A kaleidoscope of interactions

Sara Wilén
Sara Wilén

Singer, improviser, PhDstudent in Music at Malmö Academy of Music/Lund University

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Researching and presenting processes of opera improvisation


Operaimprovisatörerna, Opera Nova - power, love, remix, 2012. Photo: Klara Bodell


It might be a bit hard to get all the brains, souls, everything to interplay. And everything that you bring to the gig or the performance, everything is there… But when you dare to bring discomfort and anguish and divorces and just: there you go! And enjoy the fall. That’s cool. But it’s so scary that you almost die.

F, interview 131101


The artistic doctoral project Singing in action – processes of vocal improvisation is an investigation of vocal improvised performance from my point of view as a classically trained singer and vocal improviser. It focuses on an artistic tradition which has its roots in medieval Provence and Italy (Wilén, 2013a) and which is an expanding classical vocal genre of today: opera and art song improvisation as extemporization, or instant composition, performed by classical singers in dialogue with the listeners.

As a forum for classical singers’ and musicians’ experimental work, it is still fairly uncommon in the field of classical music making today. The aim of the project is to problematize aspects of the role of classical singers in performance. At its centre is my work as a classical vocal improviser in various contexts, such as the Swedish ensembles Impromans and Operaimprovisatörerna.


Operaimprovisatörerna, Moments of opera, 2010. Photo: Carl Thorborg


My working research questions are:

- How can I investigate and analyze the creative interaction in emergent improvisations?

- How can I create methods for exploring, documenting and communicating collaborative improvisational processes?

In this text I will describe and discuss how I have investigated these two questions in my work within the ensemble Operaimprovisatörerna. The aim is to find ways of communica-ting insights and knowledge of the improvisational processes, based on the various perspectives of the ensemble members. This led me to conducting interviews with my fellow improvisers. A part is included below, where the interview processes are described and discussed. The interview results in turn led to my development of the the interplay analysis model (IAM), which I argue could be developed into a theoretical tool, with which improvisational processes can be both researched and communicated. I conclude by presenting a session, as an example of how a combination of preliminary interview results and IAM can be used in order to communicate important aspects of the interplay in Operaimprovisatörerna.

To analyze and communicate processes of opera improvisation

This research project is designed as an ongoing investigation of the performative space in improvisation, through the documentation and analysis of performances in various contexts. The methods in the project so far can be described as follows: [†]

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1) To perform improvisation in various contexts, mostly within the ensembles Impromans [*] and Operaimprovisatörerna.

2) To describe, situate and contextualize my improvisational practice and performance situation, by writing texts where I reflect on musicodramatic improvisation from perspectives relating to connected fields, such as musical improvisation, cultural studies, opera, rhetorics, theatre and other.

3) To problematize the artistic practice by creating new artistic concepts, formats and techniques [†].

4) To analyze and problematize mine and my fellow improvisers’ improvisational practice by investigating the filmed and recorded material and conduct analyses seen from our subjective perspectives, partly using qualitative methods.

5) To use an artistic academic approach in order to document, interpret and present the improvisational practice in video, audio, photo, oral presentations, performance papers and written text.

Opera improvisation is a live genre (Wilén 2013a, Wilén 2013b) where musicodramatic material is instantly created with the intention not to be repeated or replayed. The improvisations are created in a specific situational context as a result of the ongoing parallel dialogues in the room. Consequently, objectifying the improvisations by comparing them to the creation of musical scores seems not to be the most accurate method, since the performative situation is inseparable from the situated interactional processes and contextual relations. I have therefore worked on reflecting these performative points of view. During the first years of my research project, I investigated ways of analyzing and problematizing the practice of opera improvisation. At first, I investigated possibilities of studying opera improvisation as written musical texts, or musical scores, or works (for a discussion of work and text, please see Wilén, 2013b). This way of analyzing music has been dominant in musicology for a long period of time. However, in order to do that, I would need to start by making musical transcriptions of the improvisations. This could be seen as a way of creating musical works out of the improvisations, and I found that it would not give me the information I was looking for.

Instead I tried to capture merely the interactional aspects of improvisation, in a series of analytical etudes in 2010-2011 These focused on aspects of situation, action analysis and rhetorics in the performances. (Wilén, 2013c), as well as intertextuality, interper-formativity (Wilén, 2013a,b) and deconstruction (Wilén, 2013b) in relation to my artistic practice. This has not led much further on the way towards insights in the interplay between the participators of opera improvisation and impromans. In my view, one reason for this is that the concepts I have used emanate from the theoretical framework of textual works or cultural studies, which mainly focus on an interpretative perspective in the former and an outside, viewer’s perspective from cultural practices in the latter.

During the last couple of years, my aim has been to investigate methodological approaches and techniques that permit a multilayered oscillation between emic and etic perspectives (where the emic represents the insider and the etic represents the researcher) as inspired by an ethnographic approach (Bresler, 2006). More importantly, I have searched for ways of integrating and communicating the voices and perspectives of my fellow improvisers into the project. An important part of the insights done in his project so far would have been impossible without my fellow improvisers. Needless to say, in the artistic practice we work together in opera improvisation on more equal terms than in my own, more distanced parts of the research processes. For economical and organizational reasons, it has not been possible to integrate the colleagues fully into the research processes. For this reason it is of utmost importance for this project to find other ways of creating a dialogue between my own and my colleagues’ work and lines of thought in the research.

