Minnesota Opera, renowned for pushing the envelope in today’s opera scene, has been collaborating with visual artists in the Twin Cities to encourage new interpretations of the art form we love so dearly. We invited comic artists to the dress rehearsal of Madame Butterfly to sketch their impressions. It is often very difficult to accurately render live-action scenes because of constant motion and visual complexity, but we have some amazingly talented artists in the Twin Cities. Here are some of the highlights. Enjoy, and thanks to our amazingly talented group of comic artists from the Black Hat Collective!
Opera and comics, not two things immediately linked by the brain. Yet, for the second year in a row, the Minnesota Opera opens their doors wide to an unusual set of folks, many of whom have semi-autobiographical cartoon alter egos. Through the Black Hat Collective, a comics creator club at the Geek Partnership Society, a Northeast Minneapolis nonprofit that provides programs by and for local geeks, 15 illustrators get an invite to the final dress rehearsals. With three upcoming operas left in the 2011-2012 season: Werther, Lucia Di Lammermoor, and Madame Butterfly, I caught up with three Black Hatters to get their perspective on the odd marriage of comic arts and opera.
In September 2010, Portland began Comic Artists Night @ the Opera, inspired by the webcomics cartoonist Mike Russell created after attending press nights for bloggers. Lee Blauersouth, the president of Black Hat Collective, struck upon an idea of doing something similar in the Twin Cities and pitched it to the Minnesota Opera. “In the first email that I sent out, I said, how about one under appreciated visual storytelling form help out another?” she says. Since the partnership began, the Black Hat Collective has hosted an open call for cartoonists with active blogs. The event caps out at 15 and fills fast.
Recent Minnesota transplant, Kate Saturday, of shadow puppet show Objects by Gertrude Stein featured at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, gained new perspective after attending: “Listening to opera in recordings is a vastly different experience from listening to opera in person. In person it’s transcendent, kind of magical.” This was her first opera, and as part of Comic Artists Night, she met the librettist and the composer of Silent Night. There is a definite charm in the thought of funky cartoonists at the opera, a Baroque art with roots in the aristocracy, and being able to connect it to their own aesthetic.
“I’m a counselor, Jeremiah spends a fair amount of time on farm work, Maria just got back from Teaching English in Korea, Kate does puppets, Tim works at a pizza place, Gerbil does copy editing for a legal firm. There’s something very comforting about knowing that people that do what you do, and live how you live, can do it many different ways,” Lee says. The Collective takes pride in coming from all across the board in numerous aspects of their lives: “When you’re part of a community that actively goes out of it’s way to be accepting of all walks, you’re going to get all walks,” Lee says.
The Black Hatters all had good things to say about the nerd community in the Twin Cities. “Convergence has the most active ASL translation, for example, of any convention in the country,” says Lisa Blauersouth, Lee’s wife and the author of Godseeker, the webcomic that Lee illustrates. Being welcoming in general is part of the mission of the Black Hat Collective. “It’s a really supportive and friendly environment, so if someone decides to change pronouns one day, I say, okay man, I got a shit memory, but boy, I’m gonna try for you,” Lee says. “We started out with a few people who were overtly queer, and anybody who wasn’t okay with it didn’t stick around because we weren’t going to make apologies for people we’re very fond of.”
A welcoming community is by definition, one that is easy to get involved in. “All the events are public events, like the Opera, we put up calls for everybody,” says Kate. The Minnesota comics scene is rich, home to both Neil Gaiman of Sandman and Bill Willingham of Fables as well as dozens of indie-artists who recently attended the Minneapolis Indie Xpo and tabled at the Soap Factory. Kate had the following tips for a comics outsider wanting to get involved: “Cartoonist Conspiracy has a good list of events on their page and a podcast called The Lutefisk Sushi Podcast. They also do what’s called a jam comic the first Thursday of the Month at Diamond’s Coffee House, which means they produce a 24-page comic, but everyone works on whatever part they want,” she said. And, of course, don’t forget to join the Black Hat Collective email mailing list for updates on the Minnesota Opera.
This post is unforgivably tardy. Better late than never, I suppose, and while my excuses are legitimate they are still excuses. For one thing, my scanner is an incredibly old, fussy thing that doesn’t always work with my new laptop. Perhaps it’s acting out of spite because I abandoned it for a year while I lived in Korea. Perhaps it isn’t super compatible with my Macbook. Perhaps it’s just old. Whatever the reason, even after attempting to restart the laptop and the scanner several times (which was my usual fix), I haven’t been able to get the scanner to talk to my laptop for a couple of weeks now.
