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Singing Museums to Life: Improvised Opera, Audiences and Collections

Performer, author and business innovator David Pearl is the artistic director of Impropera, the musical iconoclasts whose new show, MUSO, in collaboration with UCL Museums, is bridging performance, academia and collections.

It’s after dark in the Grant Museum of Zoology. The darkness is pierced by torch lights as dimly lit figures scavenge among the cabinets of skeletons. Suddenly from there’s a ghostly piano and the Jar of Moles preserved in formaldehyde starts to sing. In Italian.

It’s not a break in. Nor a nightmare. Just a regular performance of MUSO. But as its artistic director I’m the first to admit, it’s all a bit surreal.

MUSO is a project that bridges improvised music and academia as it ‘sings museums to life’. The genesis of the project goes way back to when I first started singing, at the tender age of 8. I loved the form but some of its conventions puzzled me. Its stuffiness. The apparent snobbery. And, to be honest, the long periods of relative boredom between the moments of sublime passion and bloody murder. I guess its not that dissimilar to the popular image of museums with occasional show-stopping exhibits linked by long corridors full of slightly dusty cabinets.

Probably because of this combined passion and frustration, I’ve spent a lot of my career helping blow the dust off the medium and make it as engaging as possible to modern audiences. I co-founded the highly physical ensemble Opera Circus in the 1990s, to bring the dynamism of physical theatre to an art form that many think of as rather static and cumbersome. This in turn led to the formation of Impropera which, as its name suggests, combines opera with the surreal, seat-of-the-pants inventiveness of improv. Essentially, we make up operas on the spot from the audience’s suggestion. As far as we know we are the only company in the world that does this.

As you know, improvisation is all about expecting the unexpected. That said, working with Museums came as something of a surprise. The British Library were the catalyst. They had invited us to conjure up a spontaneous ‘dream opera’ for their Festival of Sleep in 2014 where we bumped into the charismatic – and very operatic – University College London (UCL) academic Chiara Ambrosio who was staging a hugely engaging lecture on the Philosophy of Science. She mentioned that UCL has many collections (of art, archeology, zoology) that the public knows relatively little about. Both of us sensed a potential for interdisciplinary collaboration.

“Academics are very aware of the importance of getting the public involved in research not just as passive spectators, but as active contributors to the production of knowledge”, Chiara says. “As soon as I saw Impropera in action I realized that the show had the potential to make the ultimate academic dream come true: to co-produce a performance in which artists, researchers, audiences and curators would all participate in the creation of something new. This is a genuinely meaningful form of engagement. My research has changed radically as a result of the audiences’ unexpected responses, the discoveries I made by exploring collections I was not entirely familiar with, and through the artists’ ability to sing to life the stories of objects and artifacts. It is an experiment in relinquishing the control that is so typical of academia, embracing the unthinkable, and taking pleasure in finding out what happens as a result.”

Our first visit to the wonderfully eccentric Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL convinced me. It was much more like a theatre than the museums I remember from my childhood. More a rich menagerie of specimens just waiting to be sung back to life.

Fortunately Dean Veall, the Museum’s Learning and Access Officer also saw the potential.

“At the Grant Museum we are always interested in how to engage and excite our audiences with a 200 year old collection of zoology. We also love experimenting with formats, some work and some don’t. The idea of combining singing and improvisation to create performances inspired by our collection got me immediately intrigued and we decided to try it out and see how it would work.”

Working with the Museum and Chiara, we successfully piloted performances of MUSO in the Museum supported by Arts Council England. Taking the model we developed with the Grant Museum we tested it with a couple of other museums with very different collections to zoology. We took MUSO to The Handel and Hendrix Museum to investigate the lives of two influential musicians separated by 200 years, Jimi Hendrix and George Fredic Handel. We also celebrated the history and culture of Watford at the Watford Museum. The reception from the audience and the museum staff was just brilliant and highly encouraging.