This has led me in search for new methods of presentation in direct connection with the documented material, as a way of communicating preliminary findings along the way. I see this as a possibility of using the analysis as a result in itself. Mullin (2011) points to the performative character of all art practices and describes rhetorical research as investigating aspects of communication in different fields, asking questions about ’what the nature of the discourse at hand is: what the elements used to declaim, persuade, unmask, affect or praise are’ (p. 153). What is done is done for a reason, in artistic research as well as in artistic practice. In my project, this rhetorical perspective is central and connected to questions about the performative aspects of formats for presenting artistic research.

Operaimprovisatörerna (The Opera Improvisers) was founded in 2007 and today consists of seven opera and two pianists. Apart form the work within the ensemble, the members are freelancing opera singers and musicians who regularly perform also in other repertoire and improvisational contexts. Since the start in 2007 Operaimprovisatörerna has made a great number of performances, including its own productions and guest appearances, in venues on theatres, festivals, concert halls as well as schools and in conferences, symposiums and other meetings in organizations within public institutions, business organizations and citizens associations. The public performances are normally attended by a mixed audience. Young, adults and elderly come to see each performance. Every performance is unique when it comes to dramatic, musical and textual contents, since no material is aimed to be repeated, and the ensemble asks the audience for specific incitements for the scenes.  

Below I will describe how the continued work with video analysis led to a new methodological choice: conducting interviews, which included both Operaimprovisatörerna and Impromans.

Dead ends? Tosca Scarpia scene analyses

In order to develop my modes of improvisational analysis, I decided to choose a scene from the project Opera Nova, love, gender, remix, ON (Wilén, 2013b). This project was an investigation of gender and power on stage in repertoire opera and opera improvisation, where opera repertoire scenes and improvisation were combined in various modes during the performances. I ended up choosing the Tosca Scarpia scene from a performance at Vadstena Gamla Teater on July 28th, 2012. Here we begin by performing parts of a scene in the second act of Tosca (Puccini, 1900). The singers change roles, by using a tag out system [‡] as the repertoire scene develops. At a certain point, we stop the performance and ask the audience to suggest a new ending for the scene. Here, it is suggested that Tosca challenges Scarpia in some way. The singers who are on stage in roles as the opera is stopped, continue the scene, and after a while move on into an improvised part. In this version, Tosca is performed by Samuel Jarrick, and I perform Scarpia. Gregor Bergman plays the piano.

Tosca Scarpia tag out

Tosca Scarpia tag out

In a first round of analysis in May 2013, I decided to analyze the scene from perspectives such as text, physical action, vocal action/intention and acting technique. These were drawn as parallel tracks in different colours, with the aim to detect if there were some patterns that occurred between them (Sandberg Jurström, 2009). I found that I didn’t have a program that worked for this, so I made the analysis on paper.

Sketch analysis Tosca Scarpia scene

Sketch analysis Tosca Scarpia scene

In August I conducted a second round of detailed analysis of the video. This time I analyzed the physical actions, the harmonic context, and the dramaturgical structure. During this work I began to wonder if the chosen aspects actually would cover more than reveal specific aspects of this oral genre, since both dramaturgical and action analysis derive from a literary tradition, focusing mainly on written texts. This led into search for other analytic approaches. As noted above, I have mostly found examples of semiotic studies in music. I was again made aware of the fact that it is the interactive intentions and structures of the improvisers more than the signs of the intentions that I wish to investigate. However, at the time I found no satisfying way to do this. This made me consider interviews with all the opera improvisers (including myself), in order to find some common themes or features in our words about our practice.

A new trail: the interviews

From August to November 2013 I conducted nine interviews with eight out of nine members of the two ensembles Operaimprovisatörerna and Impromans [§]. The lengths of the interviews vary between one to two and a half hours, in total about thirteen hours. The work with the interview material was done over a period of four months, including the analysis. In an abductive process of coding and describing the codes I regularly returned to the material in order to retry my choices and change the codes in line with my increasing interpretation and understanding of the indications in the material. 

Before the interviews, I had chosen some video clips from performances, which were sent out to the interviewees on beforehand as Youtube links. The films chosen were recorded in 2012 (ON, Operaimprovisatörerna) 2011 and 2013 (Impromans). I chose scenes where I as well as the interviewee participated. The films were chosen in order to serve as a starting point for discussions and concrete examples, as a kind of stimulated recall sessions. Another aim was to ask the interviewees about their intentions and experiences during the scenes in question, with the goal of collecting different descriptions and perspectives of the courses of events on stage. Haglund (2003) questions  what can be said about the interactive thinking of the participants in stimulated recall sessions, since they cannot know for sure whether a thought is created at the event of the interview, or occurred already during the session that was filmed. It is therefore important to communicate whether the study intends to focus primarily on the interactive thinking of the participants, or on their beliefs and knowledge. The interviews were conducted in Swedish, in an open structure (Kvale, 1997) addressing themes and issues such as “what is important to you in an opera improvisation?” or “how do you make/perform opera improvisation”. I also addressed the different perspectives of the singers on stage. There was no time to make detailed joint analyses of the films during the interviews. Instead I took the possibility to meet the improvisers’ images, insights and thoughts on the interplay, often in relation to certain concrete moments in the films. This can be seen as collecting descriptive data: ”In all of these situations the interview is used to gather descriptive data in the subject’s own words so that the researcher can develop insights on how subjects interpret some piece of the world.” (Bogdan & Biklen, 2003, p. 95).  Needless to say, these interviews themselves are also performative forums, or discoursive practices, where the improvisers might choose what and how they wish to communicate about themselves as artists, and the practice as such.

