Hatstand Opera in Manaus Brazil – yes, really!

Hatstand Opera in Manaus Brazil – yes, really!
Hatstand Opera soprano Toni Nunn on stage at the Teatro Amazonas, Manaus.
Hatstand Opera soprano Toni Nunn on stage at the Teatro Amazonas, Manaus. In shorts.

When the England team kick off on Saturday in the sparkling new Arena da Amazonia, the coverage is bound to show the other great building in this riverside city in the rainforest, the Teatro Amazonas, commonly known as the Manaus Opera House.

And we’ve sung there.

OK, Toni and Kirsty sung there, for about five minutes one morning in January 2000, after sweet-talking a tour guide to let us stand on the stage rather than just look from the seats. It was truly amazing, a guilded glory that had only relatively recently been rescued from neglect, and so appropriate for the snippet of ‘La Traviata” Toni sang (the guide was suitably impressed).

Originally built with money from the rubber boom (the cobbles outside were coated with rubber to stop the sound of carriage wheels disrupting the performance), the Teatro Amazonas is almost entirely an imported building. The marble and the Murano glass chandeliers came from Italy, the ceiling tiles from Alsace and the steel pillars were from Glasgow, albeit painted to match the marble. The curtain may have shown the local  “Meeting of the Waters”, where the sandy-coloured waters of the Amazon River (Rio Solimões) run alongside the dark waters of the Rio Negro, but it was painted in Paris.

When we visited as part of a cruise down the Amazon (which Toni won in a Classic FM phone-in competition), Brazil didn’t seem very proud of Manaus. The coach had its curtains drawn as we travelled from the airport, as the drive down to the docks and our waiting ship passed through some of the poorest areas. The cruise firm advised us to carry US dollars and only visit certain tourist shops, advice we ignored and having stocked up on some Brazilian currency from a bank guarded by men with submachine guns, we headed into town.

We walked along streets with hugh blocks acting as stepping stones, for when the water rushed like a torrent don the hillside. We wandered past incongruous Christmas decorations of giant plastic Santas, before reaching the opera house with its elegant tree-lined square and verandas. We were the only people on the guided tour, and our young guide was utterly charming, but it was somewhat surreal. To emerge blinking from this chandeliered European building, and then later to watch swarms of lean fit men unload the river boats with every necessity of modern life from food to fridges, is probably the same contrast football fans will see between the shining new football stadium and the raw jungle they flew over to get there.

Just as cruising the Nile isn’t really seeing Egypt, stopping off at ports along this mighty river wasn’t really seeing the Amazon as such, but it was seeing a slice of Brazilian life that was changing rapidly, adn we’re so glad we saw it. We’ve posted some of our pics of that trip at our Hatstand Opera Facebook page – enjoy!

Back in Cambs: we’re chatting about our return to Chatteris

Back in Cambs: we’re chatting about our return to Chatteris

There are certain clients that are very much part of Hatstand’s heritage, and Chatteris Music Society is one of these! So we’re thrilled to be making a return visit on Saturday 21st June to the Church of St Peter and St Paul, with our iconic show “Golden Moments from Opera”

“Golden Moments from Opera”, our selection of the best bits of opera you never thought you knew, is actually never the same show twice! Each show is tailor-made to the venue and the audience, and thanks to our database of performances, we know precisely what we sang at any of our performances over the last 20 years. (Scary but true!) So, we can avoid too many repeats and incorporate favourite items too.

Since we also vary the line-up for the gentlemen singer and the pianist, each cast has their own music we can choose from. For Chatteris, we’re delighted to have baritone Jochem van Ast, fresh from singing in the chorus at both the ROH and ENO, and pianist Susan Graham Smith, one of the most versatile players we know and who makes our digital piano sound superb!

S, what will we sing on the night? To be honest, we don’t know 100% yet ourselves!  We do a first draft programme using the database, and then add in new numbers, items that we think the knowledgeable and fun-loving audience at Chatteris will enjoy, and shake well! This process keeps the show fresh and enjoyable for everyone, especially the audience.  We can’t tell you the exact formula we use (it’s a closely guarded secret like the KFC spice mix!), but the result has been delighting audiences across the UK and beyond since our first performance back in March 1993.

Why not join us in Chatteris for more hilarious scenes and heart-rending arias from the world’s favourite operas – we look forward to seeing you there!

Mad Margaret rides again


A few years back, I wrote a column for the esteemed Classical Music magazine about our exploits on tour, under the guide of Mad Madge the Mezzo. For almost two years, readers enjoyed the high, lows and downright odd things that befell Hatstand out on the road, with names and locations changed to protect the innocent and the eccentric alike!

Having rediscovered these articles recently in a file, we’ve decided to share some of the best via our blog, just for fun. And if you like them, we might even create an e-book so you can chortle over your Kindle on an exotic beach!

So, here’s the very first article, for your fun and our nostalgia!


Opera on the Road: touring tales of Hatstand Opera

“The glamour of opera,” I mutter under my breath, swinging the piano-laden estate car round a blind bend in the pouring rain, the wipers trying their best to smudge the windscreen with mud. “I must be mad.”

