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August 18, 2014
On Improvising an Opera: Lisa Flanagan of "La Donna Improvvisata"
Lisa Flanagan in "La Donna Improvvisata" at FringeNYC. Photo by Michael Kroll.
Lisa Flanagan in "La Donna Improvvisata" at FringeNYC. Photo by Michael Kroll.

Last week, I had the pleasure of reviewing Lisa Flanagan's one-woman Fringe Festival show La Donna Improvvisata. In it, Flanagan improvises a 60-minute opera with nothing but her wits and a pianist, and does so effortlessly. I strongly recommend checking it out. I spoke with her earlier today about the evolution of the show, her roots in opera, and New York's musical improv scene.

I loved La Donna Improvvisata, and I really like what you're doing. How did this come about? How did you realize you had this talent for both opera and long-form improv? 

Well opera's been a part of my life for much longer. I started a little bit in high school, but I went to college for music and really started studying opera then, so it's been well over twelve years, at this point. I originally started improvised comedy in Boston, where I went for my undergrad and graduate. It started as just a way to meet other people and I grew to love the forms. When I came to New York, one of the first places I went to actually was the Magnet Theater, which had a musical improv mixer. I showed up on a January night, it was cold, I didn't know anybody, I had just moved to New York, and it was just a blast. They do musical theatre style, they have improvised rap and freestyling comedy... There are so many - it's really a very diverse scene of musical improv in New York. As a musician, I understood a lot of the ideas of musical structure that they studied and taught people to help them improvise within it. The idea of "first chorus" and things like that. I met my pianist Frank Spitznagel that first night at The Magnet, he was playing then.

I did a bunch of indie teams, and I took some classes. Frank and I kept talking about improvised opera. Last year, in the spring, we started working on this project. I wanted to get other opera singers in, but it's like scheduling cats. So Frank and I tried a solo project. I worked with a couple different coaches in figuring out what this would look like - if it would be set in one place, or if it could be modern, or what we wanted it to be. We developed this narrative style based upon the tropes and archetypes that you see in opera. And opera is a very heightened form, which makes it so ripe for comedy. We've been performing it at The Magnet and QSIC, which is a wonderful improv comedy theater in Queens as part of The Secret Theatre.

How long has it been in the form that it's in now - an hour-long show with this structure? Specifically, how long has the La Donna Improvvisata character been established? 

We debuted at the New York Musical Improv Festival in 2013. At that point it was a 20-minute set doing a narrative structure. We expanded it to an hour for the Fringe Festival, and we were so excited to get a spot. I remember delivering my application the last day that evening, and there were buckets of giant manila envelopes of other applications, so I didn't really think we had a chance. But I'm so grateful to the Fringe for giving us the opportunity to expand this into a one-hour show.

Are you still looking to incorporate other opera performers? 

Yeah, actually! We might do a spin-off show. I think at first some opera singers were a little skittish. They're seeing that this is more viable and I'm getting some people more excited about the idea. So we might do a spin-off show in the fall.

Lisa Flanagan. Photo by Michael Kroll.
Lisa Flanagan. Photo by Michael Kroll.

You mentioned the musical improv scene in New York and its diversity. Where is it happening and how do I see it? 

Musical improv has actually spread to almost all the comedy and improv theaters in New York. I think it has its strongest base in The Magnet Theater. One of the most famous teams you'll get is Baby Wants Candy which is a nationally franchised touring team. There are classes at The Magnet Theater, classes at The PIT. It's really boomed in New York over the past five, six years. And there are all kinds of forms, as I said. There's an incredible team called North Coast that just released an improvised rap album.

Whats the next place that people can see you? 

In early October, I will be at the New York Musical Improv Festival, and probably back at the Queens Secret Improv Theater in the fall.

La Donna Improvvisata continues its run through August 24 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. For more on FringeNYC shows, click here.

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Written by: James Tison
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