The major part of the interviews was annotated and/or transcribed in detail. The transcriptions were made in the format of written language, since my aim was to communicate the contents, and not the linguistic aspects of the interviews. In the transcriptions, I found themes that were addressed in the interviews, asking the material: “what is important to X in opera improvisation?” These themes were annotated and later coded in categories, resulting in a total of 376 codes. I went through the codes again and chose the ones dealing with the interactions on stage and the strategies of the improvisers, in total 177 codes. These were organized in three major categories and later divided into subgroups. In May 2014, I presented the interview results and the IAM model to the ensemble, in order to get feedback. Some comments and thoughts from this feedback session are also included below.

Aspects of improvisational interplay – preliminary results of the interviews

In the analysis of the codes of the interview material I have found three main groups of themes:

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These themes are not to be viewed as excluding categories, but as complementary parts. There are concepts that overlap each other, and needless to say, they occur in parallel in the interaction I have chosen to add some quotes from the interviews with the aim of giving thicker descriptions. As noted above, my pre understanding will affect the descriptions.

It is important to note that the codes are based on what the improvisers say during the interviews. Of course, this is not all there is to say about opera improvisation, since in the ensembles we often do not to say things that are obvious in the context. There are many agreements and technical set ups for different games and scenes that are not mentioned here at all. On the one hand, my role as an insider in the practice gives me some advantages when it comes to interpreting the material, as I know the participants well. On the other hand, the interview situation and what is said is affected by our personal and professional relationships, as well as by my preunderstanding of the work within the groups. As a consequence of this I have chosen the codes that I find relevant for the final round of analyses, with less regard of how often they occur in the material.

I have chosen to anonymize the interviewees in this section, by giving them letters from A to I. These are randomly chosen and have no relation to the improviser’s names. Since there is a limited amount of participants in the study, I have also chosen to leave out information about the gender and instrument of the improvisers, in order to diminish the chance of pointing out who says what. This is done for ethical reasons, since the improvisers at points comment on each other. Anonymizing the improvisers creates the possibility of analyzing and using parts where colleagues criticize each other. This in turn gives the result richer qualities, since it points to a variety of views and experiences within the material. In the descriptions of the Tosca Scarpia scene the names are not left out, since the improvisers comment on the specific films where they appear themselves. The participants have left their consent to the various uses of the quotes on email.

My intention with this section is to give a rich image of aspects of interplay in opera improvisation, and how the interplay web is woven from several unique communicational threads, emerging between all the improvisers on stage at the same time. I have chosen not to distinguish between comments on the interplay of the films and descriptions of inner experiences of the improvisers, since in many cases these overlap. It is also important to note that the improvisers often shift between describing their interactions as characters within the fictive scenic context, and as improvisers on stage, within the same comment.  

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The opera improvisers address perspectives, experiences and strategies on interaction during the improvisations. Important issues in this subgroup are to remain in the present moment, to be together, act earnest, share uncertainty, and to work with and go with the flow of energy. In the May feedback session, some improvisers mean that one way of being together in the moment, is to accept the offers of the other, and also see a need not to accept at points, in order to create more contrasts.

In the now

All the improvisers stress the importance of being together in the present moment. To B being in the moment is more important than keeping track of the details of the emerging story. S/he emphasizes the importance of working with the energy levels, where a common platform in terms of a focal point in the situation can provide energy, which can be used in the play.

No I, would say that in general I think quite little… And it happens quite often that I have really forgotten where we are going (laughs). No, in general I am more based on being in the present, in the emotions and what happens right now. Therefore I think it's important to have stations, or landings in the flow.

F stresses cooperation and flow of the interplay in the moment as the core of opera improvisation.

What I’m really passionate about, or when I enjoy it the most is when we find a flow together as fellow players. And you don’t even have to be on stage, you can stand on the side and see that, well, bang, bang, bang, and a fantastic duet.  What a setup, I’ll take it, wonderful! Oh, I ‘m so lonely, or whatever. I have a wonderful reason to sing a song. It might be a bit hard to get all the brains, souls, everything to interplay. And everything that you bring to the gig or the performance, everything is there. So of course perfect harmony is really hard to achieve. But when to dare to bring discomfort and anguish and divorces and just: there you go! And enjoy the fall. That’s cool. But it’s so scary that you almost die.

D describes how a feeling of flow in both music and movement patterns occurs in a scene.

There is a movement pattern when we make these duets. There is nothing that is decided or anything, and it’s all improvised… If I see that you go there I go this way, and if I sit down on a chair you come ad hold this son from the back, hugs him.  And there is a kind of flow… it’s not like if I sit down on a chair you look like a question mark… it just happens, it becomes like a flow that just occurs. And it’s the same thing with the musical part. That’s what I find the best. And at times this happens in the whole group, that you feel that, it’s obvious that the next scene must be like this. Then that person needs to go in.

