by Christy DeSmith   August 8, 2011

Christy DeSmith took in what looks to be an emerging hit from this year's Fringe, "Super Spectacular! To Opera with Love" by the NYC-based Donovan Ensemble- filled with charmingly irreverent, reworked renditions of opera classics.
Emmet tickles the ivories while Merril prepares for the big show
Emmet tickles the ivories while Merril prepares for the big show
Image courtesy of the artists

ON SATURDAY AFTERNOON, A DAPPER GENTLEMAN named Joe Kolbow approached me in the lobby of HUGE Theater and invited me to see his Fringe show. This happens all the time at the Fringe Festival, but this time there was something special about the postcard he pressed in my palm. It read, in part, "To Opera With Love."

Well, I love opera. I do not, fortunately, possess a whole lot of knowledge on the medium. Sure, I can provide some basic outlines of operas by the big names - Puccini, Mozart, Bizet. I can even come up with the central plot-points of Salome, a feverish one-act most famous for its nudity. But, trust me, I'm far more conversant on the subject of pop music.

So, Super Spectacular! To Opera, With Love turned out to be an enormously satisfying experience, perfect for opera dilettantes like me. Presented by the Donovan Ensemble, a small theater located near New York City, this traveling Fringe show features a pair of fast-moving actors (and former Minneapolitans), Kolbow along with his sidekick Johnnie Niel. With direction by Deanna Fleysher, Kolbow and Niel rattle off a series of seven-minute summaries of famous operas-Carmen, La Boèhme, Aida, Salome, and Madame Butterfly.

A fair warming to the opera purist: These are not reverent overviews. Despite the heavy source material, the execution is designed to make you giggle at the operas you love. For example, little more than a red dress and black shawl transform a pot-bellied Niel into Bizet's sexy Carmen. Later, a platter of plastic fruit helps Kolbow become the post-beheading John the Baptist from Richard Strauss's Salome.

Rather than tackle the actual arias, the performers take some artistic shortcuts -- that is, they sing snippets of pop songs that capture the essence of each libretto. Not to spoil any surprises here, but omnivorous music fans can expect originals by New Order and Bob Dylan, not to mention a few standards from the Great American Songbook. On the other hand, you won't hear any impressive trills or cadenzas.

Momentum is lost near the end of the show, somewhere in the midst of Madame Butterfly. But the first 30 minutes is so hilarious, by that time the matter is already settled: This really is a fabulous show. 

A tip: Arrive for this one 30 minutes early. By the looks of things, Kolbow and Niel worked hard to promote their show. Plus, as we all know, anything involving opera magically promotes itself. In any case, many a willing ticket-buyer was turned away from Sunday's sold-out opening.

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Related performance details:

Super Spectacular! To Opera with Love by the Donovan Ensemble is on the Augsburg Mainstage in Minneapolis. Shows are: Sunday, 8/7 (7:00 p.m); Monday, 8/8 (7:00 p.m.); Tuesday, 8/9 (5:30 p.m); Thursday, 8/11 (8:30 p.m.)     , Saturday, 8/13 (2:30 p.m.)

Check back regularly throughout the Fringe Festival for more short reviews on mnartists.org, sent in from our intrepid performance critics on the scene.

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About the author: Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. Formerly an editor at The Rake and Mpls.St.Paul magazines, DeSmith now writes about art, culture, and interesting personalities for a handful of local and national titles.