With an improvising company it’s not about commissioning work and dramaturgy because, well, it’s all made up,” says David Pearl, artistic director at Impropera – an operatic improvisation group he co-founded in 2000.
“It’s about developing and sustaining the ensemble over time, creating the conditions where people feel secure to take the kind of risks that improvising opera on the spot entails.”
For the past few years, Pearl has been running Muso, where his troupe of singers and musicians delivers an improvised 75-minute performance to a small audience in an intimate museum setting.
With tickets costing from £5 to £10, the performance involves the cast taking the audience on an exploration of the museum, telling stories about certain artefacts and treasures from the collection. The players interact with the audience, inviting them to share their ideas and ask questions.
“It’s a combination of a music concert, comedy show and a Night at the Museum experience,” Pearl explains, saying that he got the idea for improvisational opera in a museum from a chance encounter with University College London (UCL) academic Chiara Ambrosio. “She mentioned there were some great hidden collections at UCL, including the wonderfully evocative Grant Museum of Zoology. It sounded intriguing and the rest is ‘natural history’.”
Supported by a grant from UCL Grand Challenges and development funding from the Arts Council of England, Muso has been allowed to blossom, and is halfway through a run of six shows this year.
“UCL saw the work that we were doing with the Grant Museum – bringing the collections alive, pulling into the university a range of people who would never normally go there and involving them in the creative process,” Pearl says. “This was very consistent with their own UCL Culture programme and so they decided to support our work. Our current tour couldn’t be happening without them.”
As Pearl says, improvised opera is very different from traditional performances and so preparation is different too. Usually, the group arrives early to spend some time at the museum, soak up the atmosphere and chat with the staff.
“We always promise we’ll rehearse, but usually this degenerates into playing around and mistake making – which, funnily enough, is perfect preparation for improvisation,” he says. “This is a balancing act, though, because while you want to respect the location and connect with the genius loci, being too prepared can be death for improv.
“The audience love that we know as little as – or less than – them. Our job is to express the audience’s reactions to objects, not our own, but we do have a guest academic on hand to correct us and tell the audience what it’s really all about.”
The experimental opera group has performed at London’s British Museum, Grant Museum of Zoology, and Horniman Museum, among others. From Impropera’s original set-up, Pearl (tenor), Susan Bisatt and Morag McLaren (sopranos), Anthony Ingle (musician and musical director) and Peter Furniss (clarinet, recorder and saxophone player) all remain. Niall Ashdown, Louise Crane, Phillip Pellew, Fiona Finsbury and pianist and flautist Yshani Perinpanayagam complete the group that delivers the Muso events.
Pearl is open to seeking more museum partners, mentioning Dean Veall, an educator at Grant Museum, who has become the de facto producer and is helping promote Muso to other potential locations. “We didn’t know how this would be received – that’s the wonder and terror of improv. However, a couple of years into the experiment, museums are asking for more and audiences are growing. As long as they are asking for Muso, we’ll be there, singing museums to life!”