Bandying, taking turns

In the interaction improvisers sometimes use different attitudes, or modes in the dialogue. Central issues of these categories are giving and accepting offers, timing, keeping agreements, listening, reacting and confirming the others as improvisers. To some singers, the piano plays an important role in setting the dramatic approach and tempo in a scene.

A describes how s/he takes in another improviser.

Sometimes I just hear [**] and then I can hear words, or where you are going in the text. Then I can see where you are in the room, if the room changes for instance. If the emotion changes I can see this since you show it clearly with your body language, and of course also with your way of using the voice and the eyes.

D notes the importance of giving priority to being within the situation and the agreements in the context. This is also connected to clear offers to the colleagues on stage. S/he refers to a scene when s/he wasn’t sure if the colleague was in the scene or not, due to the placing on stage. S/he underlines the importance of being clear in how you communicate if you’re on or off stage.

You can’t be unclear about: am I offstage or am I onstage? Am I in this scene or not? You have to make up your mind about that. If you don’t know exactly what to do when you come in, might not be a problem, because you can surprise even yourself in those cases. But I have to decide if I, in fact, am there.

Several of the improvisers note that the piano often has an important role in giving impulses on the approach and dramatic development in a scene. G points to the fact that in score music, repertoire singers are used to react to the music, and reflects on how often this happens in opera improvisation as well. S/he reflects on how the function of the music would alter if the singer would make different choices.

It could be really interesting if you didn’t pick it up, but let it be like a hidden tension. If I have a poker face here, then the music works here. And then we could interpret it as something that is happening inside of me, or not, it might be something that happens in you.

In the May session, several of the improvisers agreed on this point of view, claiming the need not to accept and join initiatives so fast, but to maintain and create friction and contrasts for each other, in order to develop the improvisations. 


Some of the improvisers point to that it’s sometimes hard to remain totally present within the fictive situation. This can be due to different reasons. It can be related to the fact that we as opera improvisers make your own dramatic choices. There is no outer eye, or director, who makes a reading and takes responsibility for what is acted out on stage.

F thinks that the relations between opera improvisers are closer than compared to opera repertoire colleagues.

We shouldn’t be afraid of letting it get serious, sincere and really, really mean something, and not to have, what are they called, quotation marks? But to feel grounded. I think that’s almost the hardest thing, to really be grounded and not, just fluff on top of everything. Well, fluff, that’s some kind of quick fix, or escape in scenes where you feel that you adapt too much, or you don’t dare to break, or defend your character. 

D notes that s/he is distanced in one scene, and reflects upon the interactional consequences between the improvisers, by describing how s/he reacts on distance as a fellow player.

I see that I don’t quite know what to do in the situation, so I start to act with some quotation marks, or at least confusion, which is nor in favour for the story, neither for someone else. As soon as someone starts to do that I feel that either you have to fight it very hard as fellow player… If I take a story really seriously and want to play it, and someone else plays with quotation marks… I feel a bit dorky and stupid, that I take this seriously, when the other person doesn’t, or I get mad.

In the May session, notes were made that it is important that we as improvisers dare to remain present in the situation within this uncertainty, and not create new material in order to be safe, or entertaining.

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Using and relating to expectations and conventions in performative situations, roles and structures

The opera improvisers describe different ways of addressing and playing with contents, shared connotations and idiomatic features, often by using intertextual and/or interperformative strategies (Wilén 2013a, Wilén 2013b) in the situation and context at hand. This is also related to the expectations of the performance situation, both from the audience and the improvisers themselves. Contrast is often created by breaking, or turning a certain direction in, or aspect of the scene by going against it, often with humor. E describes a performance where s/he made a solo that was intended as serious, but met an unexpected reaction from the audience.

You can make an analogy, of metaphor: you enter, and the audience sees who you are and what you are. Your sex, your size, your whatever. Then they immediately hold a suit up, schscht! Here, these suits are the ones you get to choose from. Here’s the funny suit… you’re a man, here’s a power suit, here’s your... this is what’s offered. It’s an offer from the audience. To jump into one of these suits… is easy, because they are ready. It’s you who makes the choice, as an actor. But to choose something else takes that you have a referential frame. So you can say; no, I brought my own suit, here’s how I look. And then they can become a little confused. Perhaps this takes more courage as an actor, to dare to stand up for it…

F talks about improvisation as a genre that has many possibilities in playing with expectations, and turn situations on stage. S/he also sees opera improvisation as a genre that can mock traditional opera characters and opera as genre.

To be able to mock it completely, both sort of fuck off to the genre, but at the same time in a loving way. Not in a bad way, but loving and sincere. That it can be sort of, totally still and very beautiful, romantic and earnest, but it can also be: haha, gotcha! It can also be the other way around… partly in relation to the audience, but partly in relation to ourselves, that we aren’t scared to break it when it is as most beautiful...

According to G, it is common to play with opera as genre in the improvisations. S/he describes opera as closer to a kind of ancient drama that has no purpose of being realistic.

