PopUp Opera has steered firmly away from the formal theatre set-up and performs opera in very unusual venues nationwide. The company’s founder and producer, Clementine Lovell, talks to Francesca Wickers about putting the life, fun and ‘Italian-ness’ back into opera.
How did the idea for PopUp Opera hit you?
The idea came while I was living in Italy. They have such a different culture surrounding opera over there. It’s an art that’s enjoyed by such a broad section of society, and it’s seen as fun and entertaining. It’s so much less formal, often performed outdoors in piazzas, for example. There’ll be grannies sitting watching, crackling their sweet wrappers, and small children running around. I wanted to see whether that atmosphere could be recreated in England.
So how did you go about that?
We perform traditional, Italian opera in unusual and intimate venues. We use acting and props to bring the story to life; we might hand them tea cups to tinkle, for example, or pass someone a mobile phone to take photos of one of the characters. It’s about getingt the audience involved so they can have fun with the opera themselves. In Italy, people are exposed to opera from a very young age. Sadly that isn’t the case in the UK, and there’s a tendency to ‘dumb down’ high art, which is just unnecessary. We want to prove that it can be fun whilst still preserving opera’s beauty.
Who is your target audience?
Everybody. We’re providing a fresh approach. Our performances are accessible and immediate; when you can see the singers’ faces and feel the emotion so closely, any preconceptions are forgotten about. We want to show that opera itself is not elitist, but rather the attitudes surrounding it that enforce this idea. People are often extremely surprised to realise that they love opera, especially if they thought it would be dull or didn’t know what to expect. Even a seven-year-old saw one of our productions recently, and at the end asked her parents “When can I go and see an opera again?”
Why did you decide to make PopUp Opera a touring company?
I grew up in a small village. I didn’t live near an opera house, and opera was never performed in the village itself. It just didn’t happen. So I felt passionately about bringing the art form to places that would otherwise never have opera in a million years!
Do you perform all your productions in their original language?
Yes. I am convinced that opera can be performed in Italian and still be accessible. If the acting is good, then there really shouldn’t be any need to translate the libretto. We also don’t have surtitles translating every single word, because then people just watch the screen for the entire duration. We summarise what’s happening in plain English – often with jokes that are topical to the venue – in short captions projected on the wall. I’ve never heard anyone say they don’t understand; if anything, the language adds to the experience.
Your last tour included performances on a barge, in a cave, and in the Thames Tunnel Shaft. Why the wacky venues?
It makes it exciting, gives us the freedom to perform where we like, and takes away any sense of formality. We can be really close to the audience, which is very exciting for us and for them. If people are put off by a stuffy, formal image, then what better way to tackle that impression than to perform somewhere so radically different from the opera house?
With only a keyboard accompaniment, do you feel you’re making a sacrifice to the music?
A production isn’t exactly the same without a full orchestra, of course, but PopUp provides a unique experience. The music remains at the centre, and in addition the drama is incredibly prominent. The story unfolds in front of your eyes, and the audience is often taken aback at how moved they are by the music and the drama. Hopefully our productions will inspire people to go and see opera in different places, too. We don’t have a huge budget, but if you’re passionate and resourceful enough, the energy and vitality of these intimate productions is infectious.
How would you describe the perfect singer for a PopUp Opera production?
As well as being of a high standard, it’s really important that the singers are game. While it is of utmost importance to show the audience how stunning the music is, our performers also need to have great stage presence and acting skills. They need to be willing to improvise, be adventurous, and happy to make do with the weird and exciting settings we often perform in. If we find ourselves fifty feet underground in a cave with damp walls, so be it!
How do you choose the works you perform?
They need to be operas that work without a chorus (we’re restricted on cast number because we travel around and often perform in very small places), and at the moment we’ve been sticking to comedies. Darren Royston, who directs our productions, has a background in commedia dell’arte, so this has become part of what we’re about.
Do you receive any funding?
We don’t, and it would be great if we did – we could afford a van, for a start! We’d also love to have the means to increase our educational and outreach activity. Opera should be taken into schools, where it can be brought to life and shared with young people. It would be fantastic to see children getting more involved with opera.
Are we edging closer to the Italian mentality?
We still have some way to go! But there are many companies now taking steps to improving attitudes towards the genre. Opera is definitely becoming more widely appreciated, which is fantastic.
PopUp Opera’s current touring production – an innovative Donizetti/Pergolesi combo – kicked off at St. Mary’s Church in Islington on 3rd June. For full tour dates and locations, see the PopUp Opera website.