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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Harvey Pekar is best known for the autobiographical comics he began publishing in the 1970s. Over the years, his caustic self-portraits have highlighted his struggles with everything from cell phones to Cleveland winters to cancer. The success of his comic books earned him guest appearances on "The David Letterman Show" and on this show. In 2003, the Oscar-nominated film, "American Splendor," closely based on his comics, introduced Harvey Pekar to many who'd never read his books. And tonight, the former hospital file clerk is making his opera debut with his wife and another couple onstage at Oberlin College. From member station WKSU, Karen Schaefer reports.

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

Mr. HARVEY PEKAR (Comic Book Writer): I've been a critic of jazz and of fiction for a real long time, and I'm always up on my soapbox, you know. So I sort of put down on paper one of my rants.

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

(Soundbite of jazz opera "Leave Me Alone")

Mr. PEKAR: Hello, I'm the famously dyspeptic Harvey Pekar. I came up with a theme for tonight's performance and helped put it together.

SCHAEFER: "Leave Me Alone" opens with a monologue delivered by Pekar about how ordinary people should support experimental art, particularly avant-garde jazz. And he really believes he can convince the mainstream to like this music.

Mr. PEKAR: I'm trying to get every man involved in art, into experimental music or painting or novel writing. It's important to have the support of the masses. I'm trying to get them to think about what it takes.

SCHAEFER: It's just the kind of music saxophonist Dan Plonsey plays in his spare time.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

SCHAEFER: 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 Pekar fan, suggested he call Harvey to write the libretto. Pekar had already reviewed some of Plonsey's music.

Mr. DAN PLONSEY (Composer; Saxophonist): The way Harvey and I worked was Harvey had this idea about the avant-garde needing to find its audience, otherwise it'll die. My addition was I wanted it to be also a personal kind of - there's a personal need to find a time to do creativity, otherwise you'll die. So he's speaking for society, and I'm kind of speaking for the individual.

(Soundbite of jazz opera "Leave Me Alone")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Music is the next system.

SCHAEFER: 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 on stage 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, lights into him for cleaning up the kitchen when he's meant to be working on the living room.

(Soundbite of jazz opera "Leave Me Alone")

Ms. MANTRA PLONSEY: (Singing) Stop that.

Mr. PLONSEY: (Singing) What?

Ms. PLONSEY: (Singing) Stop sweeping with all the things we have to do.

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

Ms. PLONSEY: 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?

SCHAEFER: Across the stage, the 69-year-old Pekar alternately writes, sleeps and eats on a secondhand sofa on a set designed to replicate his own cluttered Cleveland living room. Sitting in his real-life living room for an interview, Pekar was interrupted by his wife, Joyce Brabner.

Ms. JOYCE BRABNER: Oh, hi. Could you do interviews out of the house, Harv?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, I know. But I didn't think you were going to be back so soon.

Ms. BRABNER: Well, I'm sorry, but you know, we've had too many people in.

Mr. PEKAR: Well.

Ms. BRABNER: I'd appreciate if you could wrap this one up.

Mr. PEKAR: OK. You're right.

Ms. BRABNER: Like I said, I'm serious, Harv. I just don't want...

Mr. PEKAR: I know, I know you're serious.

Ms. BRABNER: No, that means you take me seriously, OK?

SCHAEFER: Brabner is an author of political comics and non-fiction. She's also co-written a number of Pekar's books. Despite her fit of pique, she's a strong supporter of her husband's work.

Ms. BRABNER: The reality of it is that in this house there are two writers who are both working. And you know, one of my jobs is making Harvey famous, you know, publicizing, promoting him, making deals, finding people who want to make movies. See, if I had been constructing 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 going to eat.

SCHAEFER: Besides the two couples, Oberlin College students make up most of the opera's cast and orchestra. Twenty-three-year-old Patty Stubel(ph) is one of the singers.

Ms. PATTY STUBEL: It's funny. I went back home to Dallas, and my friends were like, so, you know, what are you doing? And I told them about this opera, and I was like, yeah, it's written by this guy named Harvey Pekar. And they're like, as in "American Splendor" Harvey Pekar? And I was like, yeah, I had never, you know, I hadn't really heard of it. And they're like, are you kidding me? So, my bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHAEFER: While a lot of other people do know who Harvey Pekar is, it's probably fair to say 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PLONSEY: You know, I'm not out to sort of invent some whole new, crazy method of making music. 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.

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

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

SCHAEFER: Pekar says while he hopes people will enjoy the opera, he's not about to write another one. For NPR News, I'm Karen Schaeffer in Kent, Ohio.

SIMON: You can see photos from "Leave me Alone" and hear a conversation between Harvey Pekar and artist (unintelligible) at nprmusic.org.

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