It takes energy to sing, and when the energy isn’t in the language or in the situation something clashes. Sometimes when we play with genres I experience that we in Operaimprovisatörerna play with the notion that a certain situation really isn’t fit for singing. We create a dramatic setup by charging it so that we can be motivated to sing a Wagner phrase. It takes something to go in and use the big expression, and we play a little with that.

F compares the work with characters and at some points clichés in the work in repertoire to opera improvisation, and notes that there are similarities to how s/he works in opera improvisation sometimes. To F clichés can provide useful tools in the work, both for good and bad.

Now we have worked for so long that you have sort of back ups with old geezers and ideas that you can sort of upload. In my brain I think that there are ready setups… and there’s nothing wrong with having such a back up to be able to carry things through. But it’s not at those points that the most exciting things happen I think.  

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This theme focuses how the use of common structures and ideas are practiced in the choices of the improvisers. This regards both structures for narrative and interactional levels, as well as relation to conventions and traditions in Western opera and storytelling.

Tell a story together

In a longer opera improvisation, the focus is often on creating a story in a series of differing scenes, in terms of an emergent dramaturgy which is often related to Western storytelling In the interviews many of the improvisers note the importance of having a common direction, where themes and offers are taken into account and developed. It is common to enter the stage with a clear idea and offers to the other improvisers about how the scene and/or story can proceed. Here it is of great importance to be aware of the things that have occurred on stage, so that these can be integrated and referred to in the plot line. It can also be a matter of sharing a focus of what’s important in a scene, which in turn form a common, although unknown flow interfoliated with certain ledges, or stations, where the improvisers share the same focus. One important experience from the May session was that the improvisers also interpret meaning of the occurred events in retrospective, in a sort of reactive creativity, in order to maintain and develop the emerging improvisation. D emphasizes that humorous effects sometimes emerge when the improvisers act stick to the story and act within the agreed situations and characters, instead of creating distance in different ways. This was also confirmed in discussions during the May session.

H underlines the importance of presenting things on stage with the aim to give them relevance in the ongoing drama.

So, my thing is that every thing we place on stage must have a meaning, or we might as well take it out. And as improvisers we need to learn to take these things in, and take care of them. All the things we say, all the things we do in space work… the offers that are made need to be taken care of. And if we can’t take in all the offers today, we need to take them down a bit, so that we can play on the level where we are right now, especially when we go out an perform in front of an audience.

C notes that a clear inner conception of the story at points risk to delimit the improviser from taking in new offers from the fellow improvisers.

Sometimes I think that when you have a too strong image of where we are going, you risk not to be really open for other offers… It leads to that you don’t just throw anything out there, but it could also lead to that you become a bit limited in actually perceiving the others’ parallel thoughts about where we are going…

Clear structural choices in situations

In many opera improvisations the situated acting (see above) is part of the performing techniques. In order to create a coherence in the situation and story fast, it is common to make clear scenic choices regarding both the improviser’s own character and in relation to other characters and improvisers. F emphasizes that there are points in opera improvisation where a singer doesn’t have to be clear about the circumstances for his or her role. But in order to continue a longer form, it’s important to do this. It can be someone else in the ensemble, who comes in and gives an offer, and thereby shares the responsibility for the story.

But then, just because I was angry and sang a quick and rough aria… Then it might really show that one hasn’t responded those questions: who am I, where do I want to go, where am I going? And then it could really be a relief to leave, or that someone comes in and says: well, Sven, now you’re standing here. You’ve been left behind. Or, why did you burn the lumber mill down? Thank you, it’s really nice that someone comes in and tells me that I’ve done that. Because this shared responsibility can create space and freedom.

Taking dramatic, musical and operatic structures as vantage point

In the work, we often use tonal languages and styles both for the music and stage performance, which are inspired by Western opera and art music and opera and occasionally other genres. D describes how knowledge from opera repertoire is used as an asset in the work, and notes that the ensemble could use this knowledge more in order to develop opera improvisation further as an independent art form. 

A describes how the common knowledge is used in the musical interplay.

If you make a cadence in something quasi romantic, you can sort of feel that, plamplam, then some-thing new starts. Then there is a sort of culture that we have in common and relate to. We know that, it will be approximately this long…

In the May session, several comments were made on how a joint musical vantage point could create a framework where a slower interactional development could take place, in order to deepen the contents by creating a musical structure.

Analyzing and pruning the improvisations

For some improvisers it is important to see the improvisations from a distanced perspective, as with an outer eye. In these cases a clear structure often emanating from a text genre, such as opera or film, is the goal in the emergent scenes and stories. H says:

I think that when we are unsure as improvisers, many of us create a lot of text in order to find a frame, since as improvisers we feel safe in a frame… if you look at written opera, and compare it also to film, it is a material that has been elaborated. There the text and everything that is said has been analyzed. Everything you say is important, and you just leave out the things that are insignificant. You have time to erase these things, and really just say the things that lead the action forward, and this is what we need to learn, I think.

Known paths

In opera improvisation we often take given frameworks, circumstances or agreements as vantage points. These are often set in dialogue with the audience (although the ensembles use techniques or games which are not communicated in detail), and can create a safety frame in the situations on stage. Within the ensemble there are contradictory images on the importance of traditional and known choices on different levels. Some of the improvisers note the role of convention and traditional choices, mostly from opera repertoire performance, as a way of enhancing the quality or creativity, while some see this as delimiting in the work. S/he hopes to challenge conventional roles these structures more in the future, and points to frames such as convention as a possible prerequisite for creativity.

