Many have been calling attention to the dwindling audiences for opera, but soprano Susan Asbjornson's show at the John Raitt Theater is unlikely to reverse this trend. It serves up stiff, awkwardly executed portions of Puccini, Verdi and Bizet in English without conveying the passion to be found in well-done opera.

With: Susan Asbjornson, Billy Protzmann, Lee Conger.

Many have been calling attention to the dwindling audiences for opera, but soprano Susan Asbjornson’s show at the John Raitt Theater is unlikely to reverse this trend. Presented under the respectable-sounding umbrella of “Contemporary Opera of Los Angeles,” it aims — via arias and anecdotes — to attract patrons to opera who have never heard it, or to dispel the genre’s reputation for pretension and stuffiness. Instead, it serves up stiff, awkwardly executed portions of Puccini, Verdi and Bizet in English without conveying the passion to be found in well-done opera.

Asbjornson has been touting her program as “funny, sexy, sultry,” and she sings, “I’m overwhelmed with ecstasy,” yet her delivery is determinedly deadpan. Slapping her rear end or pinning a rose in her cleavage is no substitute for stimulating performance, and her rendition of a “Carmen” excerpt lacks oomph.

The singer’s pitch is often uncertain, yet she can relax from time to time and hit exciting high notes. When she abandons humor and takes on a song in its native tongue — as she does with Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” — she acquires fresh appeal and gives a welcome charge to the production.

Bill Protzmann, as accompanist, co-star and narrator, supplies a major support system. He contributes skillful keyboard backing and has a friendly, communicative personality. Asbjornson changes costumes after every number, causing the pace to become plodding and predictable, and Protzmann is left to converse casually with the crowd. He could make these informal chat sessions work, but his stories demand shaping from a director.

Along with pleasing piano interludes, Protzmann institutes a sluggish sing-along. He also invites three men to the stage and makes them pretend to be a Hollywood version of the Three Tenors. This deadly bit should be dropped.

One of the show’s strongest segs pairs Asbjornson with Lee Conger on a “La Traviata” duet. Conger has the correct, exaggerated style for extravagant comedy, and his ability to sing powerfully and send up the material accentuates a latent animated quality in his co-star. Unfortunately, he splits after this high spot, never to return.

“Diva” is most strained when Asbjornson does a mock audition for a part, and her takeoff of 1911 American opera “The Enchantress” is so misconceived that it’s tough to tell whether her mistakes are accidental or deliberate. She even does a hesitant pratfall without the clown’s instinct to pull it off and, just before intermission, sandwiches in another superfluous audition number.

The show’s low point is her comedic “rock” version of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” This would be a stretch for all classical divas; here it comes across as a rock fan’s nightmare.

Asbjornson occasionally reveals flashes of glamour and vulnerability, but she has no idea how to harness her aptitudes or turn her routines into a professional act. A writer should be contacted presto to structure and clarify her image.


John Raitt Theater, Los Angeles; 42 seats; $25 top

Production: A Los Angeles Art & Opera Festival presentation of a play in two acts.

Crew: Lighting, Brent Boal. Opened July 16, 2005. Reviewed July 24. Runs through July 31. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast: With: Susan Asbjornson, Billy Protzmann, Lee Conger.

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