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Coffee fan tutti

Caffeinated comic character goes to the opera
by: ©2006 DAVID PLECHL, Stacey Murdock (being helped into his costume by Sandra Zodnik) is taking a break from Rossini to sing the lead in “Too Much Coffee Man Opera.” Espresso Guy, his rival, sports a smaller cup on his head.

With its graying demographics and dated rituals, opera needs a shot of hormone replacement therapy. Perhaps a shot of coffee will do for now?

An opera based on 'Too Much Coffee Man,' the syndicated comic by Portland artist Shannon Wheeler, makes its debut Friday night for a two-weekend run. Tying the Metamucil crowd's chosen art form to that of the contemporary hipster? Why not?

'Too Much Coffee Man Opera' is a one-hour chamber opera that uses three singers and three musicians (piano, bass and clarinet). At a recent rehearsal, it was clear that the work is funny, perceptive and eerily contemporary.

The story follows the Too Much Coffee Man thread in his graphic novel 'Parade of Tirade' (1999). Here, Too Much Coffee Man, a sad superhero wannabe, tries to pluck up the courage to talk to the hottie behind the counter at his local coffee shop.

In steps his rival, Espresso Guy, with a lot more confidence but no more luck. Even as they fight over her, she rejects them both, preferring to become a superhero in her own right, rather than just a sidekick.

They sing another ode to coffee, and that's it.

'In the comic there were three locales, but I cut them down to one so we could do this cheaply,' Wheeler says cheerfully, as he lurks at the edge of the action.

Wheeler embraced the chance to work collaboratively - cartooning is an intensely lonely job, as local successes Joe Sacco and Craig Thompson have admitted. Tonight, however, Wheeler is on the margins. He sports a bemused smile, as though surprised at how much better things have turned out than he expected.

Certainly he's enlisted some real talent. In August, baritone Stacey Murdock sang Figaro in 'The Barber of Seville' with great skill and spirit at the Washington Park amphitheater. He was also Junius in Portland Opera's 'The Rape of Lucretia' last December. Now he's Too Much Coffee Man.

'The tessitura (texture) sits a little high,' says Murdock, 33, meaning the range of the role is a little high for a baritone. 'But really it's not so different (from singing classical opera). The melodies stick with you. I'm not into unsingable music that leaves you stressed out by the end.'

Murdock enjoys the acting and appreciates that the notes go up and down like the character, who has a harmless form of attention-deficit disorder.

His character's rival, Espresso Guy (recognizable by the smaller cup on his head) is sung by tenor Matt Dolphin, 31.

'I'm a strong believer that artists should expand beyond opera and classical music,' Dolphin says. In his khakis and dress shirt he couldn't be more contemporary. 'Opera is just exaggerated life anyway,' he says, pointing out that after Too Much Coffee Man is kicked by the girl he falls to the floor and his next song plays like a death scene, for laughs.

'Also, the scoring resembles a cartoon, with its quick cuts.'

The head on her shoulders

Jasmine Presson, 28, who sings the barista, was chosen not just for her mezzo contralto voice (she's working on her Dorabella from 'Cosi fan Tutti' and her Carmen) but for her acting prowess, honed over four years off-off-Broadway. She says her training in the theater of Jerzy Grotowski and Ann Bogart - who helped develop the theatrical technique of Viewpoints - suits the cartoonish, presentational style of the action.

At one point the stage director, Devon Allen, praises Murdock for not holding back on the acting.

To which Murdock replies: 'I figure I've got nothing left to lose. I'm in a fat suit with a huge head.'

The plot doesn't twist and turn, and while each character has an arc, the drama is as much in the observational powers of the author. Lines about the coffee shop lifestyle leaving you with 'empty wallets and yellow teeth' are refreshing.

In fact, although it is surreal and 'comic' in the cartoon sense, the work has that validity that comes with being on the money. Unlike novels and movies, which always suffer from a historical lag, good comics are usually the first to make observations about everyday things. And there's no whiff of a Hollywood ending in the way the barista sings about hating her service industry job, its measly tips and the geeks who lust after her.

A kaffeeklatsch of creators

After working on the project for a while, Wheeler turned to a poet and comic book artist whose work he knew, Damian Willcox.

Willcox has some sort of boring computer-support job in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, which he doesn't bother to explain properly. His heart lies in writing, and with time on his hands at the keyboard he began writing silly odes (see www.dorkboycomics.com/odes).

Willcox says he was definitely into comics, not opera.

'I treated this like a large poetic endeavor, an ode on a grand scale,' he says by phone from Canada. He injected his own humor where he could without tampering with the basics of plot and characterization.

'There are subtle commentaries on society itself, but that was never a strong focal point,' he says. 'You don't want anything that pulls away from the comic effect.'

Such lines include:

'Inspiration abounds, love in my soul,

I haven't been so excited since my doctor found that mole.'

And

'Coffee is the one true love, the one that will not leave/

Except by force, natural discourse or a nauseous heave/

But for stains, insomnia and stomach pains, it is perfect to please/

Kind of like a library card, but without the yearly fees.'

At times they sing as though coffee is as powerful as alcohol, which quite suits today's detoxed, recovery culture.

There's also a rhyme scheme that goes 'Confesso/espresso/ gesso/obsesso.'

Clearly this was never intended to be 'Die Meistersinger.'

For music Wheeler turned to another friend (originally a friend of his mom, in fact). Rio Rancho, N.M.-based composer Daniel Steven Crafts has composed eight full operas. He set poems by Carl Sandburg to music called 'The Song and the Slogan,' for which he won an Emmy in 2003.

Again, there's nothing unsingable about Crafts' style. He favors strong melodies and in this case made an effort to keep the music light, even humorous, based on what he knew of the comic strip and the libretto that Wheeler and Willcox e-mailed to him.

Crafts would occasionally ask them to tweak a line - change an article, shuffle the syntax - for rhythm's sake. Although the work is all sung, no talking, like an opera, Crafts thinks of it more like an operetta or a musical, since its subject is so light and humorous.

'Originally I was envisioning the San Francisco Mime Troupe productions done in Golden Gate Park,' he says, referring to politically satirical musicals done with a rock backing.

He also wasn't sure what the final instrumentation would be - some kind of cabaret orchestra, he hoped. The writers and composer exchanged MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) files by e-mail, although the writers weren't really in a place to tell Crafts what to do. When the show fell short at 30 minutes, they expanded the role of Espresso Guy, and Crafts cranked out another half-hour.

Crafts treated the whole thing as a bit of fun, and an experiment too.

'Shannon's good at getting things done. I've never been any good at selling myself,' Crafts says.

Which is true. Wheeler, who is used to getting a table at San Diego Comic-Con or at Wordstock in Portland, also was a guest at Opera America's conference in Seattle last May, where real opera companies jockey to buy and sell their wares. They lapped it up.

'I was expecting the worst, that people would be pretentious and snobby, but they were real enthusiastic,' Wheeler says. 'Who knew opera people are less snobby than comic book people?'

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Too Much Coffee Man Opera

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 22-23 and Sept. 29-30

Where: Portland Center for the Performing Arts,

1111 S.W. Broadway, Brunish Hall, 503-248-4335

Cost: $24.50-$30.25; also available though Ticketmaster (503-790-2787), subject to service charges

The strip 'Too Much Coffee Man' appears in the Eugene Weekly and the Austin Chronicle, among other papers. Wheeler also draws 'Postage Stamp' for the print version of joke journal The Onion.