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Pågående projekt

Sara Wilén

Singing in action - processes of vocal improvisation


This artistic research project is an investigation of aspects of interplay and performativity in classical vocal improvised performance, from my point of view as classical singer and opera improviser. The project started in November 2009 on part time, and is planned to be completed in June 2017.

Operatic and lyrical improvisation as collaborative creative practices are forums where classical singers and musicians can work in an experimental field, but are fairly unknown in the classical music field today. The aim with my doctoral project is to problematize the work role of the classical singer, by investigating improvisation as a performative space through live performances, text and digitally mediated material. I also explore how I as a classically trained singer can investigate improvisation as a tool to articulate and deconstruct relations between improvisation, work and performance as well as the roles of performer(s) and author.

At the centre of the project is my work as a classical vocal improviser in various contexts, such as the Swedish ensembles Operaimprovisatörerna and Impromans. I also collaborate with musicians, composers and visual artists such as Fabio Monni, Jonatan Sersam and Magdolna Szabó. My project focuses an artistic tradition with roots in medieval Provence and Italy: opera and art song improvisation in terms of extemporization, or instantaneous composing, performed by classical singers in dialogue with the listeners, as an expanding classical vocal genre of today. This practice is a forum where classical singers and musicians can work in an experimental field, but is fairly uncommon in the classical music field today.

In my doctoral project, I have conducted projects such as Opera Nova - power, love remix (2012) and Opera Nova for young people (2015), with the theoretical vantage point of a poststructural, feminist stance, where the role of the work concept and semiotic aspects of operatic bodies and voices on stage were researched and discussed by staged methods of deconstruction (Wilén, 2013). I also conducted an interview study based on stimulated recall sessions with a majority of the members of the ensembles Operaimprovisatörerna and Impromans, using video documentations of performances and rehearsals. This study in turn led to my developing the IAM model, interplay analysis model (2015) as a tool for investigating interactional processes between singers and pianist in operatic improvisation from a performative, pragmatic perspective.

In the project Sista Minuten conducted with Operaimprovisatörerna and Svenska Kammarorkestern (2014, 2016) we investigate how improvisation can be remixed and combined with classical works, by creating improvised operas intertwining operatic improvisation and classical works by for instance Bizet, Mozart, Tjajkovskij and Verdi. In the performance project Gravity of Life (2016-17) I investigate how improvisation can be conducted with choirs, creating live contemporary opera, by intertwining operatic improvisation in music, text, stage performance and choreography and new music written by the composer Ulrika Emanuelsson and the librettist Mette af Klint.

In a project conducted with Impromans during 2016, I investigate resituating our classical informed improvisational practice into a historical venue: Suellska Villan in Malmö, built in 1796. In the salon Nattlandskap we investigate the creative processes of improvisation based on inner images and mimesis, by improvising in dialogue with musicologist Tobias Lund, who gives a lecture on the images in the music of Franz Schubert’s Die Nacht. In other parts of the villa I present my exhibition A S/He Story of Western Improvisation, problematizing the music history by discussing unknown aspects of improvisation and gender in the canonized music history. The project is performed May 15th and December 8th, 2016.


My working research questions are:

1) How can I investigate, articulate and communicate insights on musico-dramatic improvisation processes?

2) How can I investigate and challenge norms of  classical singing and artistic research  through performative practices and formats?


The field of vocal improvisation in classical/art music styles is connected to an almost forgotten artistic tradition performed by Italian improvvisatori/ improvvisatrici in the 18th/19th centuries, such as Pietro Metastasio (the librettist of several Mozart operas),  Mathilda d’Orozco, Corilla Olimpica and Rosa Taddei. Composers and authors such as Gioacchino Rossini, Carlo Goldoni, Madame de Staël, H.C. Andersen and Georges Sand have portrayed improvvisatori and improvvisatrici in their works.

The research material and documentation is collected in rehearsals, performances and discussions on video/audio or in notes, to be studied, analyzed and reflected on from different perspectives, relating to connected fields such as musical improvisation, opera, rhetoric, theatre and relevant literature. In some parts of the project, qualitative methods such as interviews and video analysis are used. The intertwining of artistic work and research studies also creates new lines of action and ideas that are fruitful in the artistic processes and developing methods of communicating the research in various media such as video, text and images.

Creating extemporated opera and impromans is creating in the interface between inner and external impulses. Thus we as classically trained improvisers get access to our own knowledge and experiences on a deeper level, through interaction in a field where preparedness for the unexpected is crucial. In this way the research project focuses an artistic practice yet to be researched, obtaining knowledge of the tacit knowledge of the classical singer, as well as presenting artistic tools, with which we as classical singers and musicians can apply our artistic abilities as professional music artists, creating improvised music performance in interaction with the society of today.

The project has artistic-pedagogical implications, when it comes to applying musicdramatic action methods of improvisation in dialogue with young singers and musicians in various contexts, at the performance program and the opera master program at Malmö Academy of Music and abroad. Sara also works as supervisor and examiner at the performance programme at Malmö Academy of Music.