Whose Aria Is It, Anyway?

We are fortunate to live in a time where we have instant access to mountains of information that help us as singers to hone our craft and present a polished package to those who would watch us perform. One of the most beneficial resources in our performing development is from various staging and acting classes that we might take, either through the pursuit of an academic degree or as part of a Young Artist Program. These resources provide us with a time-honored tradition of stage movement, character development, and sometimes even stage combat—all the tools that singing actors need as they walk onto the stage for a performance. If we are then fortunate to be able to turn around and convey our knowledge to the next generation of singers, the proverbial circle is complete . . . or is it?

Often, these classes and workshops cannot provide singers with enough training in dealing with the unknown. We spend most of our time training to make sure that we do not make mistakes, and for good reason. Missed lines, missed entrances, and other unknown variables of live theatre are scarier and much more difficult to deal with when you add a large musical component to them. What happens, however, when a fellow cast member misses their next line of recitative? What happens when, through no fault of anyone, a performance meets with something unexpected?

In the worst case, the action stops and the performance is interrupted. There are, however, a few levels before that where well equipped cast members can help navigate these unknown waters and get the performance back on track with minimal, if any, awareness from the audience. The key is being “well equipped.” But how can you equip yourself to be prepared for such contingencies? The answer is simple: by spending time training in the art of improvisation.

For centuries, musicians have trained in musical improvisation and creating music on the spot. This is not that improvisation. This is about the current surge in improv groups around the country. These groups provide tools and skills that help performers to think on their feet.

Using exercises and drills dressed up as “games,” each participant develops a comfort zone that includes thinking, feeling, and reacting at the speed of thought. Each character is fully in the moment, and each performer is listening to the others for inspiration and assistance as the group raises each other up for each “game.” The beauty of these improv shows, just like in musical improvisation, is that every game, every show is completely different based on what the audience decides. There is an element of unknown and surprise every time an actor stands up to “play” the next game.

All the while, the audience watches in eager anticipation as scenes, vignettes, and fast-thinking “shotgun” games are performed with varying degrees of precision. They are astounded when everything clicks and the scene works flawlessly as if completely scripted. Characters come to life and the audience is right there amid the action, watching it unfold one unknown minute to the next. Other times, those same people, who were improvising with the skill and precision of a neurosurgeon, get tongue tied or have a momentary mental slip—and, somehow, the audience embraces that as part of the fun. It all feeds into itself for a performance that is enjoyable and always memorable.

In my experience, many opera directors and teachers incorporate improvisation into their teaching/rehearsal style. From something as simple as making our movements onstage more fluid to the more complex concepts of exploring the subtext and backstory of a character that we are studying, improv is already being used successfully to help singers hone their stage and performing skills. But we are missing some wonderful benefits due to a sheer lack of time and resources. While it is wonderful to participate in various improvisation drills and exercises when the opportunity presents itself, the benefit is limited to those few and fleeting experiences. Imagine what your favorite aria would sound and look like if you only spent the same amount of time working on it as you did those few improv exercises?

Those drills are enough to begin to get your brain focused on your character and your surroundings onstage, but not enough to deal with anything that might surprise you. Let’s be honest, the last place we as singers need surprises is in the middle of our big scene with an orchestra’s beautiful accompaniment and the audience wholly engrossed in the performance. Improv work will not keep surprises from happening, but it will help you to deal with them and minimize their impact on a given performance. So, how do you go about getting more experience with these skills and, more specifically, this art form in its own right?

The easiest answer is to join an improv group. Start at the beginning. Just as with everything else you have done for your craft, regular rehearsal and practice are necessary.

If you have a busy performing schedule, that is all right. The nice thing about some improv groups is that if they are large enough, you can miss when you need and return when you are able. If you cannot find an improv group in your area, try to find someone with improvisation experience and start your own group.


Yes, and . . . ?

The principles of improv are based on those two simple words, one easy question: “Yes, and . . . ?” The idea being that you are accepting what your fellow performer has said and you are adding to it.

