Opera improvisation

The main point of departure in this project is to see the emerging improvisations in CCVI (classical and contemporary vocal improvisation) as the results of the improvisers’ vocal, musical and physical actions in a number of over layered situations (see dissertation). Here are some parameters that I perceive as vital in the practice of the opera improviser, in opera improvisation which is the variant where staged action is used.

Inside the fictive situation
As in many other stage performance traditions, opera improvisation mainly deals with situated action. In short, this means that the actor uses the “as if” as the basic notions of defining a role in a dramatic situation, by working with certain questions:

  • Who? The performer and his/her own role in the current situation
  • Where? The place of the events that take place
  • When? The time of the events that take place
  • What? The actions of the performer in the situation
  • Why? The reason for these actions.
  • How? How the actions are carried out.

It is central to the opera improviser to define the situation and the role function of the dramatic character that s/he takes on in the situation, how the situation emerges, at the same time as s/he interprets the intentions and wills of the other improvisers from musical and dramatic perspectives. I call improviser’s perspective from inside the dramatic situation the praxis perspective, from the Greek word meaning action.

Games and techniques
Much of the work is based on techniques for communication, interaction and creativity. These techniques have developed as a result of the work and experiences since many years, and have become part of the craft of the opera improviser. The techniques combine musical and performance styles features from Western classical or contemporary art music and opera tradition with stage acting, movement and principles and rules from modern theater improvisation. These games or techniques are often spontaneously applied into the performance formats in the productions by the improvisers.

Perspectives of the opera improviser
The perspectives of the opera improviser refer to many layers of parallel situations that happen at the same time, or quickly follow each other, while putting the individual in altering subject positions, and different discourses. It makes the opera improviser oscillate between different perspectives, for instance praxis and mythos as listed below.

  • Praxis – action
  • Mythos – dramaturgy
  • Rhetorical – audience
  • ”Lyrical bubbles”- character’s experience
  • Musical interaction, material and form
  • Idiomatic/intertextual/interperformative (relating to tradition) perspective
  • Personal perspective
  • Research perspective

Dramaturgy
Oi often do live operas of 45 minutes or more, where a joint image of how to create the structure of the emerging opera is important. In order to achieve this, the ensemble often works with a simplified form inspired by the dramaturgy of the Aristotle: a beginning, a middle and an end with transitional stages in between. One common dramaturgical model includes five steps, or stages, easily described by this five-step exercise, where the participants take turns in telling a story by finishing the sentences below:

  1. Once upon a time… Platform
  2. Every day… Presentation (of characters, relationships, milieu)
  3. Suddenly one day…Conflict
  4. This led to… Turning point
  5. Since that day… Ending

The format includes introducing characters, a problem and friction between two contrasting powers, a solution to the problem and a clear ending. Oi also collects inspiration from opera repertoire performances, movement, poetry, storytelling, clown techniques, theater and film. Central questions in this work are for example: How do we enact relationships? How can we be clear and yet leave space for action to each other? How can we enact relationships to a context or a place without scenography?

Acceptance and listening
A central notion in opera improvisation is that the improvisers keep open to offers from other performers, and sometimes the audience. During a performance all opera improvisers are present on stage all the time, in order to pay close attention to what happens on stage. In a longer format this is of particular importance, since all information on characters and events is vital and may change the course of the events. Listening to the others, both in performance and rehearsals, is also central in order to learn how the individual improvisers function, since all performers are different. Opera improvising singers often prefer to work with certain qualities and avoid others. One of the most important rules in improvisation theater is to accept the offers of the colleagues (Johnstone, 1988), instead of blocking them by ignoring, or not leaving space to other actors. Nevertheless, offering friction in terms of a contrasting will or resistance gives the improviser the possibility to be open to other suggestions while sticking to a particular line of action.

Audience relations
An important part of the work is to find relevant ways to include the audience in the performance. This includes what to ask, when and not least how. Should we ask for a place, a relation a musical style, a problem, a time of day or a dream? What we ask the audience affects the initial approach, which sets the tone for the performance. In rehearsals we try out different ways, in order to see which kinds of answers lead where, and what is most beneficiary for the technique we are developing.

Inner images and presence
Since in performances we seldom use almost scenography or props, the inner images and imaginations of the improvisers are crucial to make to agreements on stage work. This is not unique for opera improvisation, but since the concentration of the emergent material would break easily if the performers would hesitate to engage in the present moment.

Musical context
Experiences of work with classical Western repertoire and its idioms and styles is central in the work of opera improvisation, as I see it. It becomes a source of knowledge and inspiration that we address and relate to, often on intuitive, or subconscious levels. This concerns also the musical formats that form important parts of the performances, such as types of aria, recitative or ensemble. A musical form or structure can also offer resistance in terms of needs of time and place to be developed, which can be much needed in order to avoid a narrative to develop too fast.

The physical space
In opera improvisation we often use the technique space work, deriving from the mime tradition, where actions are performed “in thin air”. This also concerns relations between the bodies in the physical space, and movement, since it is of importance to be constantly aware of how the arrangement of the bodies on stage communicate to the co-improvisers and the audience.

(This text derives partly from the dissertation, p. 57-58.)