Sing-Along with the Scythians, Muso is Distinct, Inspiring and Infectious
Standing outside its neoclassical entrance on a mild October evening is itself a pleasure, but entering the British Museum is to enter a trove of human history. Last week, however, the museum hosted an unusual show.Playing with words, beats and imagination, Impropera presented Muso, an improvised performance centred on the museum’s rich cultural collections.
First started as an experimental project in 2015 at the Grant Museum of Zoology in University College London, the opera returns with a series of events for 2017-2018. First on the line is the British Museum, where the performance is centred upon its recently-opened exhibition Scythians - Warriors of Ancient Siberia.
What Impropera aims to do is to create a connection between the audience and the artefacts that, in their cases, may look cold and far away.
The performance was organized in two acts. A first session took place in the BP Lecture Theatre. With the help of Dr Chiara Ambrosio, UCL lecturer in History and the Philosophy of Science, and Dr St John Simpson, curator of the exhibition, the audience travelled in time and space to discover the identity of the Scythians, their movements across Asia, and their peculiar habits.
The whole journey was flavoured with notes and puns. The opera troupe animated the presentation with catchy scenes and amusing songs. Receiving prompts from the public, the quartet gradually weaves the plot of the show.
The production sets its tone early - a hypothetical conversation between a few birds and a Scythian man. The lines of the dialogue? They came from the suggestions of the public. And so the show goes on: the audience heard a live translation of a Scythian Aria, watched the hippie-like moment when the tribes entertained themselves by burning hemp seeds, and saw the (un)likely outcomes of the first meeting between the British Museum and the State Hermitage Museum representatives (holder of the majority of the objects in the exhibition) in St Petersburg.
The object-quiz was a very interesting part. With the audience randomly choosing one of the Scythian items presented, three of the singers grappled brilliantly with fanciful explanations of its use.
Muso pulls from the vast knowledge and human stories available in museums
The second act took place in the Great Court. Before moving there, the audience was divided into three tribes - the Horse, the Warrior, and the Gold - and each learnt a short funny chant (also improvised on the spot) as their hymn.
Armed with coloured tissues and singing, performers and audience entered the Museum hall, which resounded and echoed at the beats of the drum.
“I have to go with the free drinks, I am sorry,” laughed one of the Warriors to his friends, when the head tribe of the Gold (Fiona Finsbury) offered wine in a musical bid for the leadership of the recently formed community of Scythians.
The polyphonic effect attracted other visitors, curious to join the final chorus right in front of the entrance. Guided by Impropera, the public performed a Scythian dance, using their newly-learnt customs and traditions.
With everyone participating, the hilarious outcome became a celebration of cultural engagement and sound musical entertainment.
Muso was spontaneous - the interaction with the public and the unfolding of events happened naturally - but it was only due to the huge preparation underlying the performance that its success was possible.
Obviously, the actors have a broad canvas on which to build their improvisation, but the actual lines and balanced scenes come from good collaboration and great talent. In addition to this, all the actors sing beautifully, whether in English or in a made-up language.
As the title of the show declares, Muso pulls from the vast knowledge and human stories available in museums and that typical feature of the muses: singing.
Founded in 2000, Impropera was born from Opera Circus, a mid 90s opera company whose founders Pearl and Tina Ellen Lee devised shows such as Shameless and Kill Me I Love You.
Artistic Director, David Pearl, said the show came after many years of work, not only on improvisation, but also on developing more intuitive skills and that flexibility so much required to move from the object, to the stories, to people, and translate everything in music.
The cast for the night included Showstopper! actor Philip Pellew, long-standing Impropera collaborator Louise Crane, and Musical Director, Anthony Igle.
Not the usual stage for a play, not the standard animated content of an exhibition, not the traditional verses of an opera, but Muso’s distinctiveness inspires and entertains as few others productions. The originality of the experience comes from so many different angles that it is difficult to find a single reason why the show is so effective. However, the enthusiasm by which Impropera deliver every moment is simply infectious.
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