Muso: Singing Museums to Life – Grant Museum of Zoology, London

Creators: The Cast

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

With funding cuts across the arts and museum sector, it is the smaller, quirkier institutions that suffer the most. While reuniting Charles I’s art collection or the works of Modigliani may have crowds rushing to London’s biggest spaces, it is easy to forget the incredible collections of the less well-known museums. Impropera is changing that with their new show Muso: Singing Museums to Life that offers a night of improvised operatic performance in unusual places.

The collaboration between art and history of science isn’t new and is something the Wellcome Collection have fed through their exhibitions for some years, but Impropera have created a distinct and entertaining musical event that actively engages its audience in the origin of and fascination with historical artefacts.

Their latest venture is a one night only show at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology that invites the audience to spend time investigating the collection and picking the strangest objects from the largely Victorian natural history exhibition. And there’s plenty to choose from, be it the wonderful jar of moles or the first choice of the evening, the carcass of an African Rock Python. With barely a moment to gather their thoughts, Impropera are off, creating a tragic story about one woman’s reptilian love for the snake and her sister’s attempts to separate them. This combination of fast thinking, great performance and surreal hilarity sets the tone for the evening.

During this 100-minute show the four performers – Susan Bisatt, Louise Crane, Nick Allen and Philip Pellew – create six entirely new songs from scratch, making up the lyrics, operatic style and, with the help of musicians Anthony Ingle and Peter Furniss, creating the music as they go along. With just a keyboard, clarinet and soprano saxophone, Ingle and Furniss also rise to the challenge of creating three differently styled and beautifully performed instrumental pieces about living near a volcano.

Inspired by the gallery and with help from the audience, the evening touches on an exploded human skull and the benefits of wearing a helmet delivered in a melancholic baroque style, the impossibility of escaping volcanic Pompeii with a musical theatre-style ditty entitled ‘We’re buggered’ and, in honour of International Women’s Day, a bouncy dialogue between Darwin and geologist Mary Lyle who translated letters for him that underpinned some of his later work on evolution. And it’s pretty much guaranteed that no one has ever got the term “pyroclastic flow” into a one song never mind three.

The key to the show’s success is close collaboration with its venues and the witty songs are interspersed with presentations from academics who help to explain the history of the collection and the subject area, while offering the singers multiple opportunities to transform these mini-lectures into vividly created operatic stories. Learning and fun combined.

Like jazz, the show is full of opportunities for each performer to show their skills, while also supporting the group. It is an unusual evening but a charming one, and while some of the early songs rely on single repeat phrases, the improvisation becomes more ambitious as the show unfolds. The talented performers create a great rapport with the audience and elicit humour at every opportunity. With every show starting from scratch, the entire run offers endless variation and plenty of fascinating facts that will entice you back to the museum for a closer look.

Reviewed on  8 March 2018 | Image: Contributed

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Unusual but charming

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