Rob Clark as the Witch in "Hansel & Gretel." // Madison Kerr

Edmonton anthem singer gets villainous in Hansel & Gretel

Rob Clark is playing the Witch in the Edmonton Opera production

Hansel & Gretel
Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium; Sung in English with projected lyrics; Sat., Feb. 2, Tue., Feb. 5, and Fri., Feb. 8

Oilers fans who caught the singing of the anthem during the Jan. 10 home game—or who have seen anthem singer Rob Clark at work since—may have noticed something missing. At the beginning of January, the local tenor shaved off his beard for his part in Edmonton Opera’s latest production, Hansel & Gretel.

Clark plays the part of the Witch, which has traditionally been played by mezzo-sopranos or tenors, and needs smooth cheeks to accommodate the character’s makeup.

“Fans are still surprised. I still get messages … people calling for ‘bring the beard back’ and then other people saying ‘I like you without the beard,’” he says. “But it’s just facial hair; it will grow back eventually.”

Clark has been performing with the Edmonton Opera since 2011, when he appeared in the children’s show The Barber of Barrhead. Before that, he was part of Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artist Development Program for two years, and Clark says Calgary’s production of Moby Dick—which was a fairly new opera at the time—has been his favourite opera to perform in so far.

“The reason it was the most fun was … the music was gorgeous, but the set was incredible for that show,” he says. “It was all on a big, giant rake [inclined deck of a ship], and so it was sloped almost straight up and down at one point—because what they did is they projected ships, the wailing boats, onto the actual screen … and whenever they crashed, they’d splinter, and then we’d have to jump off of these rungs we were sort of holding onto and slide down this rake. It was the most terrifying/fun thing I’ve ever done.”

Hansel (Andrea Hill) and Gretel (Lida Szkwarek) explore the Witch’s house. // Madison Kerr

While Hansel & Gretel’s set may not include crashing ships at sea, both the family cottage and the Witch’s house look great so far. The costume department has also been busy creating gorgeous pieces, including those that will be worn by the magical beings the children meet in the woods.

Clark says one of the fun things about Hansel & Gretel is that it doesn’t need to be set in a specific time “because it’s a fairytale.” There’s plenty of room for scenery designer Camellia Koo and costume designer Deanna Finnman to create something unique. Clark says the stage direction is also pretty open to interpretation.

“In terms of the score itself, I don’t think there’s an actual opera where everything must be exactly as is, and I think … that’s one of the beauties of live theatre is you can kind of do whatever you want,” he says.

Clark wasn’t always so enthusiastic about opera, though he loved classical music growing up. He enrolled in university to become a high school teacher, but majored in music and auditioned for voice. His voice teacher specialized in opera and introduced him to the music.

“Initially I’m just like ‘Ugh, this all sounds the same, and I don’t understand anybody—like I have no idea what they’re saying because it’s always in a different language’—but I also enjoyed acting a lot,” he says.

With opera Clark was able to combine his passions for acting and classical music and he performed in his first opera, The Magic Flute, at the University of Alberta. He says it was then that he really started to love opera.

“I was a very small role in that … and there were times where I could just watch the other singers sing while I heard the orchestra play, and … I don’t know if it was one specific moment, but I do remember a time where I could sit up … in the organ [at Convocation Hall]—because you can’t see anybody up there and there’s slits in the organ that you can just kind of look through—and I would just sit and watch the opera from up there,” Clark says.

The Sandman (Aidan Ferguson) is one of the magical beings Hansel and Gretel encounter in the forest. // Madison Kerr

He wound up completing a Bachelor of Music degree at the U of A, and also completed a Master of Music in Literature and Performance at the University of Ontario. He’s performed in numerous operas and, of course, was invited to sing the anthem for the Oilers in 2013.

Clark says there’s very little overlap between fans of the Edmonton Opera and the Oilers, but he is expecting some diehard fans to attend Hansel & Gretel.

“I’m part of a group on Facebook called the Edmonton Oilers Diehards … and they know that I’m doing this role with Hansel & Gretel, and I’d wager 95 percent of them have never been to an opera … but a bunch of them are going to be coming throughout the run of the show.”

Fans may not recognize Clark by the time the curtain rises. He says that based on a trial run, it takes about two hours to apply the Witch’s makeup and get into costume—but the result is worth it.

Clark says his favourite part of this production is playing the villain.

“I’m just this larger than life, kind of grotesque figure [and] it’s just so much fun. There’s so much depth to it, so much character that I can put into it,” he says.

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