“You really enjoy this, don’t you,” booms the village hall committee Artistes Liaison Officer in hearty, county tones. “Lovely month, November. I’ll switch the heat on when I get back, OK?”

As we unpack the car, sliding the piano trolley down a ravine-ridden path, through swing doors that are designed to entrap strangers, and manhandle it onto a stage so high it gives you vertigo, I do wonder. Yet, a mere hour or two later, flourescent strip lights shining, the first wave of warm, friendly audience laughter fills the chilly air. Ah, performing, you can’t beat it.

Well, you can, actually. You can be richer, more secure, warmer and with a pension. You can have a definite income next month, and a tax bill that dribbles away each month, not lurking to horrify you at year end.

Why on earth do we do it? Simple, because we get to meet the GBP (Great British Public) on their home turf, from gruff colonels with faithful Labradors to indignant Wagnerians, meringue-baking Scotsmen to Scunthorpe football fans. Not forgetting the venues, of course; from top hotels to toilet blocks, flouncy marquees to medieval castles, all filled with GBP just dying to talk to us just as we’re dying to pack up and go home.

If you only ever work in an office, you’ll never get to meet these vast swaths of music lovers who have Time During The Day. They are the people at the heart of village life, who tend the church, mind the shop, protest about planning proposals and deplore the state of the roads. And they make the cast of Little Britain look the pinnacle of sanity…

Like the Mumerset lady who informed us that the venue electricity meter took 50p pieces – “the old type, mind”, and enquired “How many 50ps does your average show take?” The only source of old 50ps was not coming that night (“She don’t like opera much”) so a wet and cold dash to the appropriate cottage finally produced the magic multi-sided currency. Our show takes five, by the way, because we didn’t switch on the £10,000 rig of lighting bought with Lottery cash, as the Drama Society wouldn’t let us use them…

Or the venue committee who were having “a few renovations done”. Now we’re not generally fussy but we do like our venues to have four walls, not three and a tarpaulin billowing in a Force 5 gale. The demolished stage replaced by piles of concrete bags we could cope with, the dressing room stripped to its bare joists with hanging live wires we drew the line at, and retreated to the kitchen. We sang in a dust-laden draft, danced around the props holding the roof up, and dodged the fire extinguishers thoughtfully placed at ankle height.

The glamour of opera? Don’t get me started…

Last Night of the Proms Rule Britannia words – opera anorak alert!

“Rule Britannia”. It’s one of those songs you think you really know. And then you suddenly realise, perhaps you don’t know it quite as well as you thought, when someone brings up the “shall or will” question.

For the opera anoraks, “Rule, Britannia!” is from Thomas Arne’s masque “Alfred”, with a libretto by James Thompson. For the rest of us, it’s that crowd-pleaser sung at the last Night of the Proms, this year by marvellous mezzo Joyce DiDonato (hoorah!)

Ever since one conductor took the Promenaders to task and reminded them that it’s “Britannia, rule the waves” (instruction) not “Britannia rules the waves” (statement), we’ve been very careful to sing the right words.

But have we?

OK, here’s the question; is it

“Britons never shall be slaves”
“Britons never will be slaves”?

And while we’re nit-picking, is it

“And guardian angels sung this strain”
“And guardian angels sang this strain”?

Blithely ignorant of this thorny issues, I sent copies of the music to our singers for a performance. Hardly had the dust settled on my Send button than baritone Bryan was on the phone.

“It’s will and sang”, said he. “The music says shall and sung”, said I. “The music’s wrong”, said he.

I know that Bryan is usually right on these questions, but I had a niggling doubt. And that opened a can of worms, big time.

My John Wallace recording uses “sung” and “will”. The YouTube footage of the Proms 2011 uses “sang” and “shall”, while Proms 2009 uses “sung” and “shall”. Bryn Terfel at the 2008 Proms sings “sang” and “will” – hoorah. (OK, the audience are trying to sing “shall”, but the choir is definitely singing “will!”)

In desperation, I turned to Wikipedia, (not the most reliable of sources, as we know). To my surprise, I found what could be a definitive source. According to the entry, The Works of James Thomson by James Thomson, published in 1763, includes the entire original text of Alfred. In Vol II, p. 191, the libretto is printed as:

“When Britain first, at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

So, we’re sticking with the 1763 version – “sang” and “will” it is!

Hatstand Opera performance scorecards

We’ve been delving into our database to discover some daunting numbers and surprising stats about what we’ve sung since the year 2000.

Can you guess what our most frequently sung item is?
Or the opera we sing from the most?
Or what voice types sing the most duets?

All is revealed in our new infographic!

Everyone needs a good Laugh at the Opera now and then!

A Laugh at the Opera Suffolk Sat August 24 2013

Suffolk, it’s time to have a good time at the opera! Forget depressing story lines and angst-ridden singers, Hatstand Opera will be raising the roof at the Brick Kin Barn in Sibton with “A Laugh at the Opera”, on Saturday 24 August at 7.30pm.

