Seven years ago, I found myself in a required operatic improv class while I was attending the OperaWorks summer program in Northridge. The teacher and head of the program, Ann Baltz, told me after class, "You have a peculiar mind, and if you can market that, you will be golden." Wait, it’s OKAY to be weird? I’m useful for something other than high notes? Since then, Ann and I have worked together many times performing improv opera, or as I lovingly call it, impropera, and those performances have been some of the most rewarding in my experience.
I find the combination of opera and improv particularly fascinating and rewarding because it is merging of art an that is often seen by the public as old and outdated with the most contemporary art possible, that which is being created in front of an audience. It’s like a fireworks show in the Arena di Verona. However, I spend much more time developing as a musician than I do developing my skills as a spontaneous actress. To hone those skills, I decided to take an improv intensive at Second City, focusing on developing improvisational skills without the aid of a musical net. The class was a series of eight-hour days of non-stop participation, taking in incredible amounts of information with hardly any time to truly process it and let it sink in. I am now recalling old lessons from Ann, my operatic inspiration, and combining them with the new lessons I learned from Kevin McGeehan, my Second City Miyagi.
One of the principles that I love about improv is that the performer has everything he needs just by having a mind and a body. Kevin compared it to Green Lantern, who could create anything with the power of his mind (and his ring, of course). Guess what? That’s all a singer needs, too! Sure, we add accompaniment, costumes, sets, props, etc., but our instrument is in us- IT IS US!- as well as our command of it. So, we’re practically superheroes…and I like that. I have the ability to create any effect without fussing, manipulating, or micromanaging my voice when I trust my magic mantra and metaphorical ring.
The most important rule of improv is acceptance above all else. Every suggestion is to be met with a "yes, and" attitude, accepting the offer, then building on it. (For a more complete description, as well as some reading pleasure, I highly recommend Tina Fey’s Bossypants.) As a singer (and as a human being), I find my main obstacle is getting in my own way, but saying "yes, and" to daunting passages is much more empowering than "I hope I can do this." Verdi has offered up a beautiful aria, "Caro nome;" I’m going to raise the stakes to make an aria from the page Gilda’s outpouring of emotion on the stage. Here is a half note. YES, I will sing the half note, AND I will use it to crescendo into the next phrase because I am yearning for Gualtier Malde! Here is a cadenza. YES, AND every black dot is simply a shorthand of Gilda’s specific subtext. YES, AND This high note is really an orgasm (sorry, kids, that’s what opera is about)!
One game played in improv class is a scene performed with a moderator freezing the actors and requesting a new choice for the most recent line or action. I found this game especially helpful when working on my Baroque and bel canto arias with limited text being repeated for several minutes. "Si, Lindoro mio sará" first sung elated, now-new choice!- paranoid, "Si, Lindoro"- new choice!- smug, "Si, Lindoro" –new choice!- drunk, "Si" – new choice!- standing on one foot, holding a banana. I have found since I started incorporating this game into my practice sessions, I have stopped judging the characters, especially the ingénues whom I used to deem "weak" or "whiny." The possibilities are endless, and who is to say what is wrong or right, especially if it’s fun?! As Tina Fey said, as well as my teachers, Ann and Kevin, "There are no mistakes, only opportunities."
Since the course ended, I’ve been breathing new life into once-static pieces, and feeling like I’m creating music that hasn’t been sung before because I’ve never sung it THIS WAY before. And I won’t sing it that way the next time. Or the next time. My mind and my body will be different every day, and if the core resources are constantly changing, the product they create will be as well. And isn’t that the beauty of live performance?
Special thanks to Ann Baltz, Kevin McGeehan (and Tina Fey) for their guidance and improvisational inspiration. If you are a singer interested in improvisation, I highly recommend OperaWorks, Second City, and Bossypants!