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!

Touring Tales: Fog, fog, glorious fog

“It’s unique, you know’, our performance hostess beamed, “Gale force fog. Only the Channel Islands get it.” And boy oh boy, do they get it.

Our tours to the Channel Islands are something we look forward to immensely. Four islands and eight performances in five days may sound hectic, but it never really is, thanks to efficient organisation on the part of the Channel Islands Music Council, and copious amounts of alcohol provided by our various hosts on the islands.

However, such a tight timetable doesn’t leave much room for error. Our usual adversary are the tides around Sark, which seem determined to ensure that we always have to make a dash down to the harbour to catch the ferry after the schools workshop, held horribly early in the morning. We were counting our lucky stars as we bounced back across to Guernsey on the ferry (a.k.a. tug-sized boat with cabin seating and two benches out on the back.) Yes, it was ‘choppy’, and yes we did have to hang on like grim death to avoid being rolled into the briny, but even I managed to keep my dignity intact. (I usually get sea-sick on a millpond, so I was feeling pretty chuffed with myself.) Did you know you can’t sing and be sick at the same time? So if the feeling comes over you, get to the outside and sing!

When we arrived, we rolled onto the harbour side, piled the cases into the taxi, and headed up to the airport for the flight to Alderney. This means small planes, and I mean, small, like ten seats, and just enough room for the luggage. Or so we thought. No, said Blue Islands airways, you can’t take the luggage. It’s our props and costumes, we wailed, we have a show to do. No, said they, you can’t take ANY luggage, no clothes, no show stuff, nada, just hand luggage.

So, a frantic repack later, and a promise from the airline to DEFINITELY get our luggage to us by 9am the next day, (or we would set Toni the soprano on them), we boarded the plane with just a plastic carrier bag each, a briefcase of music and a plastic chicken (there are just some props you cannot do without).

Then the problems started. Thick fog rolled in, and the next morning (Thursday) we couldn’t see the end of the garden, let alone the sea. We performed the schools workshop in jeans, and waited for our luggage – in vain. Fog meant no planes, and no planes meant, no luggage. So, we did the evening show in our morning workshop jeans and trainers, except our Toni, who in true diva fashion had packed into her carrier bag some extra make-up, a pair of high heels and some tight designer jeans. We became inventive with props – the chicken was for the workshops – but Carmen needs some castanets, so the only thing for it was to play the spoons. I’ll never sing the seguidilla again without longing for spoons!

By now it’s cold, really cold, and all our fleeces and jackets are in – Guernsey airport. So, stoically, we borrow jumpers from our extremely accommodating hosts, and eat cake with lashings of yellow Alderney butter next to the wood-burning stove in our cosy boathouse accommodation. Come Friday morning, and we’re due in Jersey for an afternoon workshop and evening performance, but there are still no planes. However, we are on fifteen-minute standby just in case the fog lifts just a smidgen. I now know how WWII Spitfire pilots felt; fifteen-minute scramble is not fun. We have to cancel the Jersey show, the first time EVER we have not made a performance, and we feel absolutely awful. So, in true Alderney fashion, we drown our sorrows by working our way through our host’s wine cellar.

By Saturday morning, the boys were wearing holes in the carpet in frustration. Then my mobile rang – it was the airport. “No flights” they said, “But Billy’s taking his fishing boat ‘Out of the Blue’ the twenty miles to Guernsey. Do you want a place?” I booked us in pronto, and we legged it down to the harbour. Then we saw the boat. Or rather, the fishing smack the size of a large pick-up truck, with an open back and a tiny cabin. Toni freaked and I joined her. The boys did the macho thing and we did the ‘wave them off at the quayside’ thing. For the boys, the adventure had only just begun…

To be continued…


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…

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

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!

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…

Mad Madge: Lost, presumed missing: Zen and the art of getting a cast to a venue

You would have thought that with a cast of only five (maximum) it would be impossible to lose your cast when travelling less than one hundred miles from the Smoke. How wrong can you be. Put a performer in a car and it’s a recipe for high blood pressure, not for them but for those waiting at the far end, whose vivid imaginations already have their Rodolfo in a road rage attack or their Dulcamara in a ditch.  I’ve waited and worried enough for a Wolfgang wigful of grey hairs.

Not that the instructions to a venue from those who live within walking distance of the place often help. One of my key requests is for a map “So we can find your venue, even in the dark…”  Directions like “Turn right at the duck pond” mean nothing if it’s pitch black and the ducks have gone home for the night.  Or “It’s halfway through the village”; how do you know you’re halfway through until you’ve gone through, tried to turn round in a quagmire and come back much muddier than you went?

