La Donna Improvvisata

by Judith Jarosz · August 15, 2014

When I read that this show claimed “Every night a new opera is born on-stage, never to be seen again. Every word, note and gesture in made up on the spot based upon your suggestions,” I had several impressions. Good laughs, great singing, and a lot of audience participation and feedback. What we get is not much of any of those things.

We are greeted by two instantly likeable performers, a smilingly buoyant Lisa Flanagan and twinkly-eyed maestro Frank Spitznagel (you’ve got to love that name!) at the piano. Flanagan proceeds to ask the audience to shout out a character name from a dozen or so placards hanging on the piano. Among the choices are titles like Temptress, Servant, Prince, etc. For the performance I attended, someone yelled out “Trickster!” Then we were asked to randomly select four different notes that would become a musical “theme” in the piece. Cute ideas…so what went wrong?

Well, after those initial requests, the audience is never asked for feedback again! Flanagan simply leapt into a story, starting with a trickster who plies his trade on the streets of a town. We don’t know the town, or the country. We were introduced to several characters, some who return, and some we never see again in the hour that this convoluted story unfolds. These included a street bum who never washes, a pensive nun, and a greedy priest. But none of these were suggested by the audience, which might have made it more fun and funny.

Although Flanagan may have been making things up on the spot, it’s hard to shake the impression that she and the maestro may have worked out some of the structure of these scenes in advance. More audience suggestions might be helpful to guide the story in fun directions, and convince us that this is actually being made up on the spot. The two do have a good silent communication with each other which lends itself to smooth beginnings and endings to songs, and Spitznagel plays wonderfully throughout. While Flanagan has a serviceable upper soprano range that occasionally soars pleasantly, here she is portraying all of the roles, and her middle to lower range wobbles uncomfortably when pushed. How fun it would be to perhaps have four performers of appropriate vocal categories doing the roles while throwing improv lines to each other.

Instead, this harmless but lackluster piece comes across like being at a soiree in a private home, where, after knocking back a few drinks one of the guests gets up and says “Hey, give me a character and I’ll sing for an hour!” Some rethinking may be helpful here for performers and audience alike.





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