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TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN: THE OPERA    by Chris Arrant

A lot of us like coffee. A lot of us like coffee too much. From the traditional blends to the 1990s explosions of espressos, lattes and other varieties it's become a fixture on every street corner and in most Americans lives. People drink coffee in a variety of different ways, and a variety of different places. But how about the opera?

This fall, cartoonist Shannon Wheeler is bringing his satirical comic strip Too Much Coffee Man to the operatic stage. While there have been several musicals based on comic strips, a comic book onstage as an opera is something else.

Helping Wheeler in translating his comic to opera is Emmy award-winning composer Daniel Steven Crafts. Although not well known in comics circles, Crafts' is a successful composer of concert music for the likes of novelist Rudolfo Anaya and opera star Jerry Hadley. It is his collaboration with Hadley on a series of vocal works for tenor and orchestra, entitled The Song & The Slogan, which was made into a TV program for PBS in 2004 and later won an Emmy for Best Music.
For those that haven't read any of Shannon Wheeler's Too Much Coffee Man, it's about more than just coffee. This anxious everyman focus on free-thinking, a little bit of slapstick humor, nickel philosophy and brooding on the state of the world. Although visually the character wears a parody of superhero outfits, the focus is on politics and people. Wheeler's strips have been collected in four volumes by Dark Horse Comics, and the character was also the basis for a short-lived magazine featuring comics, interviews and articles.

Although there has been several volumes of Too Much Coffee Man comics over the years, the opera will be all-new material.. almost. "We used the comic as a starting point then went in new directions," explained Wheeler. "We used some lines like 'it's better to have loved and lost than to have loved and caught something.'"

The plot of the opera concerns the character of Too Much Coffee Man as he finds himself in love with the female Barista across the counter at a coffee shop. But entering the picture is the aptly named Espresso guy, who also professes feelings for the Barista. Thus ensues a love triangle, with a surprising twist at the end.

The production is billed as being a traditional opera, with "singing, arias and old-school instruments. The primary three roles of the production is Too Much Coffee Man as a baritone, Espresso Guy as a tenor, and the coffee shop's Barista voiced by a mezzo contralto. The orchestration for the opera will be a piano, cello and violin.

At this stage, Wheeler is beginning to cast the formal production and has recently met with his publisher Mike Richardson of Dark Horse Comics. Although no firm details have been set, Wheeler has said that it's positive.

When asked how he initially got inspired to do an opera of his caffeinated character, he chalked it up to opportunity. "At first I was opposed to the idea," said Wheeler. "It was only after reading Daman Wilcox's [creator of Dork Boy] odes that I thought doing an opera might work.
 
Wheeler and Crafts have been friends for over 15 years, meeting in Berkeley, California where they were living at the time. "I've always liked Shannon's work, even before he came up with the character Too Much Coffee Man," explained Crafts. "It has an edge of wit, humor and social satire that I appreciate particularly. Also, we have similar social/political outlooks. I had envisioned the work as something like a San Francisco Mime Troupe production. As I'm always looking for interesting projects, I was delighted when Shannon suggested the idea."

While Crafts’ primary role in the opera is as writer of the music, he also had some influence on the text as it fits with the music, and with some suggestions, given Crafts’ opera background.

"I love the idea that we're taking a piece of pop culture and turning it into an opera," said Robyn Williams, Executive Director of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. The first performance of the Too Much Coffee Man opera is scheduled to be held in Downtown Portland at the Brunish, a 200 seat hall, in late 2006.

Although it would be the first opera based on a comic book, it's not a negative according to Williams. "Opera today is too often viewed as 'stuffy' or 'boring'. I think something like this will bring in an audience of people who would never give opera chance otherwise. Besides, I think Too Much Coffee Man is cool. And, what an appealing icon to a Pacific Northwest coffee drinking population"

For more information on Too Much Coffee Man, visit www.tmcm.com.