Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Clementine Lovell: I Capuleti e I Montecchi

By | Published on Wednesday 23 March 2016


Opera is regarded as intimidating – or even with loathing – by many people, and it’s a perception that touring opera outfit Pop Up Opera exist to work against. Their reputation for brilliant boutique productions of comedy opera has won them loving audiences and much critical acclaim in recent years.
I was interested to hear that the group has taken a slightly different direction this season, and are presently in the midst of a tour of Bellini’s ‘I Capuleti e I Montecchi’. To find out more about why they’ve moved on to a tragedy, about the opera itself, and about how Pop-Up Opera came to exist, I spoke to company founder Clementine Lovell, who plays a lead role in the production.

CM: This is Pop-Up Opera’s first time staging a tragic opera, isn’t it? Has the company been consciously steering clear of darker subject matter?
CL: Yes it is. We deliberately chose comedies as it’s a great way to hook in newbies to opera. Make someone laugh and they are bound to relax and feel good! We developed our signature silent movie style captions, which allowed us to add another layer of humour. Comic opera felt better suited to some of our venues like the back room of a pub. We also have to factor in practical things like how many cast members we can fit in the tour bus, how the orchestral part will sound on piano, and if we can cut the chorus.

CM: Equally, did you make a conscious decision to stage a tragedy this season? Or was it simply the choice of opera that made you do the switch…?
CL: Having built our reputation on comedies, we were excited by the idea of going in a new direction. We have been building up our venues to include some amazingly atmospheric and spooky places, it felt right to bring a different kind of opera to these.

CM: What made you choose this particular piece?
CL: We deliberately chose the Bellini because the music is stunningly beautiful and it is a very exciting and moving drama. The Romeo and Juliet story is so well known and loved, and this piece is a brilliant take on it.

CM: Does the story follow similar lines to the Shakespeare play?
CL: Generally yes, with some differences. In the opera version we come to the story very near the end; the lovers have already met and and the action takes place within one day – the last day. The drama builds up nail bitingly fast, with the violence between the two families made more personal and immediate by the fact that Romeo has killed Capellio’s son. Capellio is Guiletta’s father, and Tebaldo (Tybalt) is the man she is supposed to marry, a new ‘son’ to Capellio.

CM: What are the challenges involved in producing opera on a smaller scale, and to a schedule of swiftly turning tour dates?
CL: There are so many challenges it’s hard to know where to begin! We are entirely unfunded so we have to make enough revenue from the performances to cover production costs and the running of the company; it’s both terrifying and reassuring to be self reliant.

We are a small team for the large number of venues we do (around 70 different ones per year), and for the rate at which the company is growing in terms of output. Planning a tour is like a jigsaw puzzle – how close together are the venues, what makes sense logistically, how will it work in each space. We have to juggle availabilities of performers over a long run of shows with the preferences and availabilities of the venues. Our work as producers is to build relationships with these venues, the people who run them and the audiences who come to them: that’s a lot of people to keep in the loop, but also what we love about our jobs.

We have a short rehearsal period to stage the entire production with two casts, we have to find a suitable affordable space to do this in London. When we arrive at a venue we have just a few hours to work out how we are going to adapt the staging to best use that space. We don’t have a lighting team, a set or costume designer. Everyone doubles up and goes beyond their job remit. Most importantly we have to find a way to keep the quality of the music and performance absolutely top notch, and to keep audiences engaged, on a very small budget, but this forces us to be more creative and we relish the challenge.

CM: So do you believe this kind of production is more accessible to those who feel intimidated or uninterested by opera in general? How would you sell a show like this to people who “don’t like opera”.
CL: Yes I think so. It is affordable, usually £15- £20 a ticket, pretty good value for a night out. It’s in venues which are unstuffy, relaxed, and interesting in their own right. Because the spaces are smaller, the atmosphere is intimate, you are very close to performers and what’s happening on stage. Most importantly, the drama is exciting and the music is exhilarating, whatever your musical experience or tastes. If you are drawn into a story and are rooting for the characters it’s hard to resist wanting to know what happens to them or caring about them.

CM: You are the founder of Pop-Up Opera, aren’t you? What made you decide to form your own company?
CL: Yes. When I began training as an opera singer I had mixed reactions from my friends. They told me that 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.

I founded the company after 2 years living in Italy. It got me thinking again about attitudes to opera because it’s so much a part of Italian culture, so broadly appreciated, and was more widespread than I felt opera was in the UK at the time (4 years ago). I grew up in a small village miles from any opera house, we never went to see it, it wasn’t an option. My uncle has a barn where he puts on folk and blues events and allowed me to put on an opera there for a largely non opera going audience, and they loved it. It made me think about how the setting can have a bearing on people’s enjoyment, especially if they are coming with preconceptions or are just unsure whether they are going to enjoy it.

It’s been a joy getting such positive responses from the most sceptical audience members!

CM: What’s next for you, and the company?
CL: For me, the challenge of juggling a four month old baby and singing the role of Giulietta, incredibly exciting! For the company, it’s our biggest year yet. After 25 performances of the Bellini we will be into rehearsals for our summer production, back to rip roaring comedy with ‘The Barber of Seville’, which runs throughout June and July. In August we are performing a special production for Wilderness festival, whilst also staging a co-production of ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ with Kilden Theatre in Norway. It’s on a completely different scale to what we normally do – eight performances during September with orchestra in an opera house – but still bringing our own style and approach, with the aim of bringing new (Norwegian) audiences to opera. Watch this space!

‘I Capuleti e I Montecchi’ is on at Carousel on 30 Mar, Stour Space on 31 Mar, as a Cancerkin fundraising event at Royal Free Hospital on 6 April, at the Asylum in Peckham on 10 Apr, at St Peter’s De Beauvoir Church on 12 Apr, Thames Tunnel Shaft from 20-21 Apr, and London Museum of Water and Steam on 28 Apr, with more dates still to be announced. See this page here for a full list of UK tour dates.


Photo: Richard Lakos