Mad Madge: Eat to the beat: what is this obsession with music to munch by?

 “We’d love you to come and sing at our fund-raising dinner,” the prospective client sweetly intones. “Can you sing during dinner?”

 To which my answer is a curt but polite “Not while people eat”. I always think that singing during dinner is an insult to two art forms, ours, and the chef’s. If I’d slaved over a hot stove for hours only to have my moment of culinary glory shared with a woman dying of consumption whilst singing flat out, I’d have language as strong as Gordon Ramsey’s too. Opera is to be watched, good food is to be savoured. You can’t do both at once.

 Worse still, I’ve noticed a growing trend for every waking minute of a function to be packed with music, from the first drink to the last stagger on the dance floor. First some poor ignored pianist or never-to-be-heard-above-the-chatter string quartet do their best to stay awake as a drinks reception full of people totally ignore their best artistic efforts. (Or, worse, as one pianist told me, chat loudly about how dreadful the evening is, right in her ear. “Don’t they realise I can play and listen as the same time?”) Next, the punters move into the dining room, where the DJ has thoughtfully put on a background cd of music to add ‘a relaxing atmosphere’. Personally, I find having to yell at my dinner companion over disco hits of the 70s less than relaxing…

 Then, we come on, to an audience already partially deafened and with ears tuned to amplified sound. As I’ve said before, it takes them three numbers to adjust to acoustic singing, by which time we’re almost through our first set. And so it goes on, until we’ve done, and the live band with enough amplification for a Wembley Stadium packed with deaf grannies starts up, emptying the room in 30 seconds flat. The poor old DJ has to sit about until all this has finished, and try and coax the remaining punters out of the bar back onto the floor for a line dance to “Oops Upside Your Head”, because it’s the MD’s favourite.

 When will organisers realise that what people want to do over dinner is … talk. They want to interact with their fellow guests, not sit there blasted by a wall of sound from all directions. So, when us performers sing in between courses of dinner, it’s a moment to guests to sit back, sip some wine and gently digest some fabulous music, presented at a human volume level. When the next course arrives they might even want to chat about the music (heaven forbid). What they don’t want is Kool and the Gang in their ears again, until they finally retreat from the evening with thumping headaches and no idea of whom they were sitting next to. Or what they were listening to. Or both.

 And if all else fails, you can always find the fuse box and pull the plug…

Planning Your Amazing Opera Outdoor Charity Event with Hatstand Opera

Picture the scene: a perfect summer night, the lights fading to a rosy glow in the sky, and an audience held spellbound by the passion, drama and laughter of opera live on stage.

Putting on a live opera performance outside in the British summer is actually a lot easier than you might imagine. An open-air performance is also a great way to raise both awareness and money for your favourite charity, while having fun at the same time! Hatstand Opera have been entertaining and delighting audiences in a variety of venues across the UK for over fifteen years, including highly successful outdoor performances in aid of charity.

“Nobody does opera quite like Hatstand Opera.”
Classic FM magazine

An unforgettable experience

What such open air performances offer is an ‘experience’; a chance to be in a space the audience would never normally see, being entertained in great surroundings with wonderful music.

Many people fall at the first hurdle with finding that all important venue. Well, it’s not that hard you just need a little help with ideas.

Where do I start?
First of all, find your venue, ideally a setting that’s unusual and normally inaccessible to the general public. It’s far more exciting to attend a performance in a space you can’t normally get into, appealing to what we call the ‘nosy-ness factor’! Don’t you just love seeing behind closed doors, or the other side of high walls? Exactly! Consider:

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    • Stately homes grounds
    • Country house gardens
    • Private schools
    • Church grounds, such as a Bishop’s garden
    • Private fields in picturesque spots
    • Private gardens of all sizes
    [/list]

    Use Your Contacts
    Ask your charity fundraising committee for their contacts; you never know whom people know already. Also, always consider your own back gardens too, as these can be just as beautiful and fascinating to visit for your audience. Hatstand Opera have performed in everything from a garden with its own lake and island, to a housing estate back garden where the drinks were served from the garden shed!