How I Imagine My Electronic Devices Behave:
Laptop: I hate that scanner. It’s old and it smells funny and I don’t want to listen to it anymore.
Scanner: Eh? Did you say something, sonny? Where are my pants?
The other reason, a bit less legitimate, is that my sketches are terrible. In short: It was dark, I’m severely night-blind, and I should have brought opera glasses or binoculars or something. Noted for next time.
Though failing to capture the awesome visuals that this opera presented (the sets and costumes were wonderful, as far as I could tell, and the photos on some of my fellow blogger friends’ sites confirmed it), I am finally posting the sketchpad drawings, but please be patient and understanding of the fact that I had to take them with my webcam, so they’re not the best quality. Also, pardon the fingers. You can click on the images to make them bigger.
First of all, I loved all the kids. The way they lined up, the way they played in the park, the singing. Super adorable. Those costumes! Here is my attempted gestural sketch of the adorableness.
Now on to Werther and Charlotte. Their romance, at first, was very sweet. A sort of “love at first sight” kind of story. I’m a sucker for romance, even the tragic kind, so this appealed to me quite a bit. We had some hope that maybe, just maybe, things would work out for these two. I tried to capture some of the chemistry there, the lovely gesture of the way they walked down the staircase together, and Charlotte’s pretty party dress (I don’t think I got the design right at all, but as I mentioned, I had to guess a lot at what the blurs on stage were supposed to be).
I also sketched a bit of my favorite character in all of this, the younger sister (I think the oldest under Charlotte), Sophie. She totally had a thing for Werther, too, and she had a really cute hat with a ribbon on it. More like a bonnet, I guess? I couldn’t be sure, but the huge round shape of it caught my attention. She spends most of the show either mooning after Werther (I guess she likes the emo boys), or trying to cheer people up (both Charlotte and Werther are on the receiving end of her adorable chipperness). She also has a nice chat with Albert, Charlotte’s fiance.
And then things got weird and uncomfortable, and I gave up trying to strain my eyes. Werther grabbed Charlotte’s skirt and made her edge away nervously. Werther rolled around on the floor. HE MADE SOPHIE CRY. Everything got reduced to chibis, all the better to express the complicated feelings. So many FEELINGS!
And then I switched to marker because I couldn’t even see my pencil sketches while I was drawing them (dark room + book light = bright glare on paper = blind artist), and things got really silly. Charlotte was equated to cake (the dresses looked like you could eat them, and everyone wanted a piece of her). Albert’s consoling speech to Werther came off more as gloating and rubbing it in Werther’s face that he couldn’t have the cake Charlotte, and man, what a nice cake it was.
Captions: “Charlotte = Cake” “Man, it is so great to be married to Charlotte. I can only IMAGINE how much it sucks to be you…” “Yeah ok bro shut up.” “THIS CAKE IS SO DELICIOUS AND MOIST!”
I kind of stopped trying at all after that.
Captions: “Saddest Panda. 2nd Saddest Panda.” “Be happy!” “All the unshed tears fall back onto the soul, and the drops hammer away at a sad and weary heart.”
Most adorable suicide ever?
…What is wrong with me?
In conclusion, DO go see Werther, or any of the other fine productions at the MN Opera House. Better yet, go see all of them. Get some culture in your life. Listen to some amazingly talented performers sing about love and loss and regrets. It’s way cooler than going to see that new Twilight movie. You’ll thank me later.
Last Thursday I went along with the Black Hat Collective to another preview at the Minnesota Opera. Our mission: To draw comics, enjoy the show, and have a fun time —then blog about it!
Tonight’s show: Werther
Werther(Ver-tur) is an opera by 19th-century French composer Massenet (Massa-nay) based on an epistolary novel (a novel made out of mailed letters, like Dracula) by 18th-Century German author Goethe (Geuh-tuh).
The story is simple:
A gloomy man named Werther falls in love with a lady named Charlotte, but she’s already promised her dead mother that she’d marry a guy named Albert instead. Charlotte and Albert get married ten minutes in and then everybody cries for an hour. Then Werther shoots himself. The end.
Before I show you my cartoons or discuss the opera, I think you should know the back-story behind this play.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther when he was 24. At the time, he had a mad crush on a woman named Charlotte Buff, and used his book to vent his emotions. Goethe had considered himself a member of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement, which would later form the basis of the Romantic movement, which deemed everything natural sublime and exalted the extremes of emotion —including angst and depression as well as joy.
