Episode 15 - Improvisation, Part 2 (Opera)

And we’re back! We return to the topic of Improvisation—this time focusing on improv in the realm of Opera. (See episode 11 for Improv, Part One.) You might not consider Opera a venue for improvisation but the practice goes back to the Baroque era and the practice of ornamentation. Philip discusses this, and more, in a conversation including singer and long-time operatic improv partner Vern Sutton.

The two first met at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s. They take us on a journey to Minnesota Opera in the 1970s (historic repertoire PDF) and its fully improvised performances of The Newest Opera in the World, directed by Wesley Balk. Imagine an opera who’s libretto, roles and music style are dictated by the audience spinning a wheel of fortune—Act 1 might be Romantic while Act 2 is German Expressionism. “Improvisation teaches trust, it teaches ensemble,” notes Sutton. The two define the process and rigor involved in organizing eight singers to improv together over dozens of performances. They also discuss failing, the role of the audience, resilience, and Balk’s book about their experiences together, The Complete Singer-Actor: Training for Music Theater (Amazon link). The episode includes several instances of Vern singing while Philip collaborates on piano to illuminate various points.

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