In rehearsals, one effective game that is played is called Three-Line Scene. It is used to demonstrate the effectiveness of that one question and to help further the idea of instantaneous collaboration. (Remember, at its core, improv is performance at the speed of thought. Your thoughts may not move very fast to begin with, but they eventually will.) A typical scene for that game might look like this:


Player 1: “Sally, I think there is something wrong with our car.”

Player 2: “Yeah, Pa, that would explain why we aren’t moving.”

Player 1: “Hmmm. I guess we’ll have to walk.”


That’s it. Simple, but effective. You have a scene with a logical starting point, a brief development, and a reasonable conclusion. Characters have been established and a small backstory can even be inferred. It may not be funny or even very interesting, but that isn’t the point of this exercise.

This is the foundation. As with anything else, incredible things can happen with a strong foundation. It is effective in what it does because it forces the performers to listen, support, and create. Once you have the basic outline solid, you realize that everything about that scene is left to the performers on the spot.

Are they speaking with an accent? How old are the characters? Those types of variables are what leave these simple three lines open for more interpretation—and, further, where the individual fun happens. In the hands of a seasoned improv actor, the same exact dialogue could come across like this (remember there is nothing else onstage, so the audience is using your gestures, focus, and facial expressions to help flesh out this scene):


Player 1: (looking puzzled with hands on the steering wheel): “Sally, I think there is something wrong with our car.”

Player 2: (rolling her eyes at the obvious issue): “Yeah, Pa, that would explain why we aren’t moving.”

Player 1: “Hmmm. I guess we’ll have to walk.” (Sally then hands him the keys to the car.)


But that is just one way the scene could go. With practice, the ideas and principles behind this one exercise can start to help you gain more focus as a performer.


Other Benefits

There are many exercises/drills that can be used to hone our skills, but what is the purpose when we have everything spelled out for us as singers? Singers are already accustomed to juggling many things during a performance. We must think about the words, the music, our character, the other characters onstage, what’s going on . . . and the list goes on. Improv work helps us deal with all of that first. Improv performers talk about a feeling of almost hyper focus. They are so invested in everything that is going on that nothing, or very little, gets by them.

Improv helps you as the performer to truly listen to what is going on and react in real time. More importantly, it is a reaction that helps support what is happening onstage and the other performers onstage. That is where these techniques become invaluable. If you are wholly in the moment and ready for any contingency, your performance will be more secure because you feel more confident. You are prepared for the unknown, whatever that may be.

We’ve all been there. It’s the middle of a lengthy Mozart recitative and someone forgets a line. In the best of circumstances, there is a momentary pause and things move on. That is what we train for and hope for, but there is always that “other” time . . . the time when a momentary pause becomes a few seconds, and a few seconds seems to drift on for eternity. All characters freeze, waiting for something to happen or someone to break the silence.

If you are in the moment, aware of the scene, and have those improv tools under your belt, you will be better equipped to help the scene continue in a situation like this. You may realize that a certain gesture on your part will help your colleague remember the missed line. If, in a panic, the person who forgot the line decided to move and suddenly change the blocking, you may be able to help them stay focused and not drift too far with some well placed nonverbal communication or a stage counter that brings them back into the scene.

Those are the things that participating in an improv group can help you with as a performer. It’s important to remember, as mentioned earlier, those skills are developed just like any other, and the only way to develop them is to practice them. As a drill in an opera workshop it is fantastic exposure, but it pales in comparison to practicing it repeatedly and, even more, performing those skills in front of an audience in real time during an improv show.

If you are able, give it a try. Join an improv group. It will help you to focus and listen better while at the same time making you an even more secure and prepared performer. Even beyond everything that improv can do for you, it can also be a lot of fun.

Roberto Mancusi

Roberto Mancusi is an associate professor of music at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He maintains a busy performing schedule and teaches applied lessons, beginning conducting, voice science & pedagogy, and co-directs the university’s Lyric Opera Theater. His textbook, Voice for Non-Majors was published by Prentice Hall in 2008. An International Travel Grant from the University of Tennessee at Martin- Department of Research, Grants, and Contracts assisted with part of this project.