“What struck me most about working with museums was the receptiveness of museum staff from curators to visitor services to embrace novel ways of working with the arts to engage their audiences”

What struck me most about working with museums was the receptiveness of museum staff from curators to visitor services to embrace novel ways of working with the arts to engage their audiences. Sensing a growing movement emerging, in 2016 we worked with UCL to convene a seminar on the subject. ‘Theatrically Reimagining Museums’ showcased some of the innovative practice that resulted from a multitude of partnerships between museums and performance companies – from the large scale such as Against Captain’s Orders at the National Maritime with PunchDrunk, to the more intimate Dancing in Museums at Ipswich by the Katie Green Dance Company. The seminar brought together over 130 practitioners together from the museum world such as V+A, British Museum, National Trust and Historic Royal Palaces and theatres such as Sherman Cymru, Frantic Assembly, Trinity Laban and the Nottingham Playhouse to discuss ideas and practice around how to successful collaborate to engage audiences with collections.

Building on this enthusiasm Impropera and UCL Culture are currently taking MUSO on tour. Launched at the British Museum in October 2017 the tour will visit museum across London including the UCL Museums, Wallace Collection and Science Museum experimenting with the format of MUSO and testing new ideas with a fantastic range of collections.

So how does a MUSO performance work? And how, beyond pure entertainment, can it contribute to the life of collections?

Each show is created from the audience’s suggestions so every one is different. That said, the show usually begins – after an improvised overture – with the public being sent off with torches and note pads to explore the collection. Their mission is to note down objects that catch their eye. When they return to the performance area we select notes at random and gently quiz the audience members about their choices. We then improvise musical scenes and numbers inspired by what they’ve told us.

“We thought curators might be defensive about this approach – fearful it would in some ways devalue the collection – but, on the contrary, they are very positive”

The results can be hilarious, its true, but the intent is quite a serious one – to discover the emotional response the public have to the collection and express this in music. It’s not so much the object itself that interests us, but the thought, feeling or memory it has stimulated in the visitor. One example that comes to mind is the audience member at the Handel and Hendrix whose ‘special’ object was a Marshall amplifier. When we asked her why, she revealed that her first job as a young bookkeeper was at the Marshall factory and that ‘Mr Marshall was a very nice man”. This sparked a mini opera where we played out that first meeting. Funny yes, but also poignant. Not directly about the museum object, perhaps, but completely inspired by it.

We thought curators might be defensive about this approach – fearful it would in some ways devalue the collection – but, on the contrary, they are very positive.

Curators, by the way, are a hidden treasure all of their own. Coming to the museum business from outside we have been constantly amazed at the intensely committed, passionate characters you hide away in the background. When devising the show we quickly saw the potential of actively involving curators in the performance. Every show we invite a guest ‘expert’ to join the cast and to correct the company whenever we make mistakes. Which we frequently – indeed intentionally – do.

Experts don’t come much more expert than the British Museum’s St John Simpson, the senior curator responsible for the recent blockbuster exhibition: Scythians – warriors of ancienct Siberia. When the Museum asked us to create a performance centrepiece for their Scythian-inspired Friday Late, St John gamely stepped into the guest curator role. He fed the company’s improvisation with juicy snippets of information about the Scythians love of cheese, their invention of the trousers, their hallucinatory ritual practises and appeared to relish musical mayhem that resulted. He even joined an improvised chorus of Scythians when the audience swarmed into the Great Court waving flags for the show’s finale. “It was an awesome thing to be a small part of” he told us afterwards.

We’re walking the tight rope during the show of both honouring and undercutting the expertise of the museum expert. And it’s something the public seem to relish.

MUSO is still in its infancy. But already, it’s been fascinating for artists like us to penetrate a museum world we’d only known as outsiders previously.

“There’s no business like show business”, they say. But the more we learn about museums and those who work in them, the more similar our businesses feel.

David Pearl
Artistic Director, Impropera

MUSO: Singing Museums to Life is currently on tour in London. Find out more

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