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A Nut At The Opera
posted March 2, 2006


Creator: Maurice Vellekoop
Publishing Information: Drawn and Quarterly, April 2006, 96 pages, $19.95
Ordering Numbers: 1896597947 (ISBN)

One of the more obnoxious mental habits of those born after 1965 or so is the tendency to change the channel to something else if we get a clue that what we're about to watch isn't up to our very specific desires. This isn't a remote control thing, as I think most children of the 1965-1970 era developed this skill during weekly viewing of the Walt Disney movie. Cartoon? Many hoorays, and a move away from the TV to settle in. Live-Action movie? Instant channel change. It didn't matter if it were Johnny Tremaine or the kid with the punching-glove trap at the bottom of the stairs or some teenage Kurt Russell movie we might of liked; after a certain pint we wanted cartoons and if Uncle Walt wasn't going to give us cartoons, then the hell with Uncle Walt -- at least for that week.

Maurice Vellekoop is a very skilled illustrator whose comics have mostly been of the "explication of a single idea" variety, 40 yard sprints when we were aching to see him run a quarter mile. So when I heard about A Nut At The Opera, my tiny, pea-sized brain immediately switched channels; I wanted to see Vellekoop do comics, something with a narrative that capitalized on the promise of his long-ago anthology shorts. As much as I like his illustration, it didn't sound like something that would interest me.

And that story is why you should never listen to me if I'm standing next to you in the comic shop.

A Nut At The Opera isn't just a book on the subject of opera with lots of Vellekoop art, it's a comedic suite of portraits depicting fictional opera characters, a sizing-up of an alternate world of opera through description and illustration. It looks like a classic Simon and Schuster volume, and reads like something you might hear on NPR that makes you tell people later on "I heard something funny on the radio today." A Nut At The Opera proves genuinely funny at parts, and the art is more sumptuous than I'm used to from Vellekoop. Some of the color work is overpowering to the point you want to step back and look at it sideways to get a better grasp of what he's doing before your hair blows back. It's a fun show, slight and peculiar, the best alternate world's opera scene profile book we can hope for.

Like most longer works of comedy, the weakest thing about A Nut At The Opera is its uneven tone. There are some jokes that seem really blunt and straight-forward, almost too easy, while others slip away in a manner that my guess is they depend on particulars of the opera world to which I'm not near to being privy. It's not the being lost part that fuels my disorientation; it's the switch back and forth, the lack of a build and fall, an ebb and flow. In fact, were those present, we might be carried along like we are in the great prose satires. Here I simply shake my head and give up. On the other hand, a range of approaches might indicate that Nut may be accessible to opera fans of varying levels of interest, with something to offer to people immersed in that world on different levels. So my apologies to Mr. Vellekoop for presuming anything before taking a closer look, and my recommendation that if you like classic illustration in the service of comedy -- those old Holiday articles, for instance -- than this is a volume you might consider tracking down.