Have you ever been to the Grant Museum? No, neither had I before this evening. You really must go; it is one of London’s hidden gems, a treasure trove of fossils, bones and preserved specimens. This is certainly wasn’t going to be a normal theatre experience!
Philip Pellow got the evening started by telling us about “Impropera”, this evening an opera will be improvised from the audience’s suggestions: so, we would only have ourselves to blame! “Muso”, which takes place in museums and galleries in the dark after normal closing time, combines academics, priceless artefacts and musical improvisers, who sing the treasures to life.
Obviously, with a format like this, each performance is different, it depends on the audience’s suggestions. On this particular evening, the first question was “what do you think the exhibits do when the museum closes and everyone goes home? “ The audiences’ answer, “let’s party”, led to the first song. Beautiful music came from all corners of the museum and the full cast of four singers, two musicians and one academic gathered before us. Philip then introduced the performers, who included the greatest diva Dr. Chiara Ambrosio, a lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science at UCL.
It was now time for the audience to do some work: we were given a post card and were asked to choose our favourite objects from the collection and to say why we would like to see them included in the performance. This led to the second song and a fabulous performance by mezzo-soprano Louise Crane. It was an incredible treat to hear her perform in such a tiny venue.
Next, Dr. Ambrosio explained about the foundation of the museum’s collection. Robert Grant started the collection when he came to UCL in 1827, having previously been Charles Darwin’s teacher at Edinburgh. This was the era of “Gentlemen of Science”, who met up in newly founded Societies to discuss the latest theories. One eminent Gentleman of Science was the geologist Charles Lyell, whose wife Mary seemed to do most of the work for him!
This was the only route into science for women at this time. Mary Lyell was not only a talented geologist but she also spoke several languages. Dr. Ambrosia read a letter that Charles Darwin had written to Mary, asking her to translate a paper for him. Mary translated the paper, which was about barnacles, and then collected barnacles and catalogued them for Darwin.
After another song, we were introduced to UCL volcanologist Dr. Carina Fearnley. She showed a picture of Vesuvius erupting and told us that, when she was at University, her lecturer told her that, if you get caught up in a pyroclastic flow, you’re b*gg*r*d! That was a cue for another song! Dr. Fearnley then provided more fascinating stories of volcanic eruptions and how volcanologists try to predict them. Musical director Anthony Ingle (piano) and Dr. Pete Furniss (woodwind) performed three variations of a piece entitled “Living with Volcanoes” in the styles of composers suggested by the audience.
The evening finished with Dr Ambrosia choosing an exhibit and asking the performers what they thought it was. They told us in song, of course. Their suggestions were varied and sometimes very rude! Dr Fearnley explained that the exhibit was actually a sea lily or crinoid, one of the few life forms that made it through a mass extinction that coincided with a volcanic eruption.
Bizarre, brilliant and absolutely unique. I loved it!
Review by Sally Knipe
Combining serious academics, priceless artefacts and musical improvisers for unique and intimate, after-hours museum experiences – singing treasures to life!
Presented by Impropera and UCL Culture
Various London dates 2018
MUSO aims to inspire and develop a new level of engagement between audiences, the arts, academia and museums. It takes an audience on a journey through an exhibition where they are invited to seek out hidden treasures, share their responses, hear from an expert and watch as their ideas are spun into music by an improvising opera troupe. It is the first of its kind of performance; an explosive collaboration between improvised opera and academia that places the audience at its centre.
@Impropera | #MUSO | www.impropera.co.uk
Running Time: 75 minutes | Suitable for ages 11 and upward
Directed by David Pearl
Music and all contents devised by the Company
Anthony Ingle (Music Director)
David Pearl (Artistic Director)
Chiara Ambrosio (Academic Performer)
21 University St, Bloomsbury, London