ED2016 Children's Shows ED2016 Interviews ED2016 Music ED2016 Week3 Edition

Melanie Gall: Come meet the Opera Mouse

By | Published on Tuesday 23 August 2016

Melanie Gall

Internationally-acclaimed vocalist Melanie Gall has two shows at the Fringe this year, though in one she shares the stage with an ambitious mouse and a diva of an ostrich.
Children’s show ‘Opera Mouse’ aims to introduce its young audience to classical music while keeping them very much entertained. We caught up with Melanie to find out more about the show, and her many other musical projects.

CM: Let’s start at the start, tell us a little about ‘Opera Mouse’?
MG: In Opera Mouse I share the stage with two mouse puppets, Tommy and Tilly, and Odille, a stuffed ostrich – who is a bit of a diva, if you ask me! The story is about a young mouse named Tilly who dreams about being an opera singer. And even though she is told again and again that a mouse can’t sing, she keeps trying and keeps practicing until she succeeds.

CM: What inspired the story? What gave you the idea?
MG: Well, as far as inspiration, the story isn’t that far from my own musical journey. I mean, I’m not a mouse  – or an ostrich for that matter! – but throughout my musical education I was told again and again that it was almost impossible to build a career singing classical music. And I, too, kept trying until I succeeded.

I had the idea for the show back in 2011 at the Vancouver Fringe. My venue was beside a puppet store, and in a judgement lapse brought on by Fringe exhaustion, I vowed to another performer that if I sold out my run, I would invest in a mouse puppet. Because, as I apparently said, “Every girl needs a mouse puppet”!

And then, once I had the puppet, it somehow just seemed to be the next logical step to write an opera-themed show and devote a large part of my career to performing for children…

CM: Our reviewer felt that this would be a great introduction to opera for small children – is it your aim to open minds to classical music or is the motive purely to entertain?
MG: For me, making classical music accessible to children is key to ensuring that the genre isn’t lost. In so many schools, musical education is not a focus. And even when children are exposed to classical music, it is often presented as something that is prohibitively difficult to accomplish, and that they should merely observe as a passive audience member.

However, just over a century ago, opera arias were not only presented onstage, but they were also sung in the street as popular music. Children whistled themes from orchestras. And if classical music is presented as something both entertaining and accessible from the outset, both future musicians and future audiences will be fostered from a young age.

CM: What’s it like playing to audiences of children? How does it differ from performing for adults?
MG: Playing to audiences of children can be the most frustrating and the most rewarding onstage experience ever. Sometimes both, at the same time. Kids will freely express their emotions: If they love what they’re seeing, you know. If they hate it, you also know. Adaptability is key, because no two performances are ever exactly the same.

The other day, a small child in the front row slowly and methodically ate her programme without taking her eyes off the puppets. Earlier in the week, a toddler climbed onto the stage, calmly collected the puppets, and took them back to her seat. This morning, a toddler joyfully shrieked along whenever I sang a high note!

Often kids won’t want to participate. Often kids will try to hijack the show by participating too much. So a good children’s performer will make the audience feel valued and necessary, while subtly adapting the show to match each situation.

CM: The show seems pretty well travelled and has been to a number of festivals. Was the show developed with festivals in mind? Do you adapt it according to where you are performing?
MG: Yes, the show was initially developed with festivals – and theatres –  in mind. However, it has expanded to a number of different and unexpected locations, from schools to orphanages to large-scale private events.

The story is always the same, however the manner of telling it is absolutely adapted for each location. In Sudan, I performed ‘Opera Mouse’ entirely in French. In rural Morocco, I spoke a line and a translator repeated it in Arabic.

I have performed it to children who had never heard a woman sing before. I have performed to children who have never seen theatre before. Each location and situation has its own challenges and its own rewards.

CM: You have a ‘grown up’ show on at the Fringe as well, don’t you? Tell us about that.
MG: Yes! My ‘grown up’ show is a cabaret/concert of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel music. I tell stories about their lives and songs, sing as many of Piaf and Brel’s hits as I can fit into 50 minutes, and even teach the audience one of Piaf’s most famous songs and lead the entire theatre in a singalong.

Of all the shows I’ve performed, this is hands-down my favourite. So many people come in already loving the songs, and often they start cheering before the singing even begins. The music is absolutely fantastic, and I adore singing in French.

CM: Presumably you are pretty inspired by Piaf and Brel? Have they, or anyone else, influenced you in your career?
MG: Both Piaf and Brel have absolutely inspired my career. Not just through their singing, but through their influence on French popular music.

