It had been a few years since I’d heard anything about Too Much Coffee Man, an oddball comic-strip character from the ’90s who quickly won my heart. --- When I heard that Albuquerque-based composer Daniel Steven Crafts had written an opera about TMCM, and that he had gotten a group together to do the show in his hometown, I felt compelled to look into it.
The small ensemble performed in the back of a church to a small but enthusiastic audience. The show chronicles a coffeehouse feud between Too Much Coffee Man and his nemesis, Espresso Guy, as they vie for their barista’s affections. The whole spectacle seemed eerily familiar. In spite of the enormous coffee cup attached to the protagonist's head, the show seemed to dramatize only the most typical aspects of coffee shop life. The star alto sings, "I'm not getting paid enough to put up with this crap," and TMCM responds, "I love you." Enhanced by the very volume at which it is performed, the scene is grotesquely satirical.
Shannon Wheeler, creator of the TMCM comics, straightens out some misconceptions about his jittery superhero—who in fact, Wheeler says, is neither super nor a hero. "If he has any superpower, it's one of overthinking a situation," Wheeler explains. He describes the character as "an intellectual who is very smart but also very innocent and kind of stupid at the same time." Underneath his longjohns, Too Much Coffee Man is an awful lot like other coffee shop rats—neither wholly good nor convincingly evil. "If anything, I've tried to avoid the hero-villain conflict-resolution thing—the corporate coffee versus the mom and pop shop," Wheeler says. "It's just such an easy way to tell stories. It's just not interesting." As the subject of an opera, TMCM is a bizarre centerpiece, the music inflating his neurotic mediocrity to gargantuan size.
Wheeler and Crafts disagree about the origin of their collaboration.
"We have different versions of the story," Wheeler admits. "I say that he bugged me for years to do the opera, and he says that I bugged him for years." Crafts confirms this contention over whose idea it was, but adds emphatically, "We both agreed that it was a terrible idea." Whoever is at fault, the project eventually took shape. "Several months later, Shannon had a dream that his characters were singing opera to him," Crafts recalls. "He wrote out some verses and—just for fun—I set them to music. We put it on with singers from the Portland Opera, and it was a big hit—to everyone's surprise."
Wheeler was surprised at the finished product. "I really expected the worst, but when I listened to it, I was like, 'Holy cow! This is nice!' It was really unique. He wasn't taking existing opera and changing the words to make it cute. He was really writing music." Crafts' music excentuates the character of TMCM in unexpected ways. Suddenly, accompanied by savory chords and supported by the slick baritone of Edmund Connolly, the overcaffeinated antihero exhibits a tender side that is almost touching. "Putting it into the opera was a natural fit," Wheeler says. "When we started, I thought, 'This will never work,' but it's like a glove. I was shocked."
The score adds a dose of sweetness to the dark side of TMCM's character, producing a warm and stimulating effect in the body. When asked what would happen to Too Much Coffee Man if there were no such thing as too much, Wheeler laughs and becomes momentarily poetic. "Maybe he would, like the elder gods, slowly fade away into the pantheon of Odin and Thor and the other ones that are no longer worshiped."
Crafts, however, would feel little nostalgia. "I drink about a cup a year," he says. "For me, there [is] definitely such a thing as too much coffee."