December 13, 2016
By Helen Theophanous for Cabaret Scenes
I met up with statuesque, brunette, British beauty Melinda Hughes at her home in London’s Chelsea. Melinda is one half of theatrical cabaret Kiss & Tell, whose work has been described as “Noël Coward on crack” with their signature brand of catchy melodies, witty up-to-the minute lyrics and pin-sharp referencing of global trends and politics. Together with her co-writer and accompanist Jeremy Limb, she has performed in New York, Barbados and Paris and, after their recent sold-out shows at Live at Zedel and The Pheasantry in London, they are fast becoming the darlings of the London cabaret scene.
Melinda, daughter of the late Ken Hughes, who was a much-loved screenwriter and director of films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is already an acclaimed soprano with an impressive CV as an opera singer, and is as vocally at ease with Mozart as she is with Irving Berlin. Her debut album, Smoke and Noise (Nimbus), released in 2010, led to appearances on BBC Radio 3 and 4, including a spot with Dame Edna (Barry Humphries). Next year, she will be featured in a BBC 4 television documentary about Weimar Cabaret which will be broadcast in the summer of 2017.
The act is unique. On stage, her endearing comic delivery, combined with the cut-glass British accent, occasional bursts of flawlessly executed operatic pyrotechnics, and her delightful personal charisma make her an immediate hit. Melinda is returning to the stage of the Metropolitan Room in New York City after her hugely successful show there earlier in 2016.
Helen Theophanous: What are your musical background and main influences?
Melinda Hughes: Music and drama have always been huge parts of my life. I had the solos in the choir and the lead in the school play and, despite being Jewish, I often sang at my local church. My grandmother wanted to be an opera singer, but it wasn’t a respected profession for a middle-class lady, so we used to sing together at the piano. I definitely get my musicality from her and my father, who was a film director. He moved to Los Angeles when I was about four so, sadly, wasn’t a constant in my life. I was all set to study Italian and History of Art at Sussex University, but had, for the second year, attended a singing course where I was encouraged to pursue a career in opera. So, I studied at the Maastricht Conservatoire in the Netherlands and was quickly taken on by the head of the vocal faculty. I graduated four years later with honors and I was chosen to sing as André Rieu’s soloist.
HT: It must have been an exciting experience working for Andre Rieu.
MH: I have never seen anyone work so hard in his life and he deserves all his success. He was extremely ambitious and didn’t hit the big time until his late forties. He had his small salon orchestra for 20 years and just kept plugging away at it until he was picked up by Polygram. My first year with him was performing in small, 300-seat theaters around Holland and Belgium, but when I returned from London after a year’s postgraduate course at the Royal College of Music, I was suddenly singing to about 12,000 people. Women were ripping off their shirts running to the foot of the stage, asking him to sign their breasts, and we were constantly followed by TV crews. It was an amazing experience, but I wanted to be an opera singer singing proper operatic roles, not just the same arias five times a week. After two years on the road I became frustrated.
HT: Where did your opera take you and how did you get into cabaret? That’s an unusual transition.
MH: Yes, it’s an odd story. I’ve sung pretty much every lyric soprano role and have been to over 40 countries, the most memorable being the three-month C.A.M.I [Columbia Management Artists, Inc.] tour across the United States as Madame Butterfly, where I made life-long friends and survived a theater blackout during a blizzard in Boone, North Carolina. In 2005, I suffered a prolapsed disc in my neck, which left me in unspeakable pain for about three years. I could hardly move and I didn’t think I would ever go on stage again. My career and happiness were suddenly robbed whilst colleagues were performing at the Royal Opera House. I was very depressed, but I had to work, so I took a desk job for a Music Festival. Slowly, the pain dissipated and today I am virtually pain-free, mainly thanks to the support and love of my boyfriend, who quite literally turned my life around. Plenty of physio and pilates, as well as his penchant of lovely wine, certainly helped. He’s French — so I’m utterly spoiled.
HT: So why and how did you start to write your own material?
MH: I needed to be creative and to perform—without the long-haul flights and danger of flinging myself across a stage. I was still doing classical concerts and had a passion for Weimar cabaret, but wanted something more. I’m very opinionated with lots to say! I also like to make people laugh—always the classroom clown—so I think that side of me has never left. As far as writing our own material, I discovered that my accompanist Jeremy Limb was not only a fantastic pianist, but also a wonderful composer and comedian, so our future was right under my nose!
The first song we wrote was “Carbon Footprints in My Jimmy Choos,” about a woman who tries to recycle, but gets it very wrong and, actually, doesn’t give a damn. It’s loosely based on my mother—always a source of inspiration. In 2007 Kiss & Tell premiered with two performances at a London nightclub with journalist Petronella Wyatt as our special guest. We were a hit and booked for numerous events. We recorded Smoke and Noise in 2010, a CD of songs by the Jewish Weimar composer Mischa Spoliansky— with a few of our own added as a modern-day reply. It got fabulous reviews.
HT: There’s a resurgence of satirical cabaret at the moment, particularly in this political climate. What do you think is the future for cabaret?
MH: I admire people who write their own material. It’s not easy, its time-consuming, but it says more about the performer than any existing work. That’s why, out of the British acts, I admire people such as Fascinating Aida and Kit & Mc Connel. There are also new kids on the block, such as Bounder & Cad, who are ones to look out for—all writing clever and funny social satire. I‘m also a huge fan of Miss Hope Springs. I first saw her perform at the Edinburgh Fringe and was totally blown away by the originality, timing and comic pathos of her character. There’s always so much to learn by watching good performers and they inspire you.
HT: Do you see differences between cabaret in New York and in London?
MH: Absolutely! In New York, it tends to be more Broadway show tunes mixed in with jazz, sung by someone who has usually had a career on Broadway. In London, it’s more a mixed bag. Cabaret is and should be anything and it should move you. I wasn’t very impressed by the cabaret scene at the Edinburgh Fringe; too much sexual content, shock value and poorly written songs. Anyone can do that and I want to change the opinion that people go into cabaret because they can’t do anything else.
HT: What songs will we expect to hear in your January shows?
MH: We are writing a new song about Trump tweeting in the night, and have a hilarious song —“Britannia Waives the Rules” — about the differences between the Americans and the English. We lampoon the British aristocracy, and we’ve got a couple of songs from the Weimar period, including “Das Lila Lied,” considered to be the first gay anthem, which will gently segue into an interesting take of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Our second performance will take place on the 20th of January, the day of Trump’s inauguration, so I should imagine the atmosphere will be pretty heady. I performed to packed-out Zedel in London the evening he won the election. I felt as if we had been transported back to 1933. I imagine I’m playing to a pretty liberal crowd—New Yorkers who attend cabaret—so all we can do is laugh it off until it passes.
HT: Is there anything else new on the horizon for you?
MH: Well, actually, there is. It’s just been confirmed and I am very excited that I will be programming cabaret with a political edge for a new member’s room opening in January above the famous Arts Theatre in London’s theater land.
Melinda Hughes, with her sparkling operatic voice and clever satire, will begin 2017 by delighting the audience at the Metropolitan Room in New York City with much witty musical food for thought, laced with a liberal sprinkling of her unique humor. She will be appearing in Cheers Darling! on Wednesday, January 18 at 7pm and Friday, January 20 at 9:30pm. The Metropolitan Room is at 34 West 22nd Street, New York, NY, Phone 212.206.0440. www.metropolitanroom.com
December 13 at The Warehouse, Theed Street, London, with tenor Nicky Spence as part of the London Song Festival. March 14 & 15 at Live at Zedel, London