Interview – singer and satirist Melinda Hughes makes her mark on London cabaret

image2 MELINDA HUGHES, daughter of film director Ken Hughes, is a classically trained singer who has appeared in many operas and concerts both in the UK and across Europe.

Her album, Smoke and Noise, features tracks by Mischa Spoliansky and she also writes her own cabaret songs with Jeremy Limb on such topical subjects as opera divas, London cabbies, selfies, Brexit and Donald Trump tweeting. The success of these numbers led to appearances on BBC Radios 3 and 4 with Barry Humphries.

A graduate of the Royal College of Music, Melinda toured Europe for four years as the soloist to the famous violinist Andre Rieu. She has sung many lead operatic roles including Aida, Tosca and Madame Butterfly, working in more than 40 countries.

Melinda has just returned from performing in New York City where she received positive reviews, resulting in her being asked to write skits for the USA podcast The Final Edition. She will be appearing on a BBC Four television series about Weimar Cabaret in summer 2017.

The singer and satirist performs at Live at Zédel on 14 and 15 March. Here she reveals her approach to opera and cabaret…

A graduate of the Royal College of Music, Melinda toured Europe for four years as the soloist to the famous violinist Andre Rieu. She has sung many lead operatic roles including Aida, Tosca and Madame Butterfly working in more than forty countries and will be appearing on BBC Four Television series about Weimar Cabaret in summer 2017.

When did you discover that you had a proper singing voice and had you always sung from an early age?

Well I was always singing from a very young age. It started with the solo in the school carol service at nine years old, then the lead roles in school musicals. I was very lucky that the schools I went to had a music department.

What was your initial taste in music? Did you enjoy listening to classical music and opera when you were young?

No I didn’t! I thought it was too warbly, although I would sit at the piano with my grandmother and sing. She wanted to be an opera singer but was discouraged.

Growing up, I loved jazz, soul and pop music, and started to listen to classical music seriously when studying for my A levels. It really helped me to focus. Even today when I write articles I still have the same Chopin Nocturnes playing in the background.

During my breaks from studying I  would walk round the park listening to a cassette (yes a cassette!) of dramatic soprano arias to clear my head and that album completely blew me away.

image1Was it your choice to have formal training in music or did your family direct you towards a singing career?

It was a little of both. My family were supportive but I was meant to study Italian and History of Art at Sussex University. I changed my mind at the last minute after attending a singing school and being told I was very talented, so I just had to give it a shot.

Having a film director as a father, were you exposed to the world of showbusiness as a young child?

A little bit. My parents divorced when I was very  young and he lived in LA although I visited him. In Hollywood he would always bump into famous actors who were friends. That was funny. I wanted to be an actress and he was dead against it. The singing, he was much happier with.

You graduated from the Royal College of Music and the Maastricht Conservatoire and completed your studies at the Brussels Opera Studio. Is there any difference in approach to singing at these three establishments and which did you find most rewarding?

Well my languages are certainly very strong as a result and I’m pretty adaptable in different cultures. I was somewhat of a star in Maastricht as the opera school was so tiny, then somewhat of a small fish at the RCM which I found frustrating. I think my time in Maastricht was my most rewarding, as my teacher was such an important influence. It was a quiet town compared to London so I was very focused. After the RCM I returned to Maastricht to tour as a soloist with Andre Rieu. That meant almost three years on the road in Germany. That was also a huge chunk in my life.

You have a good number of operas under your belt, having appeared in Aida, Tosca, Cosi fan tutte, La Boheme, La Traviata, The Magic Flute, I Pagliacci, Rigoletto, The Marriage of Figaro, Madame Butterfly and many more, as well as several oratorio works. Do you have a favourite operatic role?

My favourite role is usually the one I am doing at the time, but I’d say it’s probably the countess  in The Marriage of Figaro as I love Mozart so much. Aida was the most thrilling vocally and I would love to move into slightly more challenging repertoire. I would love to sing Desdemona from Verdi’s Otello or the Marschallin from Der Rosenkavalier, these are my dream roles.

Was the crossover into cabaret a sudden or gradual development for you, or was it something you always wanted to do?

It was a sudden conscious crossover after an accident. That said I was always looking for fun songs to sing at the end of a recital and saw there was a shortage of material I liked. I had always loved listening to Marlene Dietrich, and Kurt Weill operas, which is that all important bridge between classical and cabaret.

You started your Kiss & Tell Cabaret in 2007 with Jeremy Limb and Lloyd Evans. Was that when you began writing your own satirical songs, and did it come about through seeing other performers doing the Weimar style cabaret material?

It actually came through a conversation with Petronella Wyatt as to why there aren’t any glamorous venues in London doing cabaret, so we decided to do an evening of song at a nightclub. Of course there are plenty of venues doing cabaret now like Zedel.

1sth-The-London-Magazine-Melinda-HughesHow did you manage to be chosen to be the voice of the Rugby Six Nations League theme tune?

Well I have a cousin who is a music producer and I was the opera singer he knew!

You have appeared in Raymond Gubbay’s staging of The King and I. Would you like to perform in more musicals and if so, do you have a favourite one you would like to be in – something perhaps by Stephen Sondheim?

Yes I love musicals, especially the old-fashioned ones. I loved my time in The King and I – it was a huge glorious family. I would love to do anything by Sondheim. I think he’s a genius.

Do you have to apply a different vocal technique, depending on whether you are singing opera, oratorio or cabaret?

Yes indeed. Opera is the most challenging, with a focused and supported technique. With cabaret I choose repertoire much lower in my register and take away a lot of  vibrato. It’s a different sound and I try to stay vocally ‘healthy’ in both approaches.

How did your cabaret show go over in New York? It wasn’t too British, was it?

Being British in New York was my USP. We wrote ‘Britannia waives the rules’, poking fun at both our cultures, and they absolutely loved it. It was also something a little different from the normal cabaret line-up which can be very Broadway orientated. I would love to do a run there, at the Carlyle Room. I think the cross between classical, satirical cabaret and a smattering of jazz is right up their street.

Do you have any desire to do any straight acting in a play, film or television drama, or would you miss the music if it were not there?

I would love to do straight acting in anything. No, I wouldn’t miss the music, because it’s everywhere else in my life.

You obviously enjoy the range of different work, but is there anything else you would like to sing?

I would secretly love to learn how to ‘jazz scat’. I find it lots of fun, but I’m not confident enough.

What can we look forward to seeing Melinda Hughes doing in 2017?

I’m writing a show with Jeremy, but it’s top secret!

* Melinda Hughes is Live at Zédel at the Brasserie Zédel on 14 and 15 March. The album Smoke and Noise is on the Nimbus label.

Compiled by Michael Darvell

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