Welsh National Opera singer Michael Clifton-Thompson faces a challenging costume drama at the Hippodrome. Diane Parkes reports.

When Welsh National Opera chorus member Michael Clifton-Thompson auditioned for the role of Parpignol in the company’s latest production of Puccini’s La bohème, he had no idea what he was letting himself in for.

Because the toy maker who appears onstage in the café scene in Act Two has taken on a new guise in Annabel Arden’s production – that of a man in a monkey suit.

So instead of cavorting around the stage in the typical coloured top hat and tails, Michael is shrouded from head to toe in a tightly fitted hairy body suit and mask.

Specially moulded to Michael’s form, it is a costume which took months to make and takes nearly an hour to assemble for each performance.

“It needs two people from the wigs department and takes about 30 to 45 minutes to get it on me because the mask has to be glued to your cheeks and round the eyes,” says Michael, who has been with the Cardiff-based opera company for 27 years.

“It is incredibly intricate and is a bit like the ones in the film The Planet of the Apes because it fits onto the face so that it moves with the face. It was difficult to make as it has to cover the face but also needs to have a certain density to ensure that the voice still carries round the auditorium.

“It’s like a fat suit with bits of foam on so I look about 20 stone heavier and it has hands and feet.

“The body suit and the masks are separate and between them they cover every bit of me apart from a small overlap at the neck.

“To a certain extent it was an unknown quantity because it had to look realistic, allow me to move around the stage and yet also allow me to sing.”

The suit was the result of a good deal of research by designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and maker Robert Allsopp earlier in the year. On top of the monkey body, the costume also features a check suit with silk fabric which Stephen discovered at the Fancy Silk Store based in Birmingham’s Bull Ring.

And the mask needed to fit exactly onto Michael’s face.

“I had to have a head cast made and that was actually quite challenging,” the singer admits. “I went into the studio at the beginning of the year and they covered my whole head, right down to my chest, in plaster of Paris. They covered the eyes and month – it was only my nostrils that were left clear. And then you are just sitting there, unable to move, while it dries. It was quiet and dark and had a really primeval feel to it.

“Then they cut it laterally, ear to ear, and it is completely moulded for your face. When you wear it, the latex is blended to your skin so when you remove it, they have to throw it away. They have to melt the glue to get it off so that ruins it.

“We have about 30 shows of La bohème and I think there are about 10 extras made for me with the option to re-order more if we need them as they wouldn’t fit anyone else.”

Once Michael is in costume it has its own challenges.

“It is so hot in there that I am perspiring all the time and there is a risk I could dehydrate so I drink about one-and-a-half litres of water for the part each night – through a very long straw. When I learned about the costume I was a bit surprised but then being part of the company is all about new challenges.”

And there is a clear concept underlying the transformation of Parpignol into a monkey role. The production, which premiered at the Wales Millennium Centre in June and returns to Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre next week, is set in 1913 pre-war Paris.

“The Parpignol character is based on a 19th century character who went around fetes and fairgrounds in a monkey costume,” explains Michael. “He was a real person and there is a picture of him dressed in this costume with a suit on top. He was a bit of a fairground freak and was followed around by lots of children.”

This intriguing character was the inspiration for the newly guised Parpignol – a transformation which critics have described as both ‘sinister’ and ‘charming’. “I think it is true that the character does have both of those sides,” admits Michael. “There is something a little sinister and dark about that character. But then when he is being jumped on by the children and is jumping around like a monkey he is quite amusing.”

A high tenor, Michael, who hails from Newport in south Wales, has performed in countless operas including Salome, Turandot, The Marriage of Figaro, The Merry Widow, Boris Godunov, Billy Budd, Fidelio, The House of the Dead and Elektra.

But he says Puccini is close to his heart.

“La bohème is based on such a powerful story and Puccini is very good at doing the emotion.

“This La bohème is very clever as it is set in the early 20th century but it makes use of some very modern technology so in some ways it looks traditional but the way it is projected isn’t. It uses images on a screen which really complement what is happening on stage. It is inspired.”

This autumn season sees WNO touring with La bohème, Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Handel’s Jephtha. “I like the variety of the WNO seasons,” says Michael. “You can be doing three different shows on three different nights.

“This season is really varied as we are doing Jephtha, which is a very energetic and with some very difficult singing. It is a powerful story. Then we have Così fan tutte which is the other end of the spectrum as it is very light. I go from La bohème where I am all covered up to Così where I get my legs out.

“But that is the beauty of opera – you never quite know what to expect.”

* WNO perform Jephtha on November 7, La bohème on Nov 8 and Nov 10 and Così fan tutte on Nov 9 at Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre. For tickets: 0844 338 5000 or visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com.