Doctor of opera improvisation

A night at the opera is associated with reverential listening and a formally dressed audience. But during an opera improvisation, a performance emerges organically. The audience may contribute with their thoughts and ideas before it starts.

Sara Wilén Photo:Kennet Ruona

Sara Wilén is Sweden’s – and probably the world’s – first doctor of opera improvisation, or more accurately, doctor of music, specialising in classical and contemporary vocal improvisation. At her public defence, she experienced loud cheering, as a part of the defence consisted of a full-scale opera, in which she participated in several roles: as a soloist, as the instructor of eight other soloists from the vocal specialisation at the Malmö Academy of Music, and as a producer. The beginning, middle and end consisted of newly composed music by Ulrika Emanuelsson, with the opera singers, and even the lighting technician, improvising in between.

“If the lighting technician turns off the light, the scene is over. We also incorporate the audience’s ideas. On this occasion, they were asked to write down their thoughts on signs before the show on the serious topic we had chosen this time – to leave and to be left behind. The signs with the audience’s thoughts were placed on stage.”

No roles were distributed and the singers chose then and there how much space they would take. Inspired by the signs, they came up with the lyrics, music and movement on stage. They also borrowed a number of items from the audience. The art is to come up with what to sing and act, while playing off each other musically in the moment.

“I feel that the audience is more involved. If you’ve made a suggestion, it’s exciting to see whether it will appear on stage…. The musical flow continues without interruption on stage and because opera improvisation is so unusual, sometimes people don’t realise that it is in fact improvisation.”

Public defences in music are different from those held in most other disciplines at LU. Sara Wilén’s public defence consisted of three parts: a performance, a seminar with an external reviewer and an examining committee, and a complementary exhibition.

Photo: Kennet Ruona

Sara Wilén is one of the driving forces behind the freelance opera performance group, Operaimprovisatörerna, which has created various live performances in recent years. The group has tried many methods and concepts, and discovered that they are reaching new audiences. They have sung at companies and kindergartens, to an audience ranging between zero and one hundred years old.

“We’ve received a good response even among our youngest listeners; they probably recognise themselves in the loud noises and strong emotional expressions….”

Sara Wilén is part of many ensembles and projects in addition to Operaimprovisatörerna. In her thesis, she studied CCVI – classic and contemporary vocal improvisation – as a creative and critical method for classical singers, and analysed the interaction on stage.

She also has a background as a soprano in “regular” opera performances, with several major roles to show for it.

“I love to sing a repertoire, but I’ve also always longed for improvisation. Maybe it’s because my dad was a jazz musician.”

Until the mid-1800s, it was common for opera singers to improvise like jazz musicians do today. As the composers gained higher status, the singers had less of a say on stage – every note and line of text had to be followed to the letter. Today, improvisation is unusual among classical singers. Sara Wilén also believes that opera singers are forced to strive for perfection; for instance, live recordings are not published online, unless every note is adjusted to make it sound beautiful.

“Otherwise, someone could hear it and you might get less work. When we improvise it’s completely different – the focus then is on the dialogue with the audience and each other. We get to take part in creating the music right then and there, and actually play while on the job.”