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Opera Memphis partners with master comic-book artist P. Craig Russell for I Pagliacci.

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Attention, fanboys and true believers! Do not attempt to adjust your Flyer. The story you are about to read is a strange one indeed, taken directly from the streets of lower Manhattan. Michael Ching, Opera Memphis' mild-mannered artistic director, while in New York working on an original opera about Lewis and Clark, stumbled into a comic-book shop, discovered the works of longtime comic-book artist P. Craig Russell, and was, in a flash, transformed into Captain Opera Man, the caped defender of truth, justice, and impossibly long curtain calls.

Perhaps that telling of the story was a wee bit over the top. But isn't that always the case with opera and comic books? What Ching actually discovered in the comic-book shop were funny books that weren't all that funny: colorful issues with titles that were strangely familiar to him, titles like The Magic Flute, Ring of the Nibelung, Salome, and Pelleas et Melisande. They were all operas, beautifully and faithfully adapted by a master of visual storytelling. It was, for Ching, a revelation. He was so taken with these comics that he contacted the artist and invited him to come to Memphis and sign copies of his work for Opera Memphis. He also made plans to use Russell's adaptation of I Pagliacci as a teaching aid to introduce Leoncavallo's famous tale of jealousy and murder to Memphis high-school students.

"Opera has always had an uneasy relationship with popular culture," says Ching of his decision to enter into a media partnership with a comic book. "It needs to wake up and smell the coffee and learn how to relate to the culture around it. I think the fact that nobody [in the professional opera community] has ever contacted [Russell] before now is a real comment on the state of opera."

Russell, a seasoned veteran of both the Marvel and DC universe who has lent his talents as artist and storyteller to such famous titles as Batman and Dr. Strange, has been adapting operas into comic-book form since the 1970s, but he blames his relative obscurity in the serious opera world on his own inability to self-promote. "You get so busy making the things," he says almost apologetically. He also admits that there is a bit of snobbery at work as well.

"Anyone who wants to find my stuff has to go into a comic-book store," says Russell of the ghettoized literature. "[Regular] book stores have gotten better about carrying comic books and graphic novels, but still you have to go into that section to find them." It's Russell's belief that both the artists and the readers would be better served if graphic novels were separated by genre and sold alongside their less picture-heavy kin. That would put Russell exactly where he wants to be, in the music section.

But that's only the tip of the cultural iceberg. Although comic books have been taken more seriously of late, people still tend to think of them as something adolescent boys hide in their schoolbooks to fend off boredom.

"About 15 years ago I applied for a fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council," Russell says. "When it was announced [at the meeting], 'The next artist we are about to see draws comic books,' there was an audible groan. But once they saw the slides and looked at the books, they turned around and I got the fellowship."

Russell uses the comic-book artist's ability to edit in a nearly cinematic fashion to approximate the feeling of the music. He notes that in comic books, just like in opera, "the emotions are raw and sharp-edged" and that the images used are overly dramatic, "like something held out in the palm of the hand with a beam of light shining down on them."

"Listening to the music helps me understand how the story I'm adapting can be enlarged and illuminated," Russell says, and all the comical staccato notes and tragic crescendos are easily discovered in the artist's work. His adaptation of I Pagliacci climaxes with the closeup image of a fist shattering a mirror as the lead character, a hot-tempered clown with a taste for wine, crumbles to the floor, crying out, "Laugh, Pagliacci, laugh at the pain that poisons your heart." If you didn't know better, you would swear that the story had been written expressly for the funny pages. n

Opera Memphis' I Pagliacci and its companion piece Cavalleria Rusticana will be performed at The Orpheum on March 29th and April 1st. Visiting artist P. Craig Russell will be signing books at the performances. He will also sign copies of his books at Comics and Collectibles on Sunday, March 30th.

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