We perform Donizetti's comic opera Don Pasquale underground in the amazing cylindrical Thames Tunnel Shaft, with acoustics like a cathedral...
Part of the fascinating Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, this place is like an extraordinary underground cathedral. The performance area is an incredible cylindrical shaft built by Brunel as pedestrian entrance to the Thames Tunnel. This is a unique and atmospheric show. New improved access by ramp and full height doorway gives to a staircase down to the lower chamber. A viewing platform high inside the shaft offers balcony seating for a limited number of people: priority given to those with impaired mobility or using a wheelchair. Serving delicious cocktails before the performance and during the interval in the museum’s Midnight Apothecary Garden. Not to be missed! Please note, this venue is underground and the temperature may be cool, so bring a sweater.
A miraculous combination of staying honest to the beauty of the work, having fun with opera and using the venue to keep it alive, PopUp Opera is a company to follow avidly
Wedged in the centre of South London’s residential Rotherhithe sits an old brick tunnel shaft. Like an iceberg, only its wrought iron tip protrudes above the surface. Stretching sixty feet underground is a vast cavernous space, dimly lit with an orange street-lamp glow, with metal scaffold steps descending to its concrete bottom. The only way into the shaft is through a tiny trap door in its side, which involves bending the body almost in half and crawling along a low, dusty passage.
I’m not setting the scene for an obscure theme park ride. Instead, on a damp Saturday afternoon in May, the shaft (the original entrance to Marc and Isambard Brunel’s famous tunnel under the Thames) undertook the unlikely transformation into an underground opera house, thanks to the arrival of tiny travelling production company PopUp Opera. With its unique attribute for performing opera in weird and wonderful locations, the six-person cast and crew have been touring Donizetti’s charming comic opera Don Pasquale around the country, venturing into south London for their penultimate performance. And since this particular opera and the tunnel shaft were created within twenty years of one another (towards the beginning of the nineteenth century), I’m not sure they could have chosen a better spot in which to pop up.
A light-hearted spoof of marriage in old age, Don Pasquale circles around four central characters. Norina and Ernesto are hopelessly in love, but their being together is prevented by Ernesto’s embittered single uncle, Don Pasquale. Without his blessing their prospects are bleak, since neither has a penny while Pasquale has a fair few. With the help of local Doctor Malatesta, however, Norina and Ernesto manage to pull a prank on Pasquale that leads to an eventual moral triumph for the pair and a rather downtrodden uncle.
Wonderfully in keeping with the jovial tone of the opera (whose moral is “a man who marries in old age is asking for trouble”), PopUp’s production was vibrant, fun, and wildly unpretentious. Satirical but not mocking, the singers perfectly illustrated the opera’s story on their make-shift stage with outstanding singing, compassionate acting, imaginative props, facial expressions, comedy and gentle audience involvement, recreating the fantastic sense of communal enjoyment that Italian opera is all about. And they deserve the biggest applaud for sticking to their guns and singing in Italian. With only a few brief captions projected onto the wall behind, which summarised the action without word-for-word translation, we understood everything. It just goes to prove that opera doesn’t need to be translated to be accessible; a good performance and the emotional power of music can suffice.
Clementine Lovell (multi-tasking company director, producer and leading lady) shone with seamless soprano vocals, capturing the essence of Norina’s character and attaching it to a contemporary Kate Middleton wannabe. Raúl Baglietto, Ricardo Panela and Cliff Zammit Stevens were all sensational as her male entourage, and stealing the show in a small but vital role was director and comedian extraordinaire Darren Royston. Like the hilarious relative every family needs, he provided a mid-way point between the audience and the opera, gently poking fun at everything and everyone and keeping the energy levels sky-high.
A miraculous combination of staying honest to the beauty of the work, having fun with opera and using the venue to keep it alive, PopUp Opera is a company to follow avidly. Choosing venues where you wouldn’t expect an opera in a million years creates a fantastic buzz around the art, along with buckets of respect for the company and singers for having such strong faith in opera’s versatility. As the troop took their bows, the magic continued as the roof garden above turned into a pop-up cocktail bar for the evening (we were warned that after one or two we’d be asking for a ‘cock-up poptail’).
“I can’t believe we’ve just been to The Opera” my friend laughed, as we clambered out of the trap door, brushed the dust off our knees and stepped back into reality. For anyone still clinging onto the belief that opera is stuffy and elitist, it’s time to let go.