We chatted to the founder of Improvesarios, a new performance group who improvise comic operas and who will be performing at the Camden Fringe and Wandsworth Fringe.
How did the group come about? Last year I graduated from my Masters in vocal performance. Studying classical singing at a professional level is great fun but also a lot of hard work! There’s a reason classical musicians have a reputation for being perfectionists, everything in your performance should be ‘just so’ from your technique to your pronunciation. However, the conservatoire I studied at also has a reputation for encouraging its students to think outside the box and work on more unusual performance projects as well. Each year, the college run a collaboration week in which all students, across all courses, have the opportunity to work together on something different to their usual studies. I’d become interested in the idea of improvising in opera and was keen to give it a go; wouldn’t it be nice to not have to memorise all the music for once?? I assembled a group of students and we spent the week experimenting with different games and exercises to get going. Turned out, while a little scary, it was also good fun and we were finding that some of the scenes we came up with left us in stitches! Since then we’ve carried on meeting and practising, until we decided it was time to share it with the world!
What do you love the most about being part of the Improvesarios? Having free reign to use my imagination! No idea is too weird and everything can change at the drop of a hat. It’s thrilling and exciting, not knowing what might happen next and trying to come up with interesting and exciting responses to continue the scene. The musical element is amazing as well. Our Music Director and pianist, Dom, is incredible and it’s so satisfying having the melodies and ensembles come together in the moment.
So tell us a bit more about how the shows work? We have two main types of show that we do: a showcase and a full opera. Our more usual style is the full opera. Here we ask the audience to provide a location and a title for the piece and then we take it from there! We usually end up doing 3-4 scenes, and in between each scene we ask for some more audience input such as ‘What should the twist be?’ or ‘Where did X go next?’ or ‘What character should we introduce in the next scene?’. In the showcase, we do a few mini scenes and play a few different ‘game’ style sketches which involve a little more audience participation… (One example is ‘show me that’. We ask the audience for a location or profession to start us off, then, once the scene gets going, anytime a different event or time is mentioned (e.g. ‘when I was a child…’ or ‘one day I want to be a…’, or even ‘last Thursday I…’), anyone in the audience can shout ‘show me that’, the current scene is paused, and the performers rearrange to show the mentioned event instead.) It’s completely chaotic but very entertaining!
How does the improvisation work in terms of the musical aspect? It’s a good question. A lot of practice together! We don’t tend to have a specific plan as such but we’ve got very good at reading each other’s cues, knowing each other’s style and predicting where we might go next. Ensembles are the hardest to get together but a huge part of it is listening. Usually one person will take the ‘lead’ and everyone else needs to listen carefully to what they’re doing and add to it rather than try to go over it. There will be moments where the ‘leader’ switches during the piece but again, with a lot of practise, we’ve got good at reading each other and working out when that will happen. As for the piano and singing coming together? I’m never sure how Dom and our other guest pianists do it! They make it look easy…
What has been the craziest suggestion that an audience has put to the group? I find it’s often not so much the suggestion that is wild, but where the scene ends up. The simplest suggestions can often end up in the most bizarre places! We’ve had a Red Riding Hood themed scene in which we got a very moving aria from the big bad wolf who was lamenting how he has no friends…because he has a habit of bumping them off. We once had a suggestion of a house party which ended up with a very tense, controversial debate about the merits of pineapple on pizza…all in sung, operatic form of course! Or the time we started in a gym and ended up at a support group for people affected by an addiction to Maryland cookies…
What do you particularly love about opera? The emotions. All music is emotional, but there’s something so heightened about the emotions in opera that really make it stand out for me. Can it be a bit dramatic? Yes, but that’s the point! It’s the combination of theatrical drama and beautiful music that really makes opera so captivating.
Do you hope that the Improvesarios will make opera more accessible for people? I certainly hope so! Opera can be a difficult art form to approach cold. It’s often sung in other languages, a lot of what is performed is older and so the stories aren’t always so reflective of our time, and I think there’s often an air of…snobbery around it. But I hope that the Improvesarios helps to show people that opera can be fun, and a bit silly too.
What are the future plans for the group? We have three fringes coming up this summer which we’re really excited to be a part of: Wandsworth Arts, Camden Fringe, and we’re even travelling up north to the Durham Fringe Festival! We’re also working hard on our filmed content, capturing some of the best scenes and making them available online for a wider audience to enjoy. We have a few other things in the pipeline as well, watch this space for more… You can follow us on our socials @improvesarios to find out more about our upcoming shows and our future endeavours.
By Emma Clarendon