Melinda Hughes is a classically trained opera singer and satirical cabaret writer and performer from London, having graduated from the Maastricht Conservatory, The Netherlands, pursued her post-graduated studies at Royal College of Music, London and completed her studies at Brussels Opera Studio.
She is part of the group Kiss and Tell, released an album called Smoke and Noise and has travelled across the world, sharing her talents with people all over the globe. She was recently on the island to perform and we sat down with her for a poolside chat at the Cobblers Cove Hotel in Speightstown, St. Peter where she was staying.
Zeitgeist: What brings you to Barbados?
Melinda Hughes: I was at the Holder’s Festival a few years ago performing. I loved it so much I thought I’d try and find some way to come back, but the future of the Holder’s festival is up in the air at the moment. I came back here on holiday and I met the lady who owns this hotel [Cobblers Cove] and the General Manager [Will Oakley] and we had a very casual conversation about possibly doing some performances here and a few years later we made it happen.
Z: A lot of events are in trouble right now because of taxes going up and everything.
MH: Well I’m glad you mentioned that. Look, I came here as a gift and I came here for free and I’m happy to perform and have a holiday and return. For me it’s not about being paid, but if you want big artist here on the island there’s going to be an issue with money and I hope that that situation resolves itself. It drives up tourism. It brings income to the island. It’s a huge money spinner. It provides work for sound engineers, light people, catering companies…it is a big work generator so that really needs to be rethought.
Z: I don’t know if you know about Honey Jam. This year they said “We were’nt going to do it this year.” Sponsors are pulling out left and right for everything.
MH: This seriously needs to be re-addressed, because you’re cutting of a big income for people who aren’t even in the music industry to make money. The trickledown effect is quite great. There is a variety of people living here and visiting here so you need to cater for that and make it a special island that they’ll come back to and spend their money in again.
Z: Have you done performances like this before?
MH: Yes. I’ve done performances abroad. I’ve sung in Bermuda at Government House. I sang at a festival there with an opera company. When I was still starting out I did a lot of five star hotels, travelling around South-East Asia and the Middle East with an opera company.
Z: When you did the performance here what was the response like?
MH: Oh, fantastic! Better than I hoped. It wasn’t hugely publicized…and then suddenly we had ninety people come out to the Opera on the Beach. We lit it up and had Chinese lanterns at the end and then we did an opera and satirical evening on the Sunday night [November 19th] and again it was eighty people.
Z: When [I was told] that you were an opera singer I was like: “There’s an audience for that down here?”
MH: It’s unusual. People are going to come [because] it’s something unusual that’s coming. And it’s not only about that it was also about the evening that Cobblers put on. The atmosphere, the food. This is a Relais and Chateaux hotel so the food is equivalent to a Michelin [star restaurant]; it’s very high level. So you know you’re going to get a beautiful evening.
Z: Now that you stay that, the same Honey Jam I was talking about, their concert was last Saturday [November 28th] and they had their first opera singer [Denesha Fergusson]. After seven years
MH: I had heard about a Bajan girl who’s studying in Manhattan and this journalist showed me a video of her and she’s fantastic. We need to do a concert with her because that would be fabulous. That’s the way ahead; If you take local artists and artists from abroad and you do things together.
I also do satirical cabaret. We write funny songs about any topic and we’re writing a song about Barbados at the moment. Just because it’s opera doesn’t mean to say it’s not going to appeal. It’s just being open minded and experiencing different things.
Z: I’m glad you brought up the satirical stuff, because I’m not familiar with satirical performers so I just wanted you to explain what that is.
MH: Have you heard of Noel Coward? He used to write songs about society and he did that famous song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” He [was] writing songs about society and making fun of people. Particularly making fun of the upper classes.
Z: So it’s kind of like social commentary in calypso.
MH: Social commentary. But very British and making fun of ourselves. I’ve done a lot of songs about Donald Trump and he’s so easy. That’s the gift that keeps on giving, right?
Z: Because he won’t stop tweeting!
MH: It’s like: “Stop!” I do a Melania Trump impersonation as well. I don’t want to scare people by saying “opera.” I know about four people who came on the Sunday who were: “Hm. No. It’s not my thing.” But the way I communicate it, the way I make people laugh, the songs that I choose, it’s successful. And it’s a fun night out and it brings people together and people are like: “Wow. I never knew I would like opera.”
Z: I’ll admit, the only opera I’m familiar with is The Phantom of the Opera and I’m sure that’s the only opera most people are familiar with.
MH: Purist would say that’s not even opera, It’s musical theatre. But there is a role for an opera singer in it. The role of Carlotta. A friend of mine was Christine for many, many years. Rebecca Caine. There are lovely popular operas that you realise later on they’ve been used in adverts and they’ve been used in films. It’s just the familiarity of it. If people understand something and they’re familiar with it, they begin to like it.