This highly entertaining show is a fun easy way into opera, a ‘chocolate box’ assortment of highlights, featuring comic chaos and crazy characters from the world’s favourite operas. Presented in our trademark informal and often irreverent style, this terrific show ensure everyone can have a good chuckle with opera, whether newbie or complete opera geek. We always say our shows are like the weather; if you don’t like what we are singing, wait 5 minutes and it’ll change!

And talking of weather, the show is presented in the Courtyard of the lovely Brick Kiln Barn in Sibton, with the gorgeous barn itself on standby should the August Bank Holiday prove to be inclement. The Courtyard is open for ‘bring your own’ picnics from 5.30pm, with the show starting at 7.30pm. There’s a licensed bar for drinks, a raffle for champagne, and a complimentary drink on arrival.


Lights Camera Action in Godalming – cancelled

APOLOGIES – this performance has been cancelled, but we hope to come back to Godalming very soon!

Lights, Camera… Action!

The songs behind famous movies, from opera to silver screen classics

Nothing brings a classic film scene to life like a great soundtrack. Hatstand Opera bring the music behind the movies back into the limelight!

From opera classics to famous screen songs, you’ll love these timeless tunes presented in glorious colour by “The enterprising stars of Hatstand Opera” The Times.

After the Intermission, it’s non-stop, toe-tapping, wonderful award-winning songs that’ll send you “Over the Rainbow” with supercalifragilistic delight! Play it (again), Sam!

Read more at the Lights, Camera, Action page.


Opera in Frinton – how we keep our shows fresh!

On Saturday, we’ll be back at the marquee on the Greensward to entertain the good folks of Frinton on Sea with one of our classic shows, “Romance at the Opera“.

This is our seventh visit to Frinton, and we’ll be singing opera extracts we’ve never performed there before – guaranteed. This isn’t because we’re blessed with instant recall memories, it’s because we’ve got a database listing all our performances back to 1998. (And scanned printed records back to 1992!)

Sad but true.

Actually, this database is at the very heart of our show preparation. Every item we sing is listed, and we’re up to 915 at present. (It would be 1022, but we’ve deleted some items we only ever sang once.) Every item is linked to who in the HSO cast sings it, what costume they wear, what prop they need, how long the item is, what language(s) we sing it in, and even where the sheet music is stored.

So, we simply type in the item numbers for each show and voila, we create a record of what we sang, when, and where. And if we cahnge the items we sing on the night, we update the database on our return. This way, if we’re doing a classic show, we can avoid repeat items at venues we visit often, like Frinton.

Sadly, this does mean that in the office, we tend to describe a show like a Chinese takeaway menu: “OK, so we’ll start with a 22, make sure there’s a 3 in there, and we do 898 before the 376.”

That’s “We’ll start with the Brindisi from la Traviata, make sure we include Sull’aria from Nozze di Figaro and we’ll sing a duet from Merry Widow before the Encore” in case you were wondering.

As the saying goes, simples!

Happy & Glorious: how we create a bespoke opera show

We’re often asked to create special shows for clients at Hatstand Opera, and we very much enjoy crafting a great evening’s entertainment based around the client, the venue, the audience and a theme – or more likely, all four!

So, when the Lower Bourne Show committee invited us back for our third visit this year, we decided to create something special for this popular event, as the performance date fell between the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. It seemed fitting to create a show that combined a sense of pomp and circumstance with a sense of anticipation that Team GB might actually win a medal!

We often find our best show titles at the bottom of a bottle of Chardonnay, but this one, appropriately enough, just required a pot of rather nice Lady Grey tea – “Victorious, Happy & Glorious”

You might think the music comes next, but due to logistics and the time required to sell a show, it’s actually the brochure copy (selling text) and the flyer design.

Kirsty writes the words to fit what we think we might sing (i.e. keep it generic!) and soprano Toni does the artwork – she’s a real whizz at Photoshop!

Now that the print is underway, we choose music that fits the event-specific criteria:

• regal, sporting, or British (all 3 is a push!)
• suitable for an audience who come for a picnic and a great night out
• suitable for a marquee – so that rules out anything very low, very quiet or exceptionally wordy if it’s windy
• includes the client’s favourites – G&S esp. The Gondoliers, anything with a military connection, and “Nella Fantasia”!
• in the repertoire of our cast of soprano, mezzo, baritone

That gives us a list of at least 40 numbers to choose from, and it’s at this point that the top secret Hatstand show recipe is applied. Of course we’re not going to tell you exactly what that entails, but suffice to say it involves checking the compatibility of one item to the next, the flow of fun and emotion in each half, who has sung more than three in a row, and who doesn’t need to sing two solos in every show (usually Kirsty…)

Finally, we work out the look of the show, pull together costumes, props and set decorations, and check it all works as a cohesive whole. And if (when) it does, we can work these bespoke shows up into our main touring show for the next year if required.

If you want to see and hear the results, see our HSO performance diary for details on how to get your tickets!