    Borrow a Marquee
    Every summer, thousands of marquees lie empty on Sundays after a Saturday night celebration. Using a marquee for your outdoor summer event ensures you have an all-weather venue, a real advantage in the UK! So, be cheeky, ask around as to who is having an event with a marquee, and borrow it for the following evening. Events to ask about include:
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    • Weddings (your local vicar might be able to help with inside info…)
    • Anniversary celebrations
    • Summer balls at private schools
    • Agricultural or flower shows
    • Summer fetes
    • Art exhibitions
    • Hospitality tents for sporting events
    [/list]

    Of course, if you know the local marquee supplier, that’s even better…

    “Thank you all for much for a wonderful evening on Sunday – you were all fantastic and everyone had a fabulous evening. Working with you was extremely easy and fun – there is already talk of another event. My phone, emails and texts have been red hot for the past 24 hours, in praise of you. The total raised for KHoCA comes to just under £4000, a brilliant sum.”
    Chairman, charity fundraising evening, Kent, who borrowed a bright red “Maharajah’s marquee” after the school’s summer ball!

    So finding that venue may not be as difficult as you had envisaged, and neither is the rest of the organisation. You can have that great event!

    Need more info? We have a guide covering:
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    • Fixing Your Date
    • Pricing Your Event
    • Adding Value to Your Hatstand Opera Event
    • Music for a While
    • Pricing Your Event Package
    • Maximising Your Returns on a Hatstand Opera performance
    • Preparing for the weather
    • Performance logistics
    • Licensing, Insurance and Other Legalities
    • Marketing, Print and Publicity
    • Free Design Service
    • Tickets and Box Office
    • Promoting Your Event on the Internet
    • Flyers and Posters
    • Planning Your PR and Publicity
    [/list]

    Email us for the full guide.

    Time For Action!
    Call Hatstand Opera NOW on 01252 511 762, and let’s create the best event your charity has ever seen!

    If you’re really keen…

Mad Madge: Pavarotti Plasterers and Puccini Plumbers

Kirsty finds unexpected talent in her kitchen…

For the last few months I’ve been negotiating with the ultimate divas of the manual labour world, builders. Yes, I’ve finally decided that those who can’t sing – build, plumb, roof or plaster instead. Not, of course, that they are aware that they can’t sing, that’s the whole point. They can sing, and do, to every track on ToneDeaf FM or similar, at volumes that carry over the din of any masonry drill ever invented. All this musical exuberance, inevitably, is fuelled by a diet comprising copious amounts of strong tea with sugars (plural) and chocolate digestive biscuits.

Once any new tradesman on site discovers what I do for a living, the questions start, and they are not the obvious ones either. I spent a happy 20 minutes discussing the use of falsetto in contemporary pop music, after the electrician’s remarkably fine imitation of Miko on the radio. The plumber and I dunked digestives together musing over the various types of soprano voice, after the Lloyds TSB advert came on (the ‘Wild Swans’ one). And, of course, there was the obligatory Monday morning debriefing over which wannabe had got chucked out of Britain’s Got Talent that weekend.

Now, I will say here and now that my builders, plumber, plasterers, electricians, roofers and flooring chaps are the nicest bunch of people you could ever hope to meet. They just seem to inhabit a different time zone to the rest of my life, but I should be used to that. I have waited for them to turn up on a given day, only to discover another job over-ran, so I’m bottom of the queue again. Do I complain? No. I’ve had singers drop out of tours halfway through because they had another job – in three weeks time – and hadn’t learnt the music for it….

I have been woken by roofers tramping past my bedroom window, at 7.20am on a Saturday morning, when they were not due to turn up at all. Do I complain? No. Compared to baritones arriving 5 minutes before curtain up, or even halfway through the show thanks to an accident on the M whatever, it’s bliss…

I have endured washing machines in the lounge, floods through the ceiling, grout in the bath and dust everywhere imaginable, and born it with a smile. Why? I’ve changed in loos, offices, basements, marquees and Portacabins, and none of them were clean, or particularly dry either. 

What I’ve really learned from my manually dexterous friends is quite unexpected; pride in my work. All my construction chums are proud of what they do. They work hard when they are working, and when they are done, they go home with a sense of satisfaction.

As a singer, I do the same, but somehow I forget the satisfaction bit. It’s so easy to beat yourself up over that missed note, or fluffed entry, without seeing the big picture, the enjoyment of your performance by the audience.

