I can see you at night, reader. You pray for sleep, and finally turn to your significant other and/or favored anime wall scroll, and whisper:

Why doesn’t Jog review an opera… an opera with the flavor of comics?!

*Remember January 9, 2007. That is the date your fantasies came to life.

The Carbon Copy Building

This compact disc was released to stores this very week, unless it got delayed. I’ve seen it listed online for prices ranging from $15.00 to $19.98, so it’s around that.

It’s from Cantaloupe Music, a record label founded by the New York-based Bang on a Can musical organization. Bang on a Can is noted for its various and sundry contemporary musical projects, ranging from large concerts to the commissioning of new compositions; this particular work, however, was commissioned in 1999 by an outside organization, the Settembre Musica Festival in Torino, Italy, and has apparently enjoyed several revivals over the years, such as a 2006 restaging in Liverpool, England. It did play in the US, or at least NYC, in the year of its conception; one of the Village Voice’s critics did not like it much, and I can’t get their other critic’s review to load. You should look at those for an informed critique of contemporary opera, or at least a more informed critique than I’m likely to provide in that area. Luckily, there’s a comics aspect to examine.

Yes, the project is a self-described “comic-strip opera,” composed by Bang on a Can’s founders, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, only one of whom I can say I’m familiar with - Gordon provided the soundtrack to the film Decasia, which was a thundering found-footage extravaganza of rotting, burnt, and otherwise ruined film footage set to a wondrous hellscape catastrophe score that’s best described as a terrorist bombing of a piano factory with explosive-laden brass. It was really thrilling, I thought, though I’ll guess that most of the effect will be sapped on home video.

The art and libretto, meanwhile, is by Ben Katchor. Ah! There’s something! Comics fans will no doubt recognize Katchor from his long-running Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer strip, along with projects like The Jew of New York and Hotel & Farm - hardly a survey of the ‘alternative’ comics canon passes without some mention of him. Surely his approach is one of the more individual and immediately recognizable in comics: sprawling, intricate environments (usually city walls) surrounding wandering or relaxing characters as they tour one whimsical site or another, the dialogue and narration heavy on mock history and tongue-in-cheek sociology, metaphors arguably abounding, everything often blanketed in a cloak of imaginative decay. Which isn’t to say the decay itself is imaginative, but that the force of imagination itself is shown as ephemeral, and prone to the mutating wear of time, which perhaps makes it all better.

Believe it or not, this tone translates quite well to opera, though the listener might be forgiven for thinking they’re missing out on something anyway. Apparently, the stage version of The Carbon Copy Building sought to provide an immersive Katchor experience - the action on stage took place between two translucent screens, upon which Katchor’s original drawings (and words) were projected from the fore and aft, allowing the performers to literally exist inside the artist’s fictional world. Compromises must be made for the album version, of course, so this disc is housed inside a full-color 48-page book presenting Katchor’s material as a sort-of comic strip, and the display is illustrative of how closely the artist’s libretto matches up with his comics output. Images are generally restricted to ‘panels,’ with Katchor’s words displayed running along top or off to the side, much like in one of his strips. There is no in-panel dialogue, but the words themselves are perfectly Katchor, regaling us with the history and contemporary status of two buildings, the Palatine and the Palaver, identical in structure yet entirely different due to one’s being built in the affluent part of town and the other standing in a less rarified atmosphere. The city around them is filled with whimsy, yet human communication is seemingly nil, and all of life seems on the wane.

There's almost nothing in the way for formal 'plot', but characters do (barely) emerge, like classy editor Semele Outfielder, and one Philip Emetine, president of the Ichor Foundation (dedicated entirely to funding and supporting ‘schemes’), the two of which share a hopeless romance. There’s a delivery boy who works for a dessert embalming company who gets metaphoric muck all over his hands and spreads the sickness wherever he goes. All characters are portrayed by four performers, just as the music is performed by four musicians. It’s all extremely minimal and subdued, certain movements composed of quietly repeating tinkling keyboards, or electric guitar buzzing. Lovely, and fitting enough for Katchor, though I’d say the music still affords his words and pictures a sort of contemporary tone that’s never really risen from my readings of his work - if there’s any music rising in my head, it’s atonal old-timey picking and strumming, untuned pianos and ratty records, but this stuff is rather handsome, if throbbing and as unwilling to engage in sweep as Katchor’s city and people. Which is by design, I expect.

This is predominantly very clean work, though I suppose the crispness underlines the artist’s latent concern with modernity’s encroachment on the (farther) past. Certainly tracks like Cherry Cheesecake are full of contemporary miscommunication, as Semele and Philip go out for a meal and find themselves caught up in a veritable panic attack of music and repeated yelping , unable to make any connection in this strange, embalmed city. The aforementioned dessert embalming company is Katchor’s ultimate icon in this piece, dedicated to preserving half-eaten sweets and mounting them in windows, as inedible, beautiful artifice, just like the ravages of the dehumanizing urban environs his half-characters stroll through. In the end it’s practically self-clarification, Katchor assuring us that he’s no fetishist of the past, only a lecturer on telling fantasy communities, just as the artist delivers lectures in real-life, the show is self-awarely framed as lecturer’s slideshow.

I found it to be an enjoyable hour and twelve minutes, though I caution you that Katchor is the dominant force here, and if you find his work insufferably twee there's little hope that the quiet, conductive compositions here are going to counterbalance the effect. For those who're interested in the artist, though, I don't see how this couldn't satisfy; if the body is somewhat changed, and the hands at work multiplied, the voice emerges same and strong as ever.