Mad Madge: Deck the halls…

“We’ve decorated the stage”, the fleece-clad hearty host informed us, “thought it would brighten it up a bit.” Now the rest of the hall may be barren, but the stage is a triumph of tinsel over taste. Every millimetre of hanging space has been used, with baubles, streamers and Unidentified Fire-retardant Objects hanging down from the stage curtain track. Which is less than seven foot above our heads. And our tenor is six foot three. He spends the entire show dodging the dangles or singing love duets with tinsel up his tonsils. Did I mention the glitter ball? Best not to…

It’s difficult not to become a singing humbug at Christmas. Our carol-singing season begins promptly on December 1st and by the 16th we’re pretty much wishing for a Silent Night. In fact, I’ve had great success marketing season shows performed after the 16th watershed as carol-free zones. Well, almost carol free. We always include the Coventry Carol regardless, because it reminds us just how moving music can be. I have to warn performers that when we sing this unaccompanied, at least two women in the audience will cry. This tune touches hearts; one old lady toddled up and told me of all the friends she lost the night when Coventry was bombed. It’s amazing that a simple tune brings all that flooding back.

It’s always nice when the audience join in with the carols. It gives us a rest. One December, we found ourselves performing perilously close to the Welsh border, and that always means the audience contains singers. In fact, this audience were so damn good, that when we missed an entry, they came in instead. We admitted defeat, sat down in the front row, and they sang the piece. That’s lovely, now.

We’ve even been evicted from the stage at one venue to make way for Santa’s grotto. We know our place. Usually it’s somewhere wedged between the enormous Christmas tree and the WI flower arrangement that CANNOT (note) CANNOT be moved. I would be lynched if I revealed just how many times they have been moved once the arranger has left. You see, those elegant wrought iron flower towers are great when nobody moves; they stay nice and still, but performers don’t. We move, wave our arms around, and act (heaven forbid). Still, venues insist on putting us (and flowers) on springy wooden stages. We’ve performed on platforms so bouncy that the pianist had to hold onto the grand piano as the cast jigged the G&S Riverdance routine (don’t ask). Flower towers don’t survive this excitement, toppling artistically stage left as you exit stage right, necessitating football-style fielding to catch it.

What is it about Christmas and candles? We do lots of cabaret style performances and there is a norm of one candle per table. Looks lovely, twinkly without being excessive. However, one year, our upmarket holiday village venue had tables around the seated audience covered in candles. And I mean, covered. There were hundreds, so many that each table had its own member of staff with a fire extinguisher, (for that authentic, relaxed seasonal atmosphere). We had to move really slowly because the slightest draft caused a wave of flickering flames and a cascade of wax. The irony was, the only place that wasn’t lit was the stage, so we sang, peering like a quizzical Anne Robinson at our music, wishing we hadn’t been asked to do the complicated carol-fest with at least three verses to each.

The trip home, however, was to savour. Leaving some very happy campers at 5pm, we made our way across the width of the country on empty roads. We stopped at a pub for a bite to eat, and weren’t let out until we’d eaten half a turkey with all the trimmings and sung “While Shepherds Washed” for the kids. We arrived at my brother’s house to the smell of mulled wine and a very excited niece, who watched us unpack costumes, music, bedding and presents with ever-widening eyes. As we finally unloaded the digital piano it all became too much. “Is that my present?” she breathed excitedly. Nice try, kid.

Mad Madge: Changing Rooms: forget privacy, this isn’t your space…

“Do come in”, the promoter simpers, throwing the door open wide, “Make yourselves at home.”  Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally live in a store cupboard with a variety of playgroup toys, tressel tables and knackered chairs. However, more often than not, that’s the dressing room for the night.  For four of us, two cases of costumes, a box of props, two dinner suits, two silk ball gowns, four vast overdresses, and the occasional six foot long spear. We might get a clothes rail, but I’ve hung clothes off climbing frames, ladders, shelving stacked with catering supplies, fuse cupboards, medical screens, choir screens, and even, once in sheer desperation, a hoover.

Rural venues are remarkably well-used and well-loved places.  They are also very much owned by the local community; we are guests in their space, a space that they use all the time.   What they often forget is that a) we don’t, and b) we might like a bit of privacy whilst we change.

The problem is, storerooms do not lock from the inside.  We’ve tried every phrase in the book when people knock (which they do about 40% of the time, the rest just barge in.)  “Wait, please”, “Just a moment”, “We’re changing” and “No!” all mean, in every county in the UK, “Come in, have a good look, we’re down to our knickers and socks.”  I might add that sexual equality applies here; we sang for a group of senior ladies in the West Midlands, one of whom did the ‘knock and come on in regardless’ thing to find our pianist in just his underpants.  Having looked him up and down, despite my best efforts to shield him behind my ample frame, she said “Oh, you’re changing” (Doh!) and exited with a smile.  Now I’m not sure how they knew, but the millisecond the tenor was in the same state, in came her friend. Same routine, same line, same smile.  The cheque wasn’t that big…

After the show is the most dangerous time; chairs and tables need to be packed away before last orders, regardless.  Once we were performing in a marquee, and the tent chaps needed a pint, so they took down the tent pronto – with us still changing in the back of it.  With no lights, no roof and no walls, we escaped clutching clothing and props from a descending canvass, accompanied by the irate and remarkably Anglo-Saxon outpourings of our furious Australian soprano. They stopped demolishing the tent after that…

One Wiltshire village hall was so short of space, the organiser kindly screened off the side of the stage to act as a changing room.  Problem was, this was the only route to the gents, so before the show, chaps gaily tripped across the stage to the loo, past the open end of our screened area.  In a desperate search for space during Act 1, I dived into the gents to do a quick change.  Well, I didn’t know that men’s ‘standing areas’ flush automatically, so I and the dress got soaked.  Worst of all, the watery sound effects reverberated onto stage, so much so that during a particularly romantic episode from Der Rösenkavalier, it sounded as if Octavian was singing to Sophie on top of Niagara Falls.

By the end of the show, bruised from too much elbow and not enough room, we decided to change on stage, once the show had finished.  So, as the curtains swished shut for the last time, I proceeded to rescue a particularly gravity-orientated pair of tights that were descending to my ankles, just in time to hear the words, “Let’s thank them once again”. The curtains opened to find me with a Nora Batty look below and my skirt under my chin…

I have a new policy now, a sign that says in large letters, “KNOCK AND WAIT”, and just in case they can’t read without their glasses, the pianist’s foot firmly wedged against the door until we’re all safely enrobed….

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…