When The Sorrows of Young Werther came out, it struck a chord with people everywhere and became super popular. We’re talking Twilight-popular. Goethe became a celebrity overnight and “Werther Fever” spread across Europe. Werthermania inspired young dudes to dress like Werther (early cosplayers), write satirical fanfiction (such as The Joys of Young Werther) and even to perform some of the earliest known copycat suicides! This was a committed fandom!
Later in life, Goethe would grow to hate Romanticism, calling it “all that is sick.” He wrote that, “If Werther had been a brother that I had killed, I could not have been more haunted by his vengeful ghost.” Though he also understood that every young person deserves to have an emo phase, saying, “It would be sad if a person didn’t have a time in his life when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.”
After growing out of Romanticism, Goethe went on to become one of the great Humanist poets. He wrote works such as the epic 2-part Faust, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and many stories, plays, and poems. He was also a painter and a scientist, and did lots of research into optics, biology and color theory, from which he invented the first symmetrical color wheel.
100 years after Goethe gave it up, French composer Jules Massenet is still clinging onto Romanticism even as it’s falling out of fashion (its arch-nemesis, Realism, is much more in vogue). He was a big fan of talented Germans (he had a deep admiration for Wagner) and it was only natural that Massenet turn Werther, the flagship of Sturm und Drang, into an opera. At 45, Massenet had already made about 17 operas so it’s naturally pretty good music. He had some trouble getting it performed at first, and halfway through he decided to rewrite it for a baritone, rather than a tenor (the tenor version is still the most common). When it finally premiered in 1892, Massenet made bank.
Minnesota, United States, 2012.
120 years later, Thomas Boguszewski and sits in on a preview of Werther at the Minnesota Opera in Saint Paul. He draws some funny cartoons.
is about love..”
The show opens up onto a tiny room with all the walls covered in papers (love letters, presumably).
—Now I know where Baz Luhrmann stole the opening scene for Moulin Rouge.
Soon the actual set appears and it’s pretty nice. It’s a slim, sparse set in front of a large photographic backdrop of Industrial-Revolution Germany. There are smokestacks rising above the horizon and heavy clouds. The gloomy grayscale of the backdrop is offset by the little island of color that Charlotte and her siblings inhabit.
In this opera, Werther is quite the Romantic philosopher. His first song is an ode to the glory of nature, then he sings a tribute to the innocence of children, then he sings about falling in love wit Charlotte because she takes such good care of her younger siblings.
(Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to get somebody to fall in love with you, learn to be good with kids.)
At first I just sat and sketched pictures of characters and scenes that I like.
Werther at Charlotte and Albert’s wedding.
What a sad fella.
Charlotte’s sister had a good costume and
played the part of a kid well
Werther met Charlotte and Albert in July, and by Christmas, he’s decided to kill himself over them.
Werther sends a letter to Albert asking to borrow some pistols, using a cover story of “I’m going out of town and need them for protection.”
Instead he takes the gun, wanders the streets, and prepares to kill himself while dramatic music plays.
This dramatic music made my day.
Because sitting in the opera, I was listening to THIS:
But all I could hear was THIS:
In the end, Werther locks himself in his room. He has taken all the letters down from his wall and thrown them into a pile in the corner. He has also scrawled “Liebe oder Tod” (Love or Death!) in huge script on the wall.
Werther sits in the corner with his pistol. Charlotte knows what he’s about to do and is coming to stop him, but she’ll never make it in time. Werther raises his gun, prepared to fire into his own chest.
This Thursday, I got to sit in on a dress rehearsal of Werther. I was asked to join at the last minute, but it doesn’t take much to talk me into the opera anymore. The Minnesota Opera has been wonderful to my comic collective, treating us to a full season of dress rehearsals this year and giving us an inside look at the history and making of their shows. I can’t say enough good things about the Minnesota Opera. They do excellent work and are passionate about performing. I’m not much one for stage performances, usually, but they’ve–guys, I think they’ve gotten me hooked on opera.
I willingly skipped a night of fanart and new TV to go to Werther. I KNOW. I told you. Hooked.
Opera is a fascinating art form. You can sit in the theater feeling the actors’ voices surrounding you and know that, in most cases, this same song has been heard in just this way by generations of audiences. Technical aspects of the show may have been modernized since the tradition began, but the success of it still relies on the power of the human voice, carefully trained and unaided by microphones.
Werther was first performed in 1892. It’s a tragedy about a young poet, Werther, who falls in love with an engaged woman, Charlotte. When Charlotte marries her betrothed, Werther pines, convinced that she’d be happier with him. He sends her letters trying to convince her of this, then making implicit threats of suicide when his affections are not returned. Charlotte is tormented by his advances and his threats. The opera ends with Werther’s suicide, his head cradled in his beloved’s hands as his final song finishes.
