Interview: Clementine Lovell, Pop-up Opera

Pop-up Opera was established in 2011 with the goal of encouraging more people to see and enjoy opera. After recently performing their first ever tragedy, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, the company return to comedy for their new production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which will – as always – take them to some unique and unforgettable venues around the UK.

Director Clementine Lovell founded Pop-up Opera on her return from living in Italy. “When I began training as an opera singer I had mixed reactions from my friends. Opera wasn’t really their thing – one even claimed to be ‘allergic’ to it. That stayed with me, and I wanted to prove them wrong, to show them that opera could be magical, hilarious, devastating or moving.

“Opera is so much a part of Italian culture, so broadly appreciated, and is performed everywhere, not just in the big houses. I grew up in a small village in the UK miles from an opera house. We never went to see it, it wasn’t an option. My uncle has a barn where he hosts folk and blues events and we put on an opera there for a largely non opera going audience. They loved it. It made me think about how the setting can have a bearing on people’s enjoyment, or their willingness to give it a go.”

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Each new space presents a unique challenge: “The production grows and evolves as it pops up in different places. We stage it in the rehearsal room and then adapt it to embrace each venue, so every night is different. The performance spaces vary wildly in size, shape, acoustic, feeling. We get in to the space on the day and start working out the entrances, exits, how to involve the audience… The performers have to think on their feet and be willing to allow some freedom and spontaneity. I think this keeps it fresh and creates a very special atmosphere.”

Clementine has countless happy memories of the unusual venues in which the company have performed. “One of our first venues was a boat made of scrap metal in Shoreham. The stairs were made out of an old car and the room we performed in had previously been part of a bus. We once performed 100ft underground in Clearwell Caves – to make some of the entrances the singers had to grope their way down a very dark tunnel with only headlamps to light the way, and one of them was terrified of bats!

“Another venue was the ruins of Raglan castle, where our backstage area was a crumbled down tower… We’ve also done shows in the Brunel Museum Thames Tunnel Shaft several times. It used to be more challenging to get in there – you had to crawl through a tiny entranceway and then down a scaffold stairway. It was always a nightmare getting props down there. We love going to the Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight, the audience always go crazy for it. But my favourite venue will always be our original, the cider barn in Herefordshire. You can have a glass of cider from the Ross-on-Wye Cider & Perry Co, and the atmosphere is always fantastic.”

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Il Barbiere di Siviglia is one of the world’s best-loved operas, but for those of us who may not know what it’s all about: “It’s the story of Count Almaviva, who wants Rosina to fall in love with him for who he is, not for his money or fame, so he conceals his true identity. In order to win her he must also get past her guardian, so many ridiculous obstacles and disguises ensue before he can get the girl.

“Our version is unique because it’s truly ‘pop-up’ in the way it can adapt to each space. We want to embrace the fact that we have an electric piano, and that we don’t have the budget of the Royal Opera House. We’ve stripped the costume and set right back so it allows the music and the story to shine through. We want to allow those things to take front stage, to show people that you don’t need all this extra stuff to make a comedy: with brilliant singing and acting and by involving the audience you can still create an amazing show.”

The opera will be sung in its original Italian with English captions, presented in Pop-up Opera’s signature style: “We believe that you can still make opera accessible when performed in the original language. The music, the intentions of the actors, the interaction between the characters and the power of the drama get the story across. The captions are there to complement, not to detract. They keep the audience broadly abreast of the story but don’t demand their attention all the time. With a comedy the captions can add another layer of humour, and we can play around with the modern context. In our last production, which was a drama, we kept the translation more ‘straight’ but still with the same approach of captions rather than a full text translated into continuous surtitles.”

As a company, Pop-up Opera aim to broaden opera’s appeal and challenge the perception that it’s stuffy and elitist. “We want to make our productions engaging, exciting, hilarious, dramatic, moving… We hope audiences go away having laughed until their cheeks ache or having been moved to tears, that they will have been drawn into the story and connected with its characters. We hope they take away with them a thirst for more opera, whether it’s by fringe companies or at the Royal Opera House, and a different attitude towards what they thought opera was about or represented. Never been to the opera? Come to one of our shows! You won’t regret it.”

Il Barbiere di Siviglia can be seen around the UK until 1st September 2016 – check the website for full dates and venues.


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