However, another major influence in my life and career is Sophie Tucker. Sophie was a Vaudevillian singer whose career spanned over five decades. She was smart, funny, resourceful and was not afraid to take artistic risks.

Sophie’s career withstood the death of vaudeville, two world wars, early recorded sound, radio, television… she was an institution for half a century. And she worked so, so hard throughout. Sophie’s drive and creative way of approaching her career is constantly inspiring to me.

CM: You must have known from an early age that you were capable of having a career in music, though you mentioned how often people pointed out the challenges involved in having success in that industry. Were you ever in any doubt that you would pursue a musical career?
MG: This may sound a bit funny, but in our family there has been one person in each generation who inherited ‘the family voice’. My great-grandfather was a cantor in Poland. My grandfather headed a big band in Toronto. My mother is a soloist and music leader at her synagogue.
And, well, there’s me. I could sing before I could talk, and there was never any doubt that I had ‘the family voice’ and that I would therefore have a career in music.

CM: How did that career first get going?
MG: When I was six years old, I entered a school singing competition… and won. Seven years old, same thing. And on and on, throughout primary school. I went on to sing in the Edmonton Opera chorus, took several advanced degrees in opera performance, and moved from northern Canada to New York City. Once there, I attended opera school for several more years, and also attended training programmes for young singers in Israel and Italy run by the staff at the Metropolitan Opera. Then I started auditioning and was offered roles at both the Lincoln Centre and Carnegie Hall.

CM: What have been your career highlights?
MG: Well, Carnegie Hall was amazing. Every dressing room had a Steinway piano – which we were unfortunately not allowed to take as a souvenir! And the Lincoln Centre too… I mean, it’s any opera singer’s dream!

But for me, a lot of career highlights have been smaller performances in unusual locations. This year, I performed the Piaf And Brel show in an outdoor amphitheatre in Brunei Darussalam. In March, I performed ‘Opera Mouse’ in Khartoum, Sudan. The year before, the show was mounted in a shopping mall in Algiers, Algeria.

I love doing outreach, and taking the shows to orphanages around Morocco was also incredibly special.

CM: As someone with an irresponsibly large yarn stash, I couldn’t help noticing on reading your biog that there seems to be a bit of a knitting theme going on – can you tell us a bit about this?
MG: You caught me out! Yes, I’m a knitter. I caught the bug from my little sister, and my knitting-related activities range from hosting a bi-weekly podcast – The Savvy Girls Podcast – to singing historic knitting songs, to penning a book about wartime knitting culture. And yes, I too have an irresponsibly large yarn stash. I mean, who doesn’t stuff yarn in every available crevice in their flat?

CM: You’ve recorded a few albums. Tell us about those.
MG: Well, I’ve recorded a commercial album of Piaf songs called ‘La Vie En Rose’ and also an album of Hebrew songs titled ‘Min HaLev’, which included several tunes written by my grandfather.

However, my two newest albums – ‘Knitting All The Day’ and ‘Sweeter In A Sweater’ – are dedicated to lost WWI and WWII knitting songs. This music is from Canada, the UK, France and the USA. They were written to inspire patriotic knitting during the two world wars, and most of the songs were completely lost at the wars’ ends.

These songs are delightful. They range in genre and quality, however each one tells a personal story – through both the lyrics and music – of what it was like to be a knitter, waiting and working and striving during the wars.

CM: You’re pretty well travelled. How do you enjoy being in Edinburgh for the Fringe? What do you like about it?
MG: I LOVE this festival. Yes, I’m so exhausted that sometimes I look at the hill leading up the Mile and I want to weep. But hey, that’s what coffee is for, right? I am delighted with my venue, with the audience response to both of my shows, and to the creative and collaborative community between artists and presenters. Also cake. Edinburgh has some incredible cake.

CM: So what’s next for you? And can we expect you back in the Scottish capital next year…?
MG: What’s next for me? Well, after this Festival I’m heading to a run at the Vancouver Fringe. Then a bit of a rest before the fall touring starts… I have already received several offers from presenters at this Festival, so I will be back in the UK in the spring for a performance tour.

It’s early days, but I’m already thinking about what I could perform here next year… There’s a Sophie Tucker cabaret that was written for me, which may go over quite well, and then I do have a cabaret of the wartime knitting songs. And a children’s Jazz show, ‘Jazz Cat’. Or perhaps an encore of ‘Piaf And Brel: The Impossible Concert’.

The Edinburgh Fringe is as addictive as Crabbe’s Ginger Beer. I honestly don’t think I could stay away for long!

‘Opera Mouse’ and ‘Piaf And Brel: The Impossible Concert’ were performed at theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall at Edinburgh Festival 2016.

Photo by David P Scott