So, I’m going to go into my new kitchen and admire the tilework, which is a joy to behold. And I’ll remind myself that although my Carmen may not be 100% perfect, like my grout, she’s still gripping stuff…

Opera on the Road: Gilbert & Sullivan: musical Marmite

Gilbert and Sullivan is like Marmite: you either love ‘em or loath ‘em. I am firmly in the former camp, and blame my mother for this dangerous affliction. It was she who took me to see “The Pirates of Penzance”, presented by the local operatics, at the tender age of seven. I returned home, and sang through everything I could remember. Which, unfortunately, only transpired to be a few bars of “Poor Wandering One” plus a bit of “Cat-Like Tread”, which I repeated ad nauseam for the next week, varying pitch and tempi as I saw fit. (Some habits don’t change.)

It was an inspired move by the same operatic society years later to found a Junior Section, but with the average participant aged under 16, tenors were in short supply. (Please don’t say I have to explain this one.) So the director of the first full production, which was by a spooky co-incidence, “Pirates”, looked for the tallest, most flat-chested, gullible girl they could find to play Frederick. (I’ve changed a bit since those days; I’m not longer quite so gullible.)

Come opening night, on a stage barely bigger than the average dining room, I duly swashed my buckle and serenaded my Mabel, the only girl in the Junior Section taller than me. I was completely hooked.

After a brief flirtation with aesthetics (third droopy drawers from the left in “Patience”), I got my big break, Phyllis in “Iolanthe”. Delighted, I rushed home with the score, to discover that Phyllis is the only G&S soprano juvenile lead with no aria whatsoever, and although you do end up with the leading man, he is half fairy. (In hindsight, this was probably good preparation for life as a single female in the singing profession.)

One G&S that follows me around with amazing regularity is “H.M.S. Pinafore”, and this short satire was my first professional G&S tour. Despite the fact that the chorus were supposed to be boatloads of sisters, cousins and aunts of the aging Sir Joseph Porter, we were all bright young things, all ten of us, total. This was fine in smaller theatres but an issue when we came to the vast semi-circle of St David’s Hall in Cardiff. “Fill the back, altos,” cried the choreographer, as the four of us on the lower line puffed out our petticoats and ourselves as much as possible. (Three of my operatic society altos could have easily filled the back of that stage. Standing shoulder to shoulder…)

I think G&S is like Star Trek; it suffers from the image of its fans. Anoraks are almost obligatory if you enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan, and I’ve worked with enough of them to know that a misplaced “and” instead of “an” can bring retribution down on your head like a flight of thunderbolts. A tip here; just say, “Ah well, we’re using the 18blahblah New York pirated version, of course” and make your escape whilst the anorak is looking it up in the doorstop sized libretto he has brought along to study during your performance.

The best G&S performances I have ever done are when people are not expecting any G&S at all, and come for a nice night out. Then they accept the Savoy operettas at face value, as escapist, fun shows with lyrics that can still raise a wry smile, if not gales of laughter. They enjoy seeing pompous pirates, crazy cops and social-climbing sailors as much as their forefathers did, and so do their kids. If Gilbert and Sullivan is to survive for a new generation, forget the updates and modern settings, just concentrate on the stories. After all, John Wellington Wells was casting spells long before Dumbledore or Harry…

HSO Rehearsal some time ago for ‘Never Mind the why and wherefore”

Toni Nunn, Declan Kelly and Bryan Kesselman

We’re in Surrey on 5th April – don’t miss us!

We’re back in Surrey at last! – Saturday 5th April in aid of 2 great charities!.

A BYO Bite at the Opera! Come and join us for a great evening of our favourite numbers and some new ones too!

More hilarious scenes and popular arias from the world’s favourite operas; deliciously witty, delightfully sung.

“I generally prefer opera’s greatest hits, so Hatstand’s opera cabaret is perfect.

Lovely…A great success”  The Guardian

For the full details click here or the pic!

Call Jo on 01252 718 098 to book your tickets. (£15)

That old cliché is doing the rounds again!

A quick rant by our Soprano Toni

Recently Katherine Jenkins called the press to ‘The Ritz’ to announce her new record deal.The ensuing response showed that the cliché “classical music snob” is still alive and kicking (again!).

Jenkins stated that she believed the ‘crossover’ genre has really developed int he last 5 years. Yes, I would have to agree with that, there are many types of songs and singers who now fall into that category and are extremely popular and many have done good things for classical music. But don’t think this is a new phenomenon!

The press conference though, gave Katherine the chance, again, to claim that she is making opera popular – yawn! Why do we always seem to come to this point again, and again?.

