Among the disarmingly blunt things Harvey Pekar says about his opera Leave Me Alone are "I'm not a big opera fan" and "I don't know anything about doing a libretto" and "When you see it, I don't know if you'll call it an opera or not."
Regardless of whether it fits any conventional definition of opera, Leave Me Alone is being billed as such. It receives its premiere Saturday night in Oberlin. Accompanied by students from the Oberlin Conservatory, Pekar and his co-creators have the starring roles. The project began when Pekar got a call from New Hampshire-based Real Time Opera Company to write the libretto for an opera by Cleveland Heights-raised jazzman Dan Plonsey. Plonsey and the opera company gave comic-book writer and jazz critic Pekar complete liberty to choose subject matter, resulting in a libretto that's more "essay" than opera.
"For one thing I don't write fiction, period," says Pekar. "I mean the stuff that people like the most that I write is autobiographical." Pekar wanted to deal with the challenges faced by avant-garde artists - especially free-jazz players' struggle to find an audience for work that requires effort before it can be understood.
"I'm real interested in the evolution of art with a capital 'A,'" he says, noting that in the 19th century, artists breaking new ground were faced with a "time lapse" before their work was accepted, which often meant the greatest artists couldn't sell their work while they were alive.
"As bad as that was, in the 20th century, it was worse," says Pekar. "People didn't get Ulysses in 1922, and they still don't get it. They certainly don't read it for pleasure. Arnold Schoenberg and his 12-tone music happened 100 years ago, and people still don't know what to do with it."
Leave Me Alone explores the ramifications of the development of art in 20th and 21st centuries.
Pekar's collaborators have all struggled with the challenges of making new music. One of two music directors for the project is Lakewood native Joshua Smith, whom Pekar met when Smith and his band Birth were giving DIY performances around Cleveland. Smith connected Pekar and Plonsey, and his experiences attempting to develop an audience for Birth inform Pekar's libretto - which Smith describes as "part manifesto, part call to arms." Smith is returning from San Francisco, where he now lives, to perform in the jazz opera. The night after the performance, he'll lead the Leave Me Alone pit orchestra - a band of Oberlin students plus drummer Carmen Castaldi - in a set at the Beachland Tavern.
The title, Leave Me Alone, represents Plonsey's view that making art requires time to think, a rare commodity for someone whose creative work doesn't attract a big enough audience to pay the bills. In order to support themselves, let alone a family as Plonsey does, artists exploring new frontiers must have day jobs. Plonsey teaches math.
In gathering material for the libretto, Pekar found an ironic telecollaborator in comic-book artist R. Crumb. Crumb, who now lives in France, is also a jazz fan. The irony is that he believes nothing of musical value has been written since 1933. Pieces of a 20-minute phone conversation between Pekar and Crumb about artists struggling to find audiences for new works will be interwoven with Pekar's words throughout the performance.
Pekar is critical of prominent jazz artists who stick to safe, commercially viable music rather than fostering something representative of the 21st century. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, is an example.
"My God, he's considered the savior of jazz. He's just not creative. When he started out, he was doing things influenced by Miles Davis - the '65-'70 recordings. He started out playing in that kind of vein, and he just went backward. He'll have a tribute to this '20s guy and '30s guy, and that's fine if anything else is going on."
But there's not much else going on in terms of promoting new jazz to a broader audience. And so Leave Me Alone begins with Pekar onstage, delivering a critical lament, joined by musicians who incarnate the challenges he describes. There are no concrete plans for a second performance, though Real Time Opera will record the premiere and hopes to release it as a DVD.