As Pop Up Opera takes its work into schools for the first time, founder Clem Lovell talks to Sarah Sharp
Ah, opera – the everyman theatre. Of all the performative arts, opera, surely is the one guaranteed to cut across all classes and join the people in awareness of their common humanity. No? No. Opera, of course, is the marmite of the stage. The naysayers revile it as elite tosh; the advocates tend to wrinkle their nose and wonder aloud how the riffraff got in. Wasn’t there a time when you had to produce genealogy charts for three generations just to get into the stalls?
It is just this sort of polarised attitude that Pop Up Opera is on a mission to overturn. Performing across the land in all manner of venues unlikely and absurd, from pubs and barges to tunnels and caves, this intrepid band of pop-up performers present opera as you’ve never seen it before. For a start, the fourth wall is no barrier for them; gone is the illusion of the grand opera hall stage, the magnificent sets and the orchestra pit – the singers and crew see the venue a matter of hours before the nominal curtain up. They make props of what materials they find there, incorporate the set into their surroundings, and mingle with their audience in the middle of an aria. Bringing opera back to the people is what Pop Up Opera is all about.
When I speak to the the company’s founder, Clem Lovell, she’s riding high after yet another day of success. It’s a phone call, of course – the company’s on tour most of the time, and while it does perform in London, it’s rarely in the same place for more than a day or two. It sounds like an exhausting but exhilarating experience. Long hours and nomadic lifestyle notwithstanding, she’s bright and chatty and bubbling with enthusiasm: even across miles of wires, her passion for this idea is infectious. Since starting up in 2011, reviews have been immensely positive, and critics on the whole seem to have embraced this fresh approach to the art form of the elite.
Today’s victory, however, was in the hands of an audience far more scathing than any art critic: children. Today marked the company’s first foray into its educational programme, which aims to go into schools and bring the glory of the operatic aria to the world’s most notoriously fidgety spectators. Fortunately, it worked a treat. “The teacher told us it was the worst class in the school”, says Lovell, and as if that wasn’t enough, “Ofsted were in”. But when the tenor opened his mouth and began singing, “jaws dropped. They loved it.”
It’s perhaps the most gratifying triumph – to win over an audience which nobody would expect to enjoy it in the first place. It’s an invigorating testament to the ideal the company has been doggedly pursuing since it started – and, as Clem tells me it’s not actually that far off from their first beginnings. She recalls that at the very first performance (in a cider house, if you’re wondering) there were children as young as five sat right at the front. At the end of it, the parents came up to tell them how much the kids had enjoyed it. And it’s this commitment to the audience of all ages and backgrounds, this connection with anyone and everyone, that marks the spirit of Pop Up Opera and, it seems, really makes it all worthwhile. “It’s a real joy,” says Lovell later on with real delight, “to see such a mix in the audience and everyone’s different and all enjoying it… I think a lot of people enjoy opera more than they think they will.”
Certainly you couldn’t accuse the team of either elitism or pandering to the masses. Operas are sung in the original language. There are many companies – most notably English National Opera – that seek to make the most elusive of song forms more accessible by delivering it in English; as Clem sees it, it’s not the words but the way you tell them. Audience interaction and a sense of finding the intimate for each individual are what give Pop Up Opera its drive. Great care is taken over when to remove the audience from the action and when to draw them in – and it must be immensely satisfying to those watching who’ve never seen opera in any form and don’t know what to expect alongside the hardcore Glyndebournians. We discuss the essential emotiveness that the stories behind the libretti can have for each person, an idea abut which Lovell and her company are passionate: “Opera is so expressive… It’s about things we all experience: love, loss, anger. There’s something for everyone.”
There are surtitles of course, but these are done in a manner more reminiscent of silent movie cards, and often with a nod to the particular venue in which they perform – which in itself is an endearingly idiosyncratic touch. And venues that warrant unique reference have not been wanting: since its inception, Pop Up Opera has performed in places of all shapes, sizes and scenarios. A particularly memorable one, Lovell recalls, was in Shoreham: an old boat crafted entirely of scrap metal, the performance space made up of a double decker bus with a fighter plane welded into the roof. Royal Opera House, eat your heart out.
Obstacles are not something they shy from. Acoustics can be difficult to manage, especially with such limited get-in times – but these are professional singers and this is a serous business. The word “challenges” comes up a lot – there are, says Lovell, “a lot of challenges and lots of fun – but no disasters.” She is very proud – and rightly so – that her vision is offering a platform to young professional singers taking their first steps in the industry. Certainly Pop Up Opera seems to present a challenge quite different to the concert halls and grand stages that mark the more traditional singer’s foray into a professional opera career. Smaller venues do not mean compromising on quality. These are full operas, sung to professional standard in the original language – and while some limitations must be acknowledged as a matter of pure logistics (Lovell concedes that perhaps Wagner will be off the menu), standard is not one of them.
The current production is an ambitious mix of two Italian operas: Donzinetti’s Rita and Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona. This dual dovetail format is of course another example of how the easy road is just not their style. The upcoming season marks a wholly new challenge – a move away from the comedies they have dealt with so far, and a departure from the Italian aria. Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel: dark, subversive and definitely not a comedy will provide new meat to sink their teeth into, and presumably, a new type of audience mentality to win over. Charming your audience with devilish little arias is one thing, but submersing them in sombre Teutonic fairy tales… well, if anyone’s up to the task of turning a crowd in the face of adversity, it’s the Pop Up team.
It’s been an uplifting conversation, to hear how the company went from idealistic concept to critically-acclaimed reality. It began as profit share and now it pays its way with professional performers. Without knowing too much about what alternative funding might have been sought, it does seem indicative of our current social clime that such an innovative company, so dedicated to diversifying its audience and bringing an esoteric art form back to life, should be working completely off its own back and without any kind of centralised support. But then, if this is the spirit of the lost generation, it looks good. A small team, doubling – tripling – on roles, both in production and performance, wedded to an idea, pushing forwards to make it happen. As Lovell says, “I feel very proud to prove that it can be done – we are actually going out and doing it”. And there’s a sentiment, no matter what the language, that we can all relate to.
Pop Up Opera is currently on tour with Rita and La Serva Padrona. For more details, visit Pop Up Opera’s website.