We’re launching a new theatre tomorrow at CAPA International Education, where I work on Cromwell Road. I can’t tell you the name or the theme yet, but it will become one of London’s hidden gems. More on that later. Now, meet Clementine Lovell. She’s performing for our launch party with her company the Pop Up Opera. As you can probably gather from the photos here, she’s a lot of fun to be around and that carries through her performances. The Pop Up Opera isn’t your traditional stuffy opera performance. They use venues like caves, old boats and tunnels and get their audience in fits of giggles. They’re trying to make opera accessible for anyone. Below, I’ve talked to Clem about how they aim to reach a wider audience than your typical opera, how travel inspires her work and some of the quirkiest venues they’ve played.
LLO: Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your interests outside of opera.
CL: My first experience of performing was singing folk songs in bars in Ireland. We went on holiday there every year and there were always live music sessions going on. Anyone was welcome to take part, and at 12 I taught myself to play piano accordion and joined in. My education until the age of 14 was at a Rudolf Steiner school, where music was a normal part of everyday life, and art was incorporated into almost every subject.
I grew up in a small village in Herefordshire, near the border of South Wales. We didn’t live anywhere near an opera house, and I didn’t see an opera until I was 21, when I was taken to see La Boheme. I’d just come out of a painful break up; the depiction of love and loss was so exquisite and real to me, and the music completely blew me away. I blubbed my way through the 2nd and 3rd acts, and was totally hooked. We always listened to folk music and blues at home, but my grandfather, the late astronomer Bernard Lovell, was passionate about classical music, and took me to concerts from the age of 8. I vividly remember seeing Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ and being gripped by the drama of the piece. I think it was the drama and the raw emotions that we all experience that drew me to opera.
At 18 I didn’t feel ready to go to music college, although one of my singing teachers encouraged it; instead I took up a place at Cambridge University to study Archaeology and Anthropology. After my degree I worked as an archaeologist for a couple of years. I particularly enjoyed a post as Community Archaeologist, which involved a lot of outreach work like training volunteers on
excavations, and doing sessions with children in local schools.
I kept up my singing lessons, however, and as my voice started to change and develop I thought, it’s now or never. I gave up my job and moved to London, spending a depressing year temping, auditioning for music colleges and missing my old job. London initially felt like a bewildering crowded and yet isolating place. I feel very differently about it now. I got a place at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and began opera training full time in 2006.
LLO: You’re the company founder and director of the Pop Up Opera. What exactly is Pop Up Opera and where do you perform?
CL: We aim to bring opera to a broader audience by performing in unusual and intimate venues. The singers are all young professional opera singers at the start of promising careers. The productions are fully staged, but then adapted to each new space we go into. Our venues include barns, bars, boats and caves.
LLO: Tell us a bit about your team.
CL: I am lucky to have a superb team on board. My stage director Darren Royston got involved right at the start and really understood what I was trying to achieve with the company. His background is in choreography and dance, and he draws on a commedia dell’arte style of acting and use of props to bring the story alive and make it clear and engaging. He is also a gifted performer and has been involved in the productions in a series of hilarious cameo roles. Darren also acts as narrator, inviting the audience to take part for example in a ‘teacup orchestra’, breaking the ice at the start of the show.
My musical director James Henshaw does fantastic work with the singers, bringing together the ensemble numbers, shaping the phrasing, setting the tempi, and working creatively with the piano reduction. I could not have got the company to this point of expansion without my amazing assistant producer and stage manager Fiona Johnston. The singers are talented young professionals, but they are also a delight to work with. They have to be able to adapt to different spaces and situations, and there is a feeling of everyone mucking in and getting involved with setting up. It’s about going out and making it happen, overcoming obstacles and being creative; there a sense that we are all part of this, and it bonds us together as a group as we get through various challenges. There’s a lot of laughter on the tour bus!
LLO: What were some of the highlights over the last year?
CL: The last year has been an exciting time for the company. We have gone from doing one production a year, to three seasons (four productions in 2013), and we have been getting amazing reviews and feedback from critics and audiences alike. We’ve performed in some incredible places, 100 ft underground in Clearwell Caves in the Forest of Dean. We were also featured on the BBC London news performing in the Brunel Museum Thames Tunnel Shaft. For me it is always a highlight when I have audience members write to me saying how much they enjoyed it, when they had been apprehensive about what to expect. One guy wrote to me saying his mates had to feed him loads of beer to persuade him along, he had sat near the exit just in case, but it was in fact ‘the best thing I’ve done all year… the hidden door to opera has been opened’.
