MEETING mezzo soprano Victoria Simmonds before she puts on her costume, it's hard to believe that this tall, long-haired, attractive mother of two will soon be a mischievous young boy carved from a log. In Opera North's The Adventures of Pinocchio, Simmonds is dressed from head to foot in wood-effect clothing and make-up, with a nose that "magically" extends when she's economical with the truth. she She looks every inch the part.
"The nose goes on at the last minute," she says when we meet backstage at Leeds' Grand Theatre, "because it's not the most comfortable thing to wear for a long time. When I first put it on it took me a while to get used to, because it covers part of my face and as a singer that's quite unusual. But the costume and bodysuit really helps you get into character and lose yourself a bit more."
From the first moment Geppetto carves Pinocchio from the log to the poignant moment he becomes a real boy, Simmonds rarely leaves the stage in more than two and a half hours. "It's definitely the most full-on thing I've ever done in my life," she laughs.
"I really enjoy it I must say, but it's a workout and I had to make sure I was fairly fit before I started. There's lots of running and jumping, and I don't think every singer would be prepared to do it. But it makes me feel younger - I come off at the end totally invigorated and on a real high, and you can't say that about every show."
It's not dissimilar to how audiences at the show feel afterwards, too, because whether you're an opera buff or a newbie, there's no denying that Opera North has achieved something very special with this production. Composed by Jonathan Dove, with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton, The Adventures of Pinocchio is accessible without being dumbed down.
Aimed at family audiences, but equally enjoyable for adults at the theatre sans children, the opera is adventurous, witty and beautifully produced. Having successfully toured America and Europe, Opera North is now taking the show back on the road. This week it is being performed in Scotland for the first time, with a run at Edinburgh Festival Theatre from today until Saturday.
"It's a great way in to opera for anybody, not just children," says Simmonds. "Visually it's very entertaining and I think people who haven't been to an opera before may not realise that it can be as much fun and as entertaining as a West End musical. But with …Pinocchio you also get an amazing orchestra and really well trained opera singers, who are using their voices, not microphones."
A recent addition to the cast is Scotland's own Nicky Spence, who plays Pinocchio's long lost friend and fellow-puppet Arlecchino in the first half, and naughty schoolboy Lampwick in the second.He talks animatedly about the second role and it becomes clear it's a part Spence was born to play.
"I find it quite easy to play an impish, enthusiastic, excitable person because it's quite near to myself, so I just had to rewind a few years. It's just such a joy to do, and the costumes are brilliant. I wear donkey ears and a naughty little schoolboy's outfit where I have to get my knees out - but as a Scotsman I'm fine with that."
For many singers, performing alongside Katherine Jenkins and Placido Domingo, signing a major record deal and being nominated for a Classical Brit Award would be the pinnacle of achievement. But not for Spence. The talented young man known as "The Scottish Tenor" wanted more from his career, so headed back into training and recently emerged as an opera star in much demand.
"It was all great fun," recalls Spence, 27. "But it wasn't really floating my boat. And people kept saying I had so much potential, but I was never fulfilling it."
Periods spent studying at the Guildhall School of Music and the National Opera Studio (he calls it "a finishing school for opera singers"), have led to engagements across the UK and beyond.
"It was very important for me to have integrity and try to fulfil my potential," he says. "And I'm so lucky that I'm in work for the next two or three years already, because it's a very competitive world. I'm making my debut at most of the opera houses in the country over the next year and it's a lot more fulfilling, so I can now be absolutely proud of what I do."
It's all a far cry from his humble beginnings in Thornhill, just outside Dumfries. Money was thin on the ground, and to supplement the family income Spence worked in the local chip shop, practising his singing while he peeled potatoes down in the basement.
"Making lots of noise was always present," he says of his childhood, "and I originally wanted to be an actor so went to Scottish Youth Theatre and then did a few shows in the West End with National Youth Music Theatre. A Glaswegian singing teacher said my voice was really good but always thought I could do more, and encouraged me to have lessons with her."
Ten years and much training later, Spence is touring the UK in The Adventures of Pinocchio before joining Scottish Opera for Intermezzo next spring, then on to English National Opera.
"I'm very lucky in that I get to work with an amazing calibre of artist," he says, "especially here at Opera North, where there's a real nurturing family atmosphere. I'm the only new member of the …Pinocchio cast, so I had to hit the ground singing."
• The Adventures of Pinocchio is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, tonight until 30 October