Often it’s not that hard to come up with the ideas… the hard thing can be to choose which ideas to use, to make the choices. Then it can be quite nice with a limited space. It challenges the creativity to find as much freedom as possible within this limited space. That can be a quite nice way to work.

While commenting on a scene that is based on movement and a more dissolved format, F on the other hand is very positive about how movement as vantage point contradicts the ensemble’s common choice of a linear, narrative framework, which often affects the singers to into choosing to act within a realistic setting.  

Why is it that opera is about having static arms and legs that move as you think it should be... But I guess it depends on how we interpret the unwritten work… Instead we could use the body as vantage point, the moving body as an element, also in the story. And we do, sometimes. It can be a machine or inspired by a collage, or the form I am. Of course we often use our bodies, but from my experience it’s very seldom that we do when we have started to tell a story. Then we are the father, or the mechanic, or, the roles, the boss, the mother.


In opera improvisation, ideas and actions occur in a constant flow, and the improvisers are put in unexpected situations, where the circumstances have suddenly changed. Some of the improvisers describe their views on the importance of making openings for new ideas and images from within as well as from each other. It can also be about presenting ideas for the contents or techniques on stage in the moment, using personal experiences as material, making rhymes in the moment, or solving unexpected problems such as changed circumstances in the scene, due to actions of the fellow improvisers. C notes that the relation to association and the unexpected is often a priority during the first part of the rehearsals.

I think that when we make improvisation exercises, it is the crazy, the associative, the sort of... non-dramaturgical, which is the core of our improvisations… without any storyline or logic at all.

C underlines the importance of keeping this aspect also in the longer opera improvisation forms on stage.

That is, to listen and to think about the action, but that there is a possibility not to know, and to end up in: what is this?

E gives examples of how some colleagues deliver things that are unexpected in the situation, such as poetic solos, or a new set up which changes the circumstances, in the middle of a story.

Interplay analysis

During the groupings of the codes from the interviews, I became aware of similarities between the three main themes and Nettelbladt’s (2013) pragmatic model (see below) for pragmatic description and analysis. When I conceived this, I chose to put the interview themes in the same order, to make the similarities more evident.   

The concept pragmatics derives from Charles Sanders Peirce, who developed the semiotic model[††]. Pragmatics deals with the relationship between users and symbols, and the processes during which language is created (Nettelbladt, 2013). This concept was further developed by Charles Morris, who divided human language into three areas: syntax (dealing with the relation between linguistic symbols), semiotics (dealing with the relation between a symbol and its contents) and pragmatics, which focuses the relation between symbols and the users themselves (ibid). Today pragmatics is mostly used in the field of language philososphy and linguistics, where it addresses knowledge on how we use language, and how interpretations of an utterance depend on the context or situation (Nettelbladt, 2013). According to Nettelbladt, pragmatic understanding addresses how you perceive a situation, and to say something relevant in relation to what you think it’s about, what has been done and along with your own and other’s actions in the situation (p. 384). Central to the pragmatic understanding is the relations between the parts and the whole, or the local and the global aspects of understanding, which always need to be interrelated. The four dimensions of the model (p. 376) are:

1) Interaction

Nettelbladt (2013) describes the interaction as the core of the dialogic interaction, which deals with turn taking and timing.

2) The relation between the said and the intended contents

This dimension regards aspects of the fact that humans often intend or mean more than they say outspokenly. It also deals with issues of context, since a working language needs to provide tools for new situations. The use of idiomatic expressions, humor, and images in languages are all included in this dimension, as well as aspects of action in relation to language.

3) Sequentiality in conversations, and textual coherence

This dimension takes textual aspects into account, in terms of how a conversation is created as a sequel of different parts. Issues of memory and coherence are important here.

4) Adaptation to an overarching activity or type of activity

Nettelbladt describes the fourth dimension as dealing with the context of the conversation, and the overarching situation.

This encouraged me to finally try the codes as vantage points for analyses of the improvisational interplay on some of the films that were discussed during the interviews. This preliminary analytic model is based and used here on the notion that the codes annotate which communicative mode that I perceive as dominating in the improvisatio-nal interplay at different points. Some codes, especially in the Tosca Scarpia scene, are based on the concrete notions of the interplay made by my fellow improvisers during the interviews. It is not possible to know what intentions all the improvisers have during these improvisations. In order to access the ideas of the improvisers I would need to analyze the films together with the fellow improvisers, using the codes. Even so, many of the aspects that regard intuitive choices of course would not be possible to track, even for us as improvisers. For this reason I focus mainly on the aspects of interplay that I perceived in the film analyses. As noted above, I found striking similarities between the three main thematic groups in the interview study and aspects of Nettebladt’s suggested model. Indeed such similarities between data and theory are not enough to motivate a certain research perspective (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2008). The preliminary findings indicate that an analytic model such as this could be of use when approaching musico-dramatic interaction, where music, movement, drama and words, are interrelated. However, in order to develop a working model, more work would need to be done.