LLO: One of your goals is to alter the reputation of opera and make it accessible for everyone, fun and inviting, right? How do you accomplish this?
CL: It’s a totally different way of experiencing opera. For a start the singers are just feet away from the audience, at times in amongst them and interacting with them. In an intimate space you can’t just ignore the audience, you have to draw them into the action. It also ‘breaks the ice’ and makes them feel more relaxed and involved in the story. We adapt the production to each venue that we go into. This is a challenge for the singers as each space is completely different and they need to think on their feet a lot more (we only have a few hours ‘get in’ time in each place). This keeps the performances very fresh and each one is unique. We create the ‘set’ from things we find at each venue, arriving and leaving with our suitcases of props. We don’t have the budget of an opera house, but this forces us to be very inventive and resourceful. Like many opera houses, we perform the operas in the original languages, but we have ‘silent-movie’ style captions to keep the audience abreast of the story, rather than subtitles translating every word. I didn’t want the audiences to spend the whole time looking at a screen, and to allow the music and drama to tell the story. After all, with the singers this close, the audience are more able to read the expressions and emotions in their faces.
LLO: You’ve lived in Italy for two years and performed a series of recitals in New Zealand for a few years running. Why is travel important to you? Does it inspire your work and in which ways?
CL: When I was 12, my brother (aged 10) and I were lucky enough to travel to Africa to visit some friends of my parents who lived out there. It was the first time I’d been anywhere outside of the UK, and it had a huge impact on me. Everything was so different, so colourful, so fascinating. They were determined to show us the ‘real’ Africa, not just the sugary tourist surface. We saw shanty towns and seedy markets as well as going on safari and swimming in the Indian Ocean. It was a wonderful experience and left me with a thirst for travel and other cultures. It’s probably what inspired my interest in archaeology and anthropology. I’ve travelled a lot, in most circumstances with my archaeology (excavations in Italy and the West Indies) or with my singing (I have performed in France, Italy, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand). It’s often people who have brought me to a place, friends from school and university. At our wedding last year there were 19 different nationalities!
My inspiration for starting Pop-up Opera came partly through my experiences of living in Italy as part of my operatic training. I noticed that opera is performed in the smaller towns and theatres, not just the large cities and traditional opera houses, and that it is appreciated by a much broader section of the population. I felt that opera in the UK was perceived as being more ‘elitist’ and this along with other other stereotypes put many people off going. I wanted to help change the perception that opera is stuffy and formal, and to bring new audiences to opera. I wanted to break down the barrier between the audience and the performers, and to make the story come alive in an intimate environment where opera was engaging and inviting.
LLO: Pop Up Opera have performed in some pretty quirky places, from a Victorian poor-house to caves and a tunnel under the Thames. Which has been the most unusual? And which has been your favourite? Why?
CL: It’s hard to pick a favourite, but the Thames Tunnel has to be one that stands out. The acoustics in there are like a cathedral, and it’s brilliant watching people’s reactions as they climb in through the tiny doorway and down the scaffold stairs. It’s a totally unexpected place for opera, but it worked so brilliantly in there. Another favourite is the Good Ship Verda, an amazing houseboat made of scrap metal in Shoreham (near Brighton). The ‘room’ we performed in seated 60 (at a squeeze) and was made from the top half of an old bus, with a piece of fighter plane welded into the ceiling. What really made this venue though was the audience. Many of them had never been to an opera before, but they absolutely loved it, and were laughing and cheering the whole way through.
LLO: Tell us about your latest show. Where can we see it?
CL: Two one-act operas, Donizetti’s Rita and Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, take place on the same stage, their scenes and stories intertwined. One mute servant appears in both, tying the two tales together. A scene of commotion arises when the dominating Rita and her timid husband Beppe receive an unexpected visit from Rita’s first husband Gaspar. Each believing the other to have died, Gaspar unknowingly arrives seeking Rita’s death certificate so he can remarry. Beppe sees it as an opportunity to escape, as Gaspar is still Rita’s legal husband. The two men agree to a game, the winner of which will have to stay with Rita. Each of them tries to lose, but Gaspar cunningly manipulates Rita and Beppe to fall in love again. Meanwhile, wealthy old bachelor Uberto is kept under the thumb of his maid Serpina. He enlists his manservant Vespone to help him get rid of Serpina by finding him a wife. Serpina convinces Vespone to trick Uberto into marrying her. Their elaborate plan works and by the time Uberto has agreed to marry Serpina he realises he has loved her all along. See tour dates and venues list at the end of the interview.
