Mad Madge: Crocodile compliments: not quite what they seem

“Ooh, that was marvellous,”cooed the fluffy cardigan-ed lady who had been beaming enthusiastically throughout the show and had now rushed up to see me at the end, “You have a lovely voice – you ought to take lessons!”

Now I don’t want to appear ungrateful; we love meeting people after performances and positively bask in any compliments, but you have to be prepared for various slings and arrows.

Like the ardent fan at our show, entitled “A Laugh at the Opera”, who ranted about how we hadn’t included any Wagner. Despite the reassurances that, yes, we had actually performed in “Das Liebesverbot” and no, we didn’t think Hans’ song was exactly a laugh a minute, he still reckoned we’d missed our brief and complained to the management.

Or the well-projected comment from a little old lady at the back during a particularly beautifully costumed duet, remarking, “Eh, what do they think they look like in them there curtains!” Mortifying, but fabric-ly speaking, accurate.

The truth is, most people have only cd recordings to compare a live vocal performance against. One promoter of major orchestral events actually said that he loved our Flower Duet because it sounded “Just like the cd”; why did we, the conductor, and the 65 players bother being there, then? A concerned church concert-goer once came up in the interval and asked us to turn the microphones down; problem was, we weren’t using any.

The experience of not only hearing, but actually feeling human voices rattling audience and windows alike can come as quite a shock, particularly in a space where people know what they sound like. Village hall divas from last week’s panto cannot believe that we not only a) sing without a microphone up our left nostril in their 150-seater hall, but b) that we’re only on 3 out of 10 volume-wise and c) yes, the acoustics are dire but we can compensate. And yes, it is far more thrilling than a cd to have Musetta flirting outrageously with you whilst sitting on your lap or Berta polishing your pew.

In workshops for young people, they just cannot believe how much noise opera singers make. We’re now used to three and four year olds covering their ears when the soprano demonstrates high notes, even when they are not loud. (We all know that feeling…) As a mezzo, of course, I don’t have that problem; my spaniel used to put her paws over her ears when I sang anyway, so I’m used to it. Yet show kids how they can squeak high as a dolphin, and soon it’s the teachers covering their ears instead…

The audiences who come out with the best remarks are always those who are discovering opera for the first time. One Northern biker complete with pony tail rushed out from a particularly boozy performance, catching us in the car park with, “I’m just on the way to the pub, but I had to ask you, opera, is there really that much sex in it?” I had to admit that, yes, it was pretty much all about sex, when you got down to it. “Brilliant!” he cheered, and wavered off to the local.

One of our highest accolades was when Scunthorpe United were playing a crucial match the night we was entertaining at a posh charity dinner in the city. Despite the fact that the match was being shown in the bar next door, the Scunny fans refused to even be relayed the score, “You’re far less depressing!” they cried. Of course, thanks to our divine musical intervention, the Scunnies won…

Jeremy our poor pianist, however, seems to get the best, ranking amongst his favourites; “You’re just like that Richard Clayderman”, “You almost make that digital piano sound good”, and his all-time top favourite from Yorkshire, “Eh, you’re almost as good as a conjurer!”

Pass the top hat and rabbit, please…