As above, he thematic groups will appear as coloured boxes in the film, where the code is described, beside the improvisers:

Gràfic 2


When watching these examples, there is a possibility to stop the film and read the labels in detail on the still image, There is also a possibility just to watch the film, in order to get an image of how the communication flows in the emerging interplay, from the improviser’s perspective.

Tosca_Scarpia boxes

Tosca_Scarpia boxes

Interplay analysis - Space station

Here is an example from the beginning of a long form in opera improvisation, performed at ON in Vadstena 2012. One of the opera improvisers, Samuel Jarrick, creates a platform together with the audience, by chosing a place. We have agreed to start this long form with the technique “I am”, where the improvisers go in and make individual solos, creating and performing a place. Then a tutti part follows. Since this technique mainly deals with musical and text interaction, I have chosen to focus the sounding interaction here.

A caleidoscope interplay session: The Tosca Scarpia scene

1) Watch the film below.


2) Read the following conversations related to this scene.

Clear physical offers

Gregor describes how Samuel and I as singers in this scene, help each other out in doing the things on stage that work well.

Gregor: It’s very nice for me when Samuel holds up his finger. Because it is like he is signaling that, now I am going to tell something. It becomes very clear in the sense that, here comes something. It is almost as raising the hand: Miss, I have to say something. It comes as very clear physical body language, And then I am like: ok, let’s see, now I will help to transmit your message.

Sara: Right. And when you play, you mostly watch the stage?

Gregor: Yes, that’s right. I don’t know to hat extent I look down… no, I almost never look down. No, I try to be there all the time, so that I hopefully can see...

A little later, Samuel gives clear offers to Gregor and me about what is central on stage, and in the story. In the fictive context, Samuel as Tosca invites Scarpia (me) to play on the spinet. He does this by directing his body, voice and gaze against a low, green, wooden bench. Thereby he both addresses it as an instrument, a spinet, and brings it in focus. Gregor describes that Samuel’s action affects him into turning the harmony into a mediant.

He physically and scenically charges the piano, or the spinet, as it is to become. He stands a little bit away from it and gives it a: (breathes in) here it is. To me it is wonderful with all those kinds of things, where thee is a clarity in the body language. The interesting thing is that I don’t have to know… I mean, when he holds his finger up, I don’t really know where he is going… He might do a turn in that moment, but it doesn’t really matter in that situation. Because it is a possibility to meet anyway… at least I know that now he is going to tell something important, or now he is charging for the use of or the meeting with that item. It gives me so much in his intention, as compared to if he had only been walking around or singing.

Gender and clichés [‡‡]

As noted before the project ON we also worked with changing roles in repertoire scenes such as the one preceding this improvisation. During the rehearsals we investigated the possibilities of changing gender as well (Wilén, 2013b). At some point we decided to stick with our own physical genders in the Tosca Scarpia scene so that the characters on stage instead changed connotations in line with the singers who were performing the roles. To put it bluntly, at some points the audience saw Tosca/Scarpia embodied as a man, and at some points as a woman. However, during this summer I realized that I as a performer had taken on the role of Scarpia as enacting a man, not a woman. This becomes clear in the following conversation.

Samuel: The story, the roles are stronger than our genders. And that’s quite interesting in a way, it’s sort of radical. In one way it means that you are stuck in the conception of Scarpia as a man. But you can also see it as if it doesn’t matter what gender we have ourselves. We go so much into the drama that it is the roles, or the relations that are interesting, not our physical genders, to the audience.

Sara: But how did you think?

Samuel: Well I guess I thought that you were a man.

Sara: But then what were you??

Samuel: Well…

Sara: When you see yourself and how you move.

Samuel: I try not to move like a woman, I just try to… how am I going to get out of this situation. I think. But then, I don’t think that much about gender, but it comes in focus when we discuss gender in the scene, and then I start to think, yeah right, it’s Sara who performs Scarpia here. And then it would be fun if you were a highhanded woman. So then I try to save it a little, and then it just comes (laughs).

Sara: Well, at the same time I think that when I sit there and you say that to me, it opens an entire world, you couldn’t know this. And i realized only last week when I was transcribing my notes from the rehearsals last spring. We talked so much about this, which gender, to exchange the text, and then I realize that all the times we have performed Tosca Scarpia, I have exchanged the text in relation to my fellow actor, but I have still played Scarpia as a man every time.

Later, Alexandra and I discuss the relevance of gender conventions, or clichés in performance.                                                                       

Alexandra: Well, here’s an interesting question for you. Did you act like a woman or a man here?

Sara: I actually act as a man... I realized this only last week.

Alexandra: Yes, because I also see you as a man here. I don’t know why, but I do.

Alexandra: But still you think that… I don’t know, I have also thought of you a man here, and it might relate to that you choose this with the devil’s music and the handshake and… Well, now I know, I think it’s awesome, I love how you work with the handkerchief, you wipe the food off. That´s are very male thing to do.

Sara: Is it a cliché?

Alexandra: Now I just have to try it (laughs). Well, I guess it is.

Sara: Is it really interesting to see this again, because it really is a cliché?

Alexandra: Well, I still think so even if it is a cliché, since you are a woman but you do it as a man. But even if I think of David and Samuel, it would still be interesting even if it’s a cliché, since it tells us something…

Alexandra emphasizes that choosing a cliché is also to choose a certain palet for expression.

