The tiny room at the top of Soho members’ club Blacks is not the first venue most directors would choose to stage an opera, but Pop-Up Opera is not an ordinary production company. Established only two years ago by Guildhall School of Music and Drama graduate Clementine Lovell (playing café owner Adina in this production), the company aims to bring a traditionally exclusive art form out of the opera house and into the lives of average people. Although their smallest venue so far, this chintzy vintage parlour room in central London is one of their most normal; past performances have gone to an underground cavern, a boat made of scrap metal and the Thames Tunnel ventilation shaft.

Pop-Up Opera, The Good Ship Verda, Shoreham-by-Sea, 14 April 2013 © Richard Lakos
Pop-Up Opera, The Good Ship Verda, Shoreham-by-Sea, 14 April 2013
© Richard Lakos

As Music Director James Henshaw struck up the overture on a tinny electric keyboard accompanied by an impromptu teacup orchestra in the audience, I must admit I wondered what I had let myself in for. All qualms quickly slipped away, however, as the cast began their romp through Donizetti’s comic story with more vitality than some productions I’ve seen at the big opera houses.

Nemorino (Cliff Zammit Stevens), a forlorn kitchen boy at Adina’s café, opens with a wistful song about his unrequited love for his boss. Adina, who couldn’t be less interested, instead flirts with flashy city boy and organic flour salesman, Belcore (Ricardo Panela), who has turned up to make big bucks and to find a wife. Full of jealousy, Nemorino buys a love elixir (really a bottle of brandy) from the visiting “doctor” Dulcamara (Thomas Kennedy) in the hope of winning back Adina’s love. Chaos ensues, and we are treated to two hours of good old-fashioned commedia acting with a modern twist.

The cast’s Mozartian-style ensembles were by far the best numbers and vocally, the boys outshone the girls. Kennedy and Panela each boasted a round tone with good vibrato; Lovell was also very polished. On the other hand, I felt that the waitress Giannetta’s (Penelope Manser) voice was at times rather thin. It was tenor Zammit Stevens, however, who really stole the show. From love-struck and desolate to drunk and carefree, he captured each emotion perfectly – as well as the hearts of the audience. Undaunted, he cried without restraint onto the shoulder of a woman in the audience, and sang desperately for the doctor out of the window onto Soho’s busy Dean Street below.

Sitting in the back row, still just feet away from the performers, I felt a real sense of involvement in the story. The intimate setting worked remarkably well, blurring the boundaries between stage and audience. Indeed, audience participation played a sizeable (yet not too cringeworthy) role. At one point a notary was needed to oversee a wedding; since all five cast members were already on stage, a man was coaxed from the front row to preside over the ceremony – and we were again invited to accompany Henshaw in a wedding march, this time with a tumultuous clanging of pots and pans.

The intermittent silent movie-style surtitles also made the opera more relevant to the relatively young, hip audience. These were not so much a direct translation of the Italian, but rather witty clues to what the characters were thinking and saying. The laddish comments of Belcore were a particular hit (after being snubbed by Adina: “Not bothered, yeah? Plenty more fish in the sea, yeah?”), as were as his generic corporate sales graphs. Carrying on in the cinematic style, slow motion and fast forward were used to emphasise or add energy to the action, as well as bit of humour.

For me, the marker of a good show is if I exit the venue wanting to tell everyone to go and see it – which is exactly what I did. The cast are relatively young and only at the beginning of their careers; anything that lacked in technique was made up for by bringing enthusiasm and freshness to the performance – and adding a certain appeal for those who wouldn’t usually go to the opera. If any opera company is going to succeed in making the genre more popular, I reckon it will be this one.