LLO: Give us your best London food and drink recommendations.
CL: I love Bar Nightjar, a 1920’s speakeasy style cocktail bar on the City Road near Old Street. They have the most incredible inventive cocktails, and fabulous live swing and blues bands. Dress up 1920’s style and book one of their little booths on band nights. Another great drinking place is Evans and Peel Detective Agency in Earl’s Court, which looks like a shop doorway from the outside and has a prohibition era style bar hidden behind revolving bookshelves. Entrance is by appointment only; you have to present your ‘case’ to a secretary sat behind an old typewriter before she lets you in.
One of my favourite eating places is the thai restaurant in the Churchill Arms pub in Notting Hill. I took a Thai friend there and she said it was the closest thing to home cooked food she’s had outside of Thailand. There is also a Michelin star restaurant on Abingdon Road, off High Street Kensington, Kitchen W8, which does bring you own booze without corkage charge on Sundays. It makes it affordable for a really special occasion. Borough Market is a must for food sampling and tastings.
LLO: As a singer, sound is obviously a strong sense for you. When you think of London what influences your other senses – smell? touch? taste? sight?
CL: Taste definitely, as London offers an amazing array of eating options and discoveries and I would happily eat my way around the city. My favourite sights in London are the view from the top of Richmond Hill, sitting outside the Roebuck Pub with a pint in hand, looking down at the river below; driving over Chelsea Bridge with pink sky and the lights on the bridges twinkling; sitting on the top deck of the number 9 and 10 buses, passing the Albert Hall, Green Park and Piccadilly; blossoms in the streets around Kensington, and the first snowdrops coming out in Hyde Park signalling the end of winter.
LLO: Best London discovery?
CL: When we performed in the Brunel Museum Thames Tunnel Shaft, I discovered their amazing Midnight Apothecary Cocktail Garden. Lotte Muir makes delicious cocktails from ingredients grown in the garden, and they serve up hot snacks such as venison burger or wild nettle pasties. For a lovely little acoustic music session where anyone is welcome to join in, my favourite place is the Monday Club at the Watermans Arms, Richmond. Run by Irish landlord Bill, the pub hosts musicians of all ages and levels on a Monday evening. It’s a wonderful atmosphere, and the perfect place to perform for nervous first timers. There are always regulars so there’s a special kind of banter and new people are always welcome too. Anything goes, from folk tunes, to singer songwriters, to spoken word.
Another passion of mine is swing dancing and the music of the 1940s. My husband and I go social dancing once or twice a week and it’s a brilliant scene. I would recommend the London Swing Dance Society which holds classes on a Tuesday in Holborn, and has
some fantastic social dance night with live bands. Jitterbugs in Marble Arch on a Wednesday is another good one. For a complete listing of swing events in London, Swingout London is a great site
Check out the Pop Up Opera website: http://www.popupopera.co.uk/
Tour Dates and Venues:
11th June 6pm New theatre launch, CAPA International Education, Kensington
13th June 7.30pm The Sun Tavern, Covent Garden
14th June 7.30pm The Spike, Guildford
18th June 7.30pm The Bull, Highgate
21st June 8pm Lyde Court, Herefordshire
25th June 7.30pm The Sun Tavern, Covent Garden
29th June Islip, Oxfordshire
3rd July 7.30pm The Steiner Academy, Herefordshire
5th July Touring (venue details coming soon)
7th July 4pm Broome Farm, Ross-on-Wye
10th July 7.30pm The Battersea Barge, Chelsea
11th July 7.30pm Battersea Mess & Music Hall, nr Clapham Junction
13th July 7.30pm The Creek, Thatcham SOLD OUT
14th July 4pm The Creek, Thatcham
16th July 7.30pm The Turk’s Head, St Margaret’s
18th July 7.30pm Brighton Market tbc
20th July 3pm The Brunel Museum Thames Tunnel Shaft
23rd July 7.30pm London The Bull Highgate tbc
24th July 7.30pm Dalston Department Store, Dalston