The Telegraph’s Hannah Furness decided to stir things up and follow Jenkin’s ethos with a piece title:“Katherine Jenkins: why classical music snobs are wrong”.

This piece then led to a blog by Alexandra Wilson in The Guardian: “We need to move beyond the cliches about ‘elitist’ opera” . Here, Alexandra shows a photo of “Opera Up Close” in the London pub, discusses the fact that opera was the pop music of its time, and reminds us of ‘A time when opera parodies were all the rage because everyone knew the operas enough to get the jokes’.

Somehow all this past history seems to be forgotten once again when the cliché comes to town! I honestly think all of us are a bit tired of it and really just want to have good quality entertainment and exposure to a variety of musical genres let alone other art-forms. Did you see Wayne Sleep’s Big Ballet on TV recently?  I think that there are many in the ballet world who probably have the same sort of feeling as we have in opera.

If you have the time and want to get in on the discussion look at Alexandra’s blog as well OBERTO, OXFORD BROOKES: EXPLORING RESEARCH TRENDS IN OPERA 

Mad Madge: If I could sing to the animals…

Don’t work with children or animals, the old adage suggests, but any working singer knows that if you’re to pay the mortgage, all that goes out the window.

Given the choice between kids and rampaging animals, I’m with the non-humans every time. They are far more appreciative, as my long-standing investigations into “The effects of the operatic voice on domestic animals and farm livestock” have shown.

It’s not very scientific, but it was born of necessity. If you’re on tour with a house load of singers, and one starts practising, the whole damn lot start up like panicked chickens in a coup. Toni and I long ago realised that the best practice space, weather permitting, was outside; fresh air, great scenery, and no tenor leaning over your shoulder sucking his teeth at any bum notes.

The down side, of course, is that outside can be a farmyard, complete with mud, aromas and livestock. (Well, you try finding good, inexpensive self catering accommodation for six in Lincolnshire that isn’t a farm…)  Toni soon discovered that the heifers in the barn opposite were a very warm and appreciative (if aromatic) audience. They gently mood their appreciation for Tosca, La Rondine and Bohème, and for me, even contentedly chewed through Carmen. (We tried Wagner but it only added to the slurry…)

Sheep, however, are another matter; sheep don’t give a stuff. You sing for them, they give you a withering look, and turn their tails to you in disgust. They have far better things to do than listen, unless it’s Handel of course; “All we like sheep…”

In fact, Toni should have been forewarned about our woolly friends. In a memorably awful production of Zauberflöte, the director decided that Tamino would tame real animals. So on came the donkey and sheep, all good as gold, except one that decided it was a tenor. It stuck its head between the flats, dead centre stage, fixed the conductor with a steely gaze, and emitted a long and perfectly modulated “Baa!” The audience went wild…

Of course, that also meant that there had to be a horse for the Queen of the Night. And Sarastro. Problem was, the Queen (Toni) was 5’4” and the Sarastro 6’1”, neither rode, and there was only cash for one horse. OK, one small pony. So the Toni perched on top, whilst the Sarastro not so much rode the pony as stood over it, legs akimbo. The pony obviously did not think it was making enough of an impression (probably because the audience was helpless by this stage) so it enlarged its role by accompanying any singing with resplendent and sonorous farts. This was a Flute in Glorious Smello-Vision.

Birds are a mixed bag. Chickens find the whole thing rather confusing, on the whole, and try to join in, so we tend to leave them to their egg business. Flocks of birds make nice backdrops, but pigeons are just plain dangerous. It was with much trepidation that I took on an open-air performance in Trafalgar Square, but I needn’t have worried. Just as it’s been proved that Pavarotti’s singing deters crime on the Tube, I can officially declare that soprano top notes scare off pigeons. It did also stop traffic, but you can’t have everything…

Mad Madge: Start ‘em young: give me the baby and I’ll show you the diva

“This is my daughter India,” beamed the proud mum of a five year old who had kicked the stage (out of tempo) throughout the first half of my performance, “She must be your youngest audience member ever!”

Nowhere close, lady, I like to start them young. Give me a baby at minus six months and I’ll show you a diva in the making. It all started at music college, where two good friends fell pregnant at the same time. One stopped singing, the other carried on regardless; so whilst the former’s new born son wailed whenever she sang, the latter’s daughter cooed appreciatively.