I suppose it was meant to be romantic in its day, but to me, it came off as a cautionary tale about the ways we’re taught to think about love.
Love is an all-consuming goal for Werther. He’s a poet, and he treats the idea of love like a grand ideal rather than a type of affection to be shared between two people. He announces his love for Charlotte at the end of the first night he knows her. Granted, they do have an awesome amount of chemistry, but chemistry and a night dancing do not a true love make. Charlotte points out that he hardly knows her, and he dismisses her concern, too in love with the idea of love.
Charlotte seems to have a better grasp on reality than Werther, but his insistence on LOVE, LOVE, LOVE above all else – above her engagement and then marriage, above her own personal protests – outweighs her reasonableness. She asks if there’s not some other woman worthy of his affections, someone not married, and he dismisses her yet again. He won’t consider anyone else because she is the object of his love – and he treats her just like that, as an object. He doesn’t listen to her, he doesn’t consider her emotions except when her mutual crush supports his hypothesis that she’d be happier with him.
Werther haunts her life long after any well-adjusted person would have backed off. He stands at the railing singing about his woe, a hell he’s created for himself by refusing to listen to reason.
“I will not be so harsh as to say ‘never,’” Charlotte sings at one point. But anything short of “never” gives him the sliver of false hope he needs to fan the flames of his love.
There’s a chilling moment in the final act where Charlotte has been re-reading Werther’s letters to her. He writes about how lonely he is, how hollowed out by anguish at not having her as his, and how, if he doesn’t show up for Christmas, to see that he’s buried someplace nice. Charlotte is wrecked by these letters, collapsed sobbing into a chair, when Werther steps out of the shadows in the entryway behind her. During his time in her home this evening, he will plead with her, force her to kiss him, claw at her clothing and limbs when she tries to get away, and ignore every “No” until she runs away from him.
This is the image that will stick with me from this opera: Charlotte, emotionally broken, and her tormenter looming out of the darkness behind her, unaware that he’s the villain of this piece.
Because that’s what Werther is: a villain. But the scary thing about this story is, he’s a villain we all know. Walking out of the theater, I talked with my comic collective friends about how we’ve all known, dated, or briefly been a Werther. He’s that guy in your math class in eleventh grade who declares the world is against him because he can’t get a date. He’s the ex who insists you’re meant to be together and will hurt you or himself if that’s what it takes to prove it to you. He’s that part of your brain that says, “It’s okay if she doesn’t like you back. If you just keep showing her how much you like her, she’ll come around.” Werther is so driven by the idea of love that he’s blocked out the fact that it needs to be a two-way street.
The cultural messages that shaped Werther’s story are still being taught today. We still say through pop culture, “If you love someone enough, they will love you back.” We still talk and write and sing about romantic love like it’s as intrinsic to life as oxygen. We still undervalue consent. And we still teach boys to put girls on pedestals and teach girls that it’s not okay to give a definitive “no” because that’s too harsh.
The real tragedy of Werther is that it’s not an unusual story. Maybe that’s why it’s survived for 120 years.
(And hey, that got depressing. How about a cute drawing of Charlotte’s adorable little sister Sophie, who spent the whole play encouraging other people to be happy?
Back in December I had my first encounter with live opera and left with a favorable impression despite some mixed feelings about the music. Tonight there were no such qualms. Werther was overwhelmingly beautiful. The voices were huge and always in control, the story was well told, and the musicality breathtaking. There were times when the raw emotion coming through the vocals had me nearly in tears. This was everything I had hoped live opera would be.
On to the sketches…
The night kicked off with the trusty and much loved pilot G2′s in 0.38 and 10 weights. Unlike during the December show, there was no attempt made to keep up with the action as it unfolded. Happily both the sets and staging of the performance were less chaotic this time around so there was more time to study and get in some of the details.
In the second half, the G2′s were replaced with some Akashiya brush pens acquired over the holidays. It was really the first serious run with them and though a little odd at first, as they are stiffer and less pliant than other brush pens I’ve used, they were super easy to adapt to. Though not as flexible the extra rigidity gives them a really nice snappy feel.
By the end I wanted to spend a bit more time paying attention to the story and performances and left things very quick and gestural. These last doodles were with the smallest and most pen-like of the Akashiyas. All in all another stupendous night at the opera. If you’re in the twin cities area and looking for something to do I highly recommend Werther. Now I just need to find a great recording of it.