Then the mobile rings, if you’re lucky and you’ve got reception, of course. Churches are built like Faraday cages, designed to keep all nasty immoral radio waves firmly outside, so the mobile is of course by the main door (only signal from the outside world) and you are rehearsing at the far end. By the time you’ve sprinted the entire length of a Norman nave, the answer phone has clicked in. Ring back and the driving performer is in a blackout zone, so you leave a message.

Finally you discover they are stuck in a queue on the Mxx (insert you favourite motorway number here). They are late and can’t find the venue anywhere. There is only one final failsafe instruction, which is for them to drive up and down the main drag whilst I run outside and wave frantically in the pouring rain. As an advert for our show, a mad mezzo flagging down cars full of strange men on a dark and stormy night does not rank highly. Frankly, your best plan is to get them to stop at the village pub and go and fetch them yourself…

This is the point where satellite navigation is supposed to click in and save us all hassle. Which is fine, until your pianist heads for the Derbyshire hills, comes to a crucial junction and her electronic wünderbox loses its way, exactly halfway round a roundabout. Twenty minutes later and several circuits of said roundabout, now somewhat hot and bothered pianist is forced to ask direction to the nearest garage so she can buy a map. Emerging, atlas in hand, the now oh so smug system promptly tells her where she is. Marvellous.

Some of my performing brethren rightly spurn the life of the open road in favour of rail, and it is amazing how far into the depths of the GB countryside you can get. Only snag is, you’re stuck there; like Royston Vesey, it’s hard to leave, and certainly not after 8.23pm, when the last train wheezes its way back towards civilisation and 24 hour supermarkets. So, they get a lift home with a driving performer, which rather defeats the object…

One tenor arrived via rail and sensibly caught a taxi to the city venue, high on a hill. Unfortunately he chose the only taxi driver in Bristol who did not know where its most prestigious concert venue was. After twenty minutes driving up hill and down back alley, he leapt out and begged help from a passing pedestrian, who dismissed the taxi and walked our hero to the venue – 200 yards away…

Mad Madge: 101 Places You Shouldn’t Sing In (but we did…)

Mad Madge: 101 Places You Shouldn’t Sing In (but we did…)


As I climbed the steel ladder lashed to the side of the toilet block, heels slipping on the rungs, I wondered why I had ever thought that “go-anywhere opera’ was a good idea.

The brief had been simple; a covered market wanted us to christen their new toilet block. (“Sing some Puccini,” quipped the booker). The concept was fine until we realised that the only way onto the top of said facility was via a temporary ladder, for us in full regalia, the pianist and the digital piano.

Once up there, we couldn’t be seen from the ground either, so we performed hanging off the safety rail like monkeys with one hand, desperately waving hand signals to the pianist with the other.

Over the years we’ve become used to weird venues, which often appear under the guise of ‘accessibility’.  After one particularly arduous day singing in a Birmingham shopping arcade in howling wind and foul weather, our final task was to sing in local restaurants. The Italian was fine, the Japanese more of a challenge, since we were competing with ‘cook it in front of you’ chefs armed with flying machetes and a chopping action as rapid and loud as machine gun fire.  After twenty minutes of singing against slicing and sizzling, the food Samurai won, and we gave in to the delights of tempura and teriyaki instead.

Libraries are more of a mental challenge; years of silence enforcement by shushing librarians have to be put aside as you sing as loudly as possible in venues designed to deaden sound as much as possible.  In one library, the book racks doubled as wings, and since this was the only area to change, I remembered to keep my head down so as not to be seen.  What I didn’t realise until later was that I was stripping off behind a single row of Cookery, and most of the Delia collection was out, leaving an interesting window of opportunity for the front row.

Fundraising events for charity can land you in places you never dreamed of, such as a Swindon fire station. The firemen had cleared the engine garage, and put up a stage, lighting, seating, even balloons.  We were just wondering where the fire engines were, when the call came.  Six burly firemen slid down the pole next to the stage, (just like Trumpton!), and rushed into the night, sirens blazing, minutes before we started singing.  Amazingly, they were back in time to serve baked potatoes and tea in the interval.

A more usual fundraising or party venue is the great British marquee.  One exuberant host had got every mod con for his April bash; decent lighting, good flooring, swags, flowers, flounces, and a state of the art heating system that looked (and sounded) like a jet engine.  “It’ll be fine’, the host beamed as he proudly demonstrated the full throttle setting, “So long as the wind doesn’t change direction.” Which of course it did, so everyone’s noses soon knew that the hosts did indeed run a very large pig farm…