Welsh National Opera's Graham Clark tells Terry Grimley about the trials and rewards of playing one of opera's most celebrated old hags.
If there is one artist you are unlikely to recognise at the stage door after seeing his performance at Birmingham Hippodrome this week, it is probably Graham Clark.
Singing the role of The Witch in Welsh National Opera's production of Hansel and Gretel demands such a heavy disguise that each performance requires nearly an hour's preparation from the make-up department.
"It takes about 50 minutes," he says. "Obviously there's a whole business, before I get to the dressing room, of prosthetics being made. They have to make a cast of my face, which takes quite a long time.
"There's a prosthetic for every performance, because it's stuck to my face with special glue and can only be used once. It only takes five or 10 minutes to take it off at the end of the show, but you have to be careful about tearing it off, particularly under your eyes.
"I did it in San Francisco, where the make-up was done by a chap who worked for the studios in Hollywood, but it was really no different to the way it's done in Cardiff. Everyone has different ideas about how to do these things but we end up with much the same picture each time."
Singing with that much stuff stuck around your jaws is something that requires a certain amount of getting used to.
"It does acoustically change the sound you can hear of yourself," explains Graham. "It's like wearing a large hat. If you wear a tricorn in a classical piece like Billy Budd it destroys the sound you're hearing."
But the laborious process of preparation does at least make it easier to get into character.
"You feel totally different when you put it on. As soon as you go on stage with the makeup and costume it clicks into a different dimension. I'm sure it's exactly the same in straight theatre."
Almost the only piece to have kept alive the name of Engelbert Humperdinck (the 19th century German composer that is, not the 20th century crooner who later borrowed it), Hansel and Gretel has never dropped out of the standard repertoire since its successful premiere in 1893.
"It's wonderful, it's got beautiful music," says Graham. "It's a horrible story in many ways - an old hag who murders and eats children and two children who end up burning her to death. But it's full of melody from start to finish. My scene is quite self-contained and it's very well written and very well focused."
It seems that many singers start off in other careers before deciding to make it their profession, but Graham Clark probably went further in that first profession than most. After being head of physical education at three schools he joined the Sports Council, ending up as a senior regonal officer.
"I was a chorister from the age of five or six, but singing was always a hobby," her explains. "I did several things before, but was never really interested in being a full-time singer.
"Every theatrical job is a risky prospect. I was born in the early part of the war and the idea in those days was you got a job with a pension at the end of it, so the idea of going into the theatre didn't fit. Iwanted to be a teacher and and enjoyed being a teacher.
"Then I was with the Sports Council at a very exciting time in the early part of the 1970s, just before local government reorganisation. There was a huge amount of building going on, with this idea that leisure was going to be the next big thing. Everyone was excited about three-day weeks and there was a tremendous buzz about it."
But then he went sing in the chorus at the Wexford Festival and was aked if he would like an agent. He said no, but when he was given an introduction to the conductor Richard Bonynge he felt that a path was being smoothed for him and decided to take the plunge. Starting at Scotish Opera in 1975 he became a principal at English National Opera from 1978 until 1985.
"I thought I would do two years and go back, but things happened quite quickly for me in the early days. It takes a while to find out what you are most comfortable doing. When I first started Iknew nothing much about opera and in the early days I did roles I wouldn't think of touching as I got older."
His career since then has taken him to the pinnacles of the opera world, with more than 100 performances at the the Bayreuth Festival and 14 seasons with Metropolitan Opera in New York among roles with many other companies.
But there is one link he identifies which connects his careers in the arts and sport.
"I was always a team games player," he poinrts out. "I like the teamwork of opera. I've never been interested in doing lieder recitals and solo stuff like that.
"The whole business of opera is such that you can't do it without the the stage crew, the costume makers, the set designer or the orchestra, and every production is different. Every time you go to a different opera company the whole situation is different - a new city, new colleagues, new climate.
"That's what makes it exciting. It's also a massive privilege to be able to do this. My enjoyment is not what I have done but the fact I have worked with some extremely talented people."
* Welsh National Opera performs Hansel and Gretel at the Birmingham Hippodrome on Friday at 7.15pm (Box office: 0844 338 5000).