In fact, said young diva-in-training was the best yardstick for popular taste I ever knew. Her mother and I were devising an opera highlights show just after she was born, so beside us at every rehearsal was our best critic, happily contained in a vast playpen so she didn’t try and chew the music (or the pianist).

If the young starlet gurgled and kicked out at our rendition, it was a sure fire hit with audiences of all ages. (Rossini and Mozart were particular favourites, real bop-along stuff.)  If she lay and la-la-la’d gently like a slightly inebriated Teletubby, it was an excellent soother for audiences after doom and gloom items. (This eclectic category included soppier Puccini bits, Soave sia il vento from ‘Cosi fan tutte’, and remarkably, anything from ‘Der Rosenkavalier’. This baby had serious taste.) If she wailed, the item was ditched faster than a tone-deaf tenor. (Sorry, Massenet.)

Armed with this insight into the younger psyche, I am well prepared for the trials of rural performances, where all the world and his wife, their parents, young offspring (and pets) come for a great night out. At village venues, I usually suggest to promoters that any fun-loving kid aged over eight will have a ball, (although younger children are always welcome.) To ensure this, I stick to my four golden rules:

  1. Get the kids on your side from the start. This involves the ritualistic humiliation of any male over 18 in their party by a roving Musetta or Carmen, or the amorous attentions of a Don Giovanni aimed squarely at their mum. DO NOT approach the kids themselves; this is a serious breach of Cool and Wicked Regulations.
  2. Don’t cut the suggestive bits. Kids usually understand them better than their parents. After all, they watch ‘Eastenders’.
  3. Always mention ‘The X Factor’ or the latest equivalent. It makes you look vaguely hip and the kids’ parents haven’t a clue what you are talking about.
  4. If all else fails, repeat rule 1. Often.

In fact, I find that young people always enjoy being close to the action. Our youngest fan was three months old (if you discount the numerous mum’s bumps we have serenaded). She loved the music (especially Rossini – what did I tell you?), the laughter, and reached out every time the soprano’s stage-lit sequinned frock turned her world into a shimmer of dancing dots of light.

There’s a new joke in there: what do you call a soprano hanging by a rope in a spotlight? A mirror ball!

What opera singers can learn from snowboarders

Like much of the UK, last weekend I was glued to the Olympic snowboard slopestyle from Sochi – and not just because Great Britain has a fighting chance of a medal for a change!

What gripped me from the start was the sheer enjoyment those young daredevils had in their sport. They really didn’t seem to care who won – all they wanted was to lay down a good run, do their tricks the best they could, and if that put them in the final, well, that was just awesome!

It seemed that every snowboarder genuinely liked and admired the rest,; there was no bad feeling, no begrudging interviews, no divas (apart from the one who went home saying the course was too dangerous), just fresh-faced energy from some highly talented and deceptively dedicated riders.

When the judges’ scores came in and it wasn’t quite what they expected (which was quite a lot of the time), they’d just shrug their shoulders and smile; no iceskating-style tears, no tantrums, no “you cannot be serious” throwing down of equipment,  – and no macho air punches when the scores were good, but instead, genuine squeals of delight.

And what’s more, when they worked out what the judges were looking for – big jumps – they tailored their runs to suit, on the fly (literally). If that’s what the judges wanted, that’s what the riders would deliver – and if they crashed, hey, they had tried, and they were quite happy to bail out, smile and say “I did my best, I had fun”.

And the icing on the cake was the commentators, sometimes so overcome with sheer enthusiasm that they verbally exploded, and full of such fun ways of describing people sliding down some banisters on a wide plank that it didn’t matter if you didn’t understand the difference between “winding down the windows” and being “a bit squirrel-y”.

If only all opera singers would be like that! No muttering at competitions about how so-and-so’s students always win. No moaning after auditions about the old youth v experience issue, but instead a smile and a shrug – and move in. I sometimes think singers forget the reason why we sing – we love it! Other stuff gets in the way I know (like earning a living for starters), but fundamentally we love the sensation of singing when the audience is with you and the performance is going well. Yes, we are all only one rail from a wipeout so to speak, but we can also see the golden hue of applause at the end.

So at Hatstand, we’re going to be more snowboard this year, and aim for a totally rad performance  when we land those arias and enjoy the wind in our (non-blond) hair.

And if occasionally it all gets a bit squirrel-y, who cares, we know we’re in good company!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/winter-olympics/26106600