May McFettridge on song for opera debut in Die Fledermaus

May McFettridge, AKA John Linehan, talks frocks, singing and "staggering about the place" with Gail Bell, ahead of her hotly anticipated opera debut in Die Fledermaus at Belfast's Grand Opera House

Ben McAteer, May McFettridge, Maria McGrann and Stephan Loge in a scene from Die Fledermaus

WHEN word got out that May McFettridge was making her opera debut in Belfast, it took something of a leap of faith to imagine Belfast's outrageous panto dame shattering windows with a secretive high 'C' plucked from a hitherto unknown coloratura range.

After 30 years performing farce in grandiose gowns, was the perennially blue-lidded McFettridge really going to become an opera diva overnight and launch a serious new singing career with Northern Ireland Opera?

Certainly, advance notice of her role in Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss – opening in the Grand Opera House in September – seemed sincere and prompted effusive praise from its new artistic director, Walter Sutcliffe, who described his latest discovery as "remarkable", even comparing her voice to Pavrotti's turn on the same stage back in 1963.

But, just as we were on the verge of suspending disbelief, the truth finally dawned – Sutcliffe was having a laugh and so was McFettridge AKA John Linehan, who, while indeed starring in her first real opera, has been banned from actually singing in it.

She plays comedic character Frosch the jailer and, although rehearsals haven't started yet, a warning has been issued against trying to join in when the time comes.

"Obviously, it's not a big part and there's no singing; they don't like it when you join in – in the singing, I mean," opines Linehan, in the unladylike, un-operatic gruff tones we all know and love.

"I have to let the singers do their bit and I do mine. I think wherever Die Fledermaus is playing in the world, they ask a local comic to be the drunken jailer."

So, it's not a dramatic career change, then? More cackles down the line. "What, the drunken thing?"

Enjoying the farce that is Die Fledermaus are, from left, May McFettridge, Stephan Loges, Ben McAteer and Maria McGrann

This year marks the 145th anniversary of the premiere of Die Fledermaus which was first been performed in Vienna in 1874 and the popular operetta is still considered the jewel in the crown of the 'King of the Waltz', composer, Johann Strauss, by opera aficionados.

A farce with wicked humour, the tunes stay with you forever, says Sutcliffe, a graduate of the University of Cambridge and the Royal College of Music in London who has directed over 35 critically-acclaimed productions in the UK, US, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Italy, France, Estonia, and most recently, Chile.

"The Bat – in German, 'Die Fledermaus' – is the world’s best and most popular operetta. If you love pure, luxurious, feel-good music, there is little more uplifting and indulgent than its incredible array of Viennese waltzes that sparkle even more than the champagne which powers its characters.

"And, it’s simply a brilliant comedy; a comedy of male paranoia, bringing out the absurdity of man’s egomania and obsessions with sexual potency, conquests and status. A masterclass of irony, it simultaneously seduces and ridicules us. It may be 145 years old, but its relevance today is probably even clearer than when it was written.

May McFettridge in uncharacteristic jailer outfit

While McFettridge – who will celebrate her 30th panto at the Grand Opera House later this year – is relishing her character's main job of "staggering around the place, shouting at people", the real opera singing comes courtesy of Northern Irish baritone Ben McAteer (Eisenstein), County Down soprano Maria McGrann (Adele) and Dresden-born Stephan Loges (Falke), who will perform alongside a hugely talented NI Opera cast.

Joking aside, Linehan is genuinely looking forward to performing in this, his first opera, regardless of the fact he has never been to one before and even considered them a bit high-brow for a "wee lad from north Belfast" – especially when sung in Italian.

"I've never, ever seen an opera, just bits and pieces on television, but I always found them very interesting," he reflects.

"I like any form of entertainment, really, including ballet, where I would follow the story through the movement of the dance and the music.

"But, I think there's more chance of me beating Boris Johnston to become Prime Minister than becoming a classically trained opera singer. Really, I love an auld sing-song, Irish songs, like Carrickfergus or Belfast by Barnbrack – that's more my type of party piece – although I will always be happy to say I shared a stage with Pavarotti.

"The only thing that's annoying me is the jailer's outfit which looks quite demure in comparison to my usual McFettridge frocks. I think I need to jazz it up a bit – and maybe add a bit more blue eye shadow as well."

:: There will be a charity gala performance of Die Fledermaus on Sunday September 15 in aid of the Welcome Organisation with general performances running from September 17 to 21. Book online via

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