Opera and comics, not two things immediately linked by the brain. Yet, for the second year in a row, the Minnesota Opera opens their doors wide to an unusual set of folks, many of whom have semi-autobiographical cartoon alter egos. Through the Black Hat Collective, a comics creator club at the Geek Partnership Society, a Northeast Minneapolis nonprofit that provides programs by and for local geeks, 15 illustrators get an invite to the final dress rehearsals. With three upcoming operas left in the 2011-2012 season: Werther, Lucia Di Lammermoor, and Madame Butterfly, I caught up with three Black Hatters to get their perspective on the odd marriage of comic arts and opera.
In September 2010, Portland began Comic Artists Night @ the Opera, inspired by the webcomics cartoonist Mike Russell created after attending press nights for bloggers. Lee Blauersouth, the president of Black Hat Collective, struck upon an idea of doing something similar in the Twin Cities and pitched it to the Minnesota Opera. “In the first email that I sent out, I said, how about one under appreciated visual storytelling form help out another?” she says. Since the partnership began, the Black Hat Collective has hosted an open call for cartoonists with active blogs. The event caps out at 15 and fills fast.
Recent Minnesota transplant, Kate Saturday, of shadow puppet show Objects by Gertrude Stein featured at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, gained new perspective after attending: “Listening to opera in recordings is a vastly different experience from listening to opera in person. In person it’s transcendent, kind of magical.” This was her first opera, and as part of Comic Artists Night, she met the librettist and the composer of Silent Night. There is a definite charm in the thought of funky cartoonists at the opera, a Baroque art with roots in the aristocracy, and being able to connect it to their own aesthetic.
“I’m a counselor, Jeremiah spends a fair amount of time on farm work, Maria just got back from Teaching English in Korea, Kate does puppets, Tim works at a pizza place, Gerbil does copy editing for a legal firm. There’s something very comforting about knowing that people that do what you do, and live how you live, can do it many different ways,” Lee says. The Collective takes pride in coming from all across the board in numerous aspects of their lives: “When you’re part of a community that actively goes out of it’s way to be accepting of all walks, you’re going to get all walks,” Lee says.
The Black Hatters all had good things to say about the nerd community in the Twin Cities. “Convergence has the most active ASL translation, for example, of any convention in the country,” says Lisa Blauersouth, Lee’s wife and the author of Godseeker, the webcomic that Lee illustrates. Being welcoming in general is part of the mission of the Black Hat Collective. “It’s a really supportive and friendly environment, so if someone decides to change pronouns one day, I say, okay man, I got a shit memory, but boy, I’m gonna try for you,” Lee says. “We started out with a few people who were overtly queer, and anybody who wasn’t okay with it didn’t stick around because we weren’t going to make apologies for people we’re very fond of.”
A welcoming community is by definition, one that is easy to get involved in. “All the events are public events, like the Opera, we put up calls for everybody,” says Kate. The Minnesota comics scene is rich, home to both Neil Gaiman of Sandman and Bill Willingham of Fables as well as dozens of indie-artists who recently attended the Minneapolis Indie Xpo and tabled at the Soap Factory. Kate had the following tips for a comics outsider wanting to get involved: “Cartoonist Conspiracy has a good list of events on their page and a podcast called The Lutefisk Sushi Podcast. They also do what’s called a jam comic the first Thursday of the Month at Diamond’s Coffee House, which means they produce a 24-page comic, but everyone works on whatever part they want,” she said. And, of course, don’t forget to join the Black Hat Collective email mailing list for updates on the Minnesota Opera.