene and tries to win the affection of the barista. “Espresso Guy is more forceful and strong, and he’s angry, bitter, sharp and sarcastic. But he’s still jealous of Too Much Coffee Man,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler developed the script over a three year period, and much of the time the work was simply a side project. But over time, Wheeler generated enough interest in the performing arts community to finally develop an actual production. Wheeler recalls the rough start.

“I had interest from a theater in Texas, but just when we finished the opera, the theater burned down,” Wheeler said.

“Then two weeks later, Portland Center for Performing Arts contacted me, so I was back to designing sets and costumes,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said the singers in the show were immediately able to transfer his comic character to the opera format, which surprised him.

“The lead for Too Much Coffee Man was able to read my comics and really ‘get it.’ He really defined what I wanted without too much help. I needed to let go of preconceptions, and sort of embrace the strength of opera. He really carried the essence of the character — his innocence, his curiosity and vulnerability,” Wheeler said.

Newspaper comic strips were early influences for Wheeler.

“When I was very young it was Garfield, Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes. Underground comics were a big influence too. With the newspaper strips, it was the weirdness of how one tells a story using four panels. It looked like magic to me,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler’s cartoons, along with other comic artists’ work is currently on display for a show called The Flipside, at the Maryhill Museum of Art, in Goldendale.

“The show features people who have done single panel cartoons for the New Yorker, and all of these folks have other works, a whole different side to them, in addition to their cartooning. The range is graphic novels, illustrations, fine art, a lot of them are musicians — they’re really interesting people,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler will be bringing some of his artwork to show in the lobby of the arts center this weekend. A special pre-event with Hood River Coffee Roasters is scheduled at 6:30 p.m., too. “I like coffee, but it's not essential for the show. Coffee is a metaphor more than anything real,” Wheeler said.

When I asked Wheeler if being an opera fan was a prerequisite for coming to the show, some of his comic strip humor came through in the reply.

“It's in English and it's funny (I hope). It's a great opera for both the uninitiated and veterans of opera. Plus, it's short, so if you don't like it, you won't suffer much,” Wheeler said.

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