Harvey Pekar Makes His Opera Debut

Leave Me Alone, Harvey

hide captionAuthor Harvey Pekar delivers the opening monologue for >Leave Me Alone.

John Seyfried

Scenes From The Show

Plonsey and Smith i i

hide captionMusic director Josh Smith (left) and composer Dan Plonsey (right) perform together in the show.

John Seyfried
Plonsey and Smith

Music director Josh Smith (left) and composer Dan Plonsey (right) perform together in the show.

John Seyfried
Harvey's fans i i

hide captionIn one scene, Pekar is surrounded by adoring fans.

John Seyfried
Harvey's fans

In one scene, Harvey is surrounded by adoring fans; a singing member of the cast dons a Pekar mask and gives voice to his internal monologue. Rear: Patty Stubel; front (left to right): Christopher Rice, Harvey Pekar, Joanna Lemle.

John Seyfried

Harvey Pekar is best-known for the autobiographical comic books he began self-publishing in the 1970s, then illustrated by his friend Robert Crumb. Over the years, Pekar's caustic self-portraits have highlighted his struggles with everything from cell phones to Cleveland winters to cancer. His comic-book success earned him guest appearances on David Letterman and on this show. In 2003, the Oscar-nominated film American Splendor, closely based on Pekar's comics, gave many who had never read his books a first look at the man for whom ordinary life can be a complex thing. Now, the former hospital file clerk is making his opera debut.

Comic-book fans may not know it, but jazz fans know Pekar is one of them. He writes record reviews and album liner notes.

"I've been a critic of jazz and of fiction for a real long time, and I'm always up on my soapbox," Pekar says. "So I went and sort of put down on paper one of my rants."

What he put down on paper was the libretto of what's being called a jazz opera, titled — not uncharacteristically –- Leave Me Alone.

Pekar's Message

Leave Me Alone opens with a monologue, delivered by Pekar, about how ordinary people should support experimental art — particularly avant-garde jazz. He says he really believes he can persuade the mainstream to like this music.

"Well, I'm trying to get everyman involved in art," he says. "And I'm trying to get them involved in thinking about what it takes to get everyman into experimental music or painting or novel writing. I think it's important to have the support of the masses."

It's just the kind of music saxophonist Dan Plonsey plays in his spare time. A Cleveland native, Plonsey now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. He was approached to compose a jazz opera, and his wife — a longtime fan — suggested he call Pekar to write the libretto. Pekar had already reviewed some of Plonsey's music.

"The way Harvey and I worked, Harvey had this idea about the avant-garde needing to find its audience; otherwise it'll die," Plonsey says. "And my addition, I mean, I wanted it to be –- there's a personal need to find time to do creativity, because otherwise you'll die. So he's speaking for society and I'm kind of speaking for the individual."

Reality Onstage

In the opera, both men play themselves. The plot, not unlike a Pekar comic, is autobiographical and revolves around the writing of the opera itself. Spotlighted onstage in a set that looks like his California studio, Plonsey -– a 50-year-old high school math teacher by day –- struggles to bring home a paycheck and still have time for his art. In one scene, Plonsey's real-life wife, Mantra Ben-ya'akova Plonsey, lights into him for cleaning up the kitchen when he's meant to be working on the living room.

Mantra, an actress, dancer and mother of two, says that playing the role of the angry wife doesn't bother her too much.

"I mean," she asks, "what good does it do to give a false impression of what it's like to be an artist married to an artist with kids in the real world?"

Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner, is an author of political comics and nonfiction. She's also co-written a number of Pekar's books.

"The reality of it is, in this house, there are two writers who are both working," she says. "And one of my jobs is ... making Harvey famous. You know, publicizing him, promoting him, making deals, finding people who want to make movies. If I'd constructed this opera, I'd be celebrating the mundane activities that go on to support the art every bit as much. I wouldn't be talking about them as intrusions. Because, let's face it, if somebody's not calling you to dinner and you're the genius artist, you're not gonna eat."

Besides the two couples, Oberlin College students make up most of the opera's cast and orchestra. Patty Stubel, 23, is one of the singers.

"It's funny: I went back home to Dallas, and my friends were like, 'So, what are you doing?' I told them about this opera and I was like, 'Yeah, it's written by this guy named Harvey Pekar.' And they're like, 'American Splendor Harvey Pekar?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, I hadn't really heard of it.' And they're like, 'Are you kidding me?' So, my bad."

While a lot of other people do know who Pekar is, it's probably fair to say that even most jazz fans don't know composer Dan Plonsey's work. He'll be satisfied if just a few people leave the opera knowing a little more about him and the music he and Pekar are trying to champion.

"I'm not out to invent some whole new, crazy method of making music," Plonsey says. "I find it more interesting to try to lure people in with something that they can actually hear, and then they discover what they're listening to is really strange."

As for Pekar, the famous curmudgeon seems uncharacteristically anxious to reach an audience.

"I don't know what this is going to be like," he says. "I seriously want to make this a good show and a thought-provoking show, and I hope that the audience likes it and thinks a little bit about what I said and enjoys the music."

Pekar says that, while he hopes people will enjoy the opera, he's not about to write another one.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.