Alexandra: It is a choice that still tells us something, it says so much that we don’t have to tell in words, you get it told for free. That is interesting in itself, convention or not, that’s how I feel.

Gregor describes his view on the use of clichés in opera improvisation.

Gregor: I would say that I use musical clichés… Because I recognize certain motives and such, or, not motives, but rather characteristics, or styles. Everything doesn’t occur on a conscious level. I think or want or hope that it perhaps is more like activating our common knowledge base. If I play a dim chord, very simple, it means that something dangerous is about to happen. We know each other so well that even if I’m not aware of it, we will react in a Pavlov way on each other’s ways of moving. When Sara moves like that, one part of me knows that she’s about to do this. And we have some kind of modes that we do, and some are like, let’s go into that room and dance for a while, and we’ll see, that you’re aware of. And some you are not aware of, and of some you think, oh, that’s nice, here comes this one. While some are more, no, now we’re doing that again. To me improvisation is very much about clichés, but it doesn’t have to be a negative thing. On the contrary, if we fill the clichés with flesh and blood, something real.

3) Watch the film with annotations.

In this film version (containing also the repertoire scene) the analyzed improvisation is at 10.33 – 13.19. Please scroll to this section. Since the scene is a continuation of a repertoire scene, this is an example of intertextual improvisation (theme 2, red) as well as relating to traditions and structures of opera (theme 3, blue). This is not marked in the clip.

Improvisational processes as pragmatic interplay

As a singer, the relations between music, action and language are always present in my work with improvisation. During the years I have investigated different possibilities to look into this, as described above. In the attempts to analyze transcriptions, physical actions and techniques, text, harmony, and dramaturgical aspects, I perceived that the intuitive and musical aspects of emergent improvisation became difficult to grasp. This could be related to that the mentioned analytic perspectives derive from textual genres, where material is mostly creative by an individual process over time, while opera improvisation is a collaborative performance genre. Indeed, the view on the musical work as common vantage point for Western musical performance practice and analysis is currently undergoing changes. Love (2008) means that the methods for musical analyses so far have treated music as an object, as in the visual arts of architecture and art, thereby forgetting “the testimony of musical experience” (p. 52) where the listener takes part of musical details as a current in an ongoing experience, and perhaps afterwards conceive the piece as a whole. Sawyer (1996) turns against structural models for analyses of group improvisation in his research on jazz and improvised theater, as these would not regard the inherent social structures. He argues that improvisation is contingent, where every moment derives from the primary flow, but at the same time is an unpredictable, collective process, where several persons influence and respond to each other all the time. During the last decades, music researchers have come to problematize the concept of musical works and relations between work, improvisation and performance (Goehr, 2007), such as in organ musical practice (Johansson, 2008), and in cooperation between performers and composers of contemporary music (Frisk, 2008; Östersjö, 2008) and opera and improvisation (Wilén, 2013b).

This leads me to back to one of the initial questions in this text: how can improvisation be studied and communicated both as performative processes and products? The very recording and repeatedly watching the improvisational processes on film from an outside perspective at the same time transforms them into products, which in turn might be necessary for the research process. To balance this, in IAM the analytical frame itself forms part of the visual material of which the receiver takes part. The combination of interview results and IAM in the session is also an attempt to mix, remix and share experiential and analytical perspectives and experiences of opera improvisational processes, by a caleidoscopic blending of insider’s and more distanced perspectives. I hope that addressees of this material have had the opportunity to take a more active role in taking part of these perspectives, than if all the information would have been given in one mode, representing a result based solely on the perspective of the distanced researcher.

In conclusion, I see IAM as a potential tool for further investigations of pragmatic aspects of improvisational processes and possibilities to address aspects of group interaction in terms of interplay, contrast and the creation of common materials by sharing ideas, structures and models. IAM may work as a tool also for other ensembles in order to explore aspects of improvisation, collaborative creativity, communication and language.


Operaimprovisatörerna, Opera Nova- power, love, remix, 2012. Photo: Klara Bodell.

[*] The work in Impromans also include cooperation with a light designer, where the audio-visual aspects of the performance are in focus, experimenting with new techniques. Here I work with methods inspired by an autoethnographic approach, which will be further described in a publication in 2015.

[†] For a description of Opera Nova- power, love, remix, a performance project focusing gender and power structures in opera repertoire and opera improvisation, see Forsare (2013), Operaimprovisatörerna (2012), Wilén, (2013b).

[‡] A technique from improvisational theatre, where the entering improviser takes on a role by tapping the shoulder of another actor on stage, thus asking him/her to leave the stage. Samuel (in blue) tags Linus (in brown) out in this image.

[§] In one of these, I was interviewed by Conny Antonov, who is a member of both the ensembles.

[**] A refers to when s/he doesn’t see the other improviser at all, but only hears the voice.

[††] In Peirce’s system, index indicates that an utterance in some way is close to the ist content in space or time. An icon is a sign that shows similarities to the content it signifies, such as a train on a traffic sign, or gestures that illustrate something. Symbols are signs, which have a conventionalized, sometimes arbitrary relation to their signified content (Nettebladt, 2013).

[‡‡] The Swedish word here is schablon, a mix between template and convention. The concept cliché is problematic in English, since it has a slightly negative value. However it will be used here, in search for a better word.



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