Z: Besides that, what else would you recommend that people who aren’t familiar with opera listen to or watch as a gateway into it?
MH: There’s a lovely film with Helena Bonham Carter called A Room with a View. They use some beautiful opera in the film and that actually, for me, brought me into opera because I was listening to this music. I was like: “These songs are beautiful. What are they from?” That’s your way in; gently. The most popular operas are like La Boheme or Carmen, anything by [Giacomo] Puccini.
Z: I’m glad you mentioned how that got you into opera because that was going to be my next question.
MH: I was studying for my A-Levels and I started listening to it as a way to take a break from my studies. My favourite CD was all these opera arias. I just thought they were so beautiful. I was always singing; I was always head of choir, I was always lead role in the school play, my grandmother was a semi-professional singer but she wasn’t really allowed to do it. That was just a natural progression. I started to do more opera arias and then I just got hooked.
Z: Going back to the satirical performances briefly, what are your favourite topics and issues to cover?
MH: We’ve got a song about meeting Prince Harry –
Z: Have you met Prince Harry?
MH: I have met Prince Harry. He’s lovely, really lovely. Very sweet. I met him at a charity. When you’re officially meeting royalty they keep you in groups and they keep giving you champagne to keep you happy. They kept coming around with more and more and more champagne so it gave me an idea for a song.
“I’m Going to Meet Prince Harry”
Another song we’ve got is about selfies, where I’m on a romantic holiday with my boyfriend. We go on a moonlit coastal walk and I take a selfie and I stretch out so far that I end up falling off a cliff, but before I hit the ground I manage to upload my best selfie ever to Twitter and she says: “We’ll I’ve never been a quitter. I uploaded it to Twitter and I very quickly writ her. Caption: That’ll make you titter. I’ve really fallen for this place. #dead.”
We sang it at the Adelphi Theatre as part of a charity evening. The lineup was incredible; it was like the royalty of comedy. I was after Rowan Atkinson and before Jo Brand. I ended up taking a selfie on a selfie stick with about nine hundred people behind me in the audience. It was pretty impressive.
Z: I feel like people see opera as something for rich people and the upper class. What do you think could be done to change that image and make it more accessible?
MH: This is a tricky one. When people are finally taken to the opera they’re like: “Wow, I never knew this could be so much fun.” They shouldn’t be afraid of something they don’t understand. The only thing they don’t understand is because it’s in a foreign language and I think that’s the main barrier. There are a lot of operas that are written in English. Also there are a lot of operas that are written about things that have happened recently. There’s a fantastic opera about Anna Nicole Smith. It’s hilarious. And the tag line is: “I wanna blow you all…a kiss.”
Perhaps doing a bit of educational work and getting children to come to something, getting them used to it, letting them hear it, letting it permeate somehow. It is accessible, it is funny, you have to treat it like a great spectacle which happens to have opera singing in it. It’s a shame that it’s seen as an upper class thing because a lot of the singers who are singing it are certainly not upper class. They just got hooked somehow and we’ve got to find how they got hooked because we need our audiences of the future.
Z: What would you say to people who want to be opera singers but don’t know where to start or might think it’s not as lucrative as being a Pop star?
MH: Well of course being a Pop star’s more fun. It’s an easier journey and you’re going to make a lot more money. Again, it’s about being hooked by that bug. But opera will fulfill you like nothing else because you’re doing a role, you’re with an orchestra, you’re learning, you’re growing all the time, you’re travelling so much.
When you get to the sort of age of fourteen, fifteen and you’re a really good singer, you should take lessons, find a good teacher and see where your interests lie. I know there’s one opera singer on the island, I’ve met her. And I know that she teaches. You’ve got a music school right?
Z: There’s a music programme at the Community College. But most secondary schools, if not all, have music as a course.
MH: I think if someone’s particularly talented and driven, they will probably get a scholarship to the States. You’ve got successes like Rihanna. You can have that too with an opera singer.
Z: I was surprised that [Denesha Fergusson] did opera at Honey Jam because I have no idea where she would have gone to be taught. I didn’t even know there was a local opera singer.
MH: I’d be interested to know as well. The natural, healthy, way of singing is singing on your breath and it does create this vibrato and some people just have that to start with. And if they’re singing in the right way with everything open, it would naturally begin to sound like an opera sound. You can’t really train until you’re at least sixteen, seventeen because your voice hasn’t really matured enough.
If I came back here and if I were to do more concerts I would go into a school in an afternoon and tell them about what I do and do a twenty-minute performance and I think it would be fun. I work in London with a singer who is from Barbados. We’ve got a show together that we do.
Z: You never know, if you come back and go into schools you might be that person that makes someone obsessed with opera.
MH: Yup. That’s what happens. And if you could just touch one person, one night, you’ve made a difference. That’s what makes it worth it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.