Operatic actor Andrew Shore successfully blurs the line between comedy and tragedy. Edward Seckerson reports on his latest tour de force.
Andrew Shore will tell you he's "not so good at real life". And in the few seconds it takes to reconcile his many stage personae to their benefactor, you are inclined to believe him. The man you meet is friendly, courteous and accommodating, characterised by an innately north-country solidness. He comes well-prepared; well-organised. Within moments of shaking your hand, he has handed you a statement of account. You hesitate, half- expecting to be casting your eye over the terms of a private pension plan. He'd make an excellent financial advisor, you're thinking. Because you're thinking like a casting director: bank manager, accountant, local government official, gentleman farmer you're thinking. But think like an actor, use your imagination. Make believe. It's been Andrew Shore's refuge since he was a little boy. He's well practised at burrowing into characters in every particular detail. "Performing," he says, "is so much safer than real life. Because, in a sense, it doesn't really matter what you do: you're free to be whoever you want, do whatever you want. You're not yourself anymore." Meaning you can run and hide. Meaning the other fellow - the one you currently inhabit - is responsible. If the part fits, says Shore, then wear it. All his parts are bespoke.

So Andrew Shore is an actor; a damn fine actor. But he sings, too. No, he does more than just sing: he's an accomplished bass-baritone. He sings opera. Which begs the question: what do we call him? Tough one. "Opera Singer" (and he himself is not entirely comfortable being thus labelled) carries with it all kinds of unfortunate connotations, most of them originating from the good old bad old days when singing and acting were more often than not separate events; when the singing came first and the "business" of acting was added later like a false nose. But to call Shore "a singing actor" doesn't quite do it, either. It implies that the business of singing is somehow secondary, that Shore doesn't take it seriously, which he most certainly does. He long ago resolved to sing every role he played - even the operatic "oldies", the comic character or buffo roles (for which he is now so much in demand) - as well as he possibly could. But still, it's a fact that audiences, absorbed, amused, stirred, moved by his living, breathing characterisations, don't realise how good his singing is. Actually, it's a compliment of sorts. Music-theatre - contrary to some long-held beliefs in operatic circles - is precisely what it says it is: a potent amalgam of equal parts music and theatre. We'd sure as hell notice if Andrew Shore didn't sing well, however funny or moving he managed to be.

In the beginning, music and drama were hobbies. Growing up in Oldham, nobody - least of all Shore - thought of them as "proper jobs". Coming from a "churchy" family, he went to Bristol University to read theology. But he was too busy singing and acting to do more than scrape a degree. It was time to get serious. A mistake. He was never going to thrive in the dry academia of the Royal Northern College of Music; his singing was going nowhere. An instinctive performer, he needed to "do" in order to develop. Two years touring with Opera for All - props, stage manager, the occasional bit part - made all the difference. Next stop: Kent Opera, where he strode confidently from chorus to company principal.

The statement of account he handed me a few minutes ago turned out not to be a private pension plan but a resume headed "Roles undertaken since June 1986". So completely (and unrecognisably) has he metamorphosed from one to the other, the public has barely had time to acquaint themselves with the man behind the masks. But that's as much to do with the fact Shore's characterisations are so much more than a set of disguises. A character like Papageno (The Magic Flute) dominates the stage not just because he is larger than life, but because he is - in Shore's realisation of him - a man of passion. Flesh and blood. Why should we sympathise with Donizetti's scheming, manipulative, misogynistic Don Pasquale? Because in company he may be thoroughly objectionable, but on his own, you glimpse - or should glimpse - the loneliness. Shore believes comedy is a serious business; that a character like Dr Bartolo in The Barber of Seville (very much his signature role: he's played it more than any other) is all the funnier for being painfully real.

He cites the late Arthur Lowe, whose Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army became a kind of blueprint for Bartolo. "Here's a man desperately trying to assert his authority while it slowly but surely slips away from him. That's only funny if you can believe he really is engaged in defending his dignity. There has to be a deeper truth in comedy. You know when you see these buffo roles routinely done, and you recognise the `comic business' for what it is, but it doesn't make you laugh? Well, that's what I'm talking about. The difference between cod funny and genuinely funny."

And as in comedy, so in tragedy. It's a finer dividing line than we know. Why should anyone have been surprised when Shore triumphed in two of the great tragic roles of 20th century opera: Berg's Wozzeck and Tippett's King Priam (both for Opera North)? He applied the same basic principle: truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Actors like Shore are very bad liars.

Wozzeck was directed by Deborah Warner, whom Shore extols for her honesty, still more for her ability to come to a piece without too many preconceptions. He can relate to that. Warner played Wozzeck continuously (no interval) like the storyboard of a movie fast-forwarded. After Wozzeck murders Marie, the body remains where it falls while the action moves on around it. The only character aware of its presence, the only character to smell blood, is the fool. Shore thought that a stroke of genius (he wasn't alone). But all Warner did (as Shore quickly points out) was take the moment as she found it and carry it forward. No subterfuge, no half-baked "conceptualising". Shore likes that. He's a practical, old-fashioned craftsman, arriving at rehearsal with his characters fully understood and at least partly formed. With a role he's played many times before, he'll resist pressure to "wipe the slate clean", but rather try to build on what he has previously discovered. Good directors will use that. And bad? Well, he quotes Ralph Richardson, who always gave new directors at least five minutes to prove themselves before "taking matters into his own hands..."

Because ultimately the real magic of theatre exists only in the moment of doing. Shore knows when he's unlocked something in an audience: the feedback is instant. When he makes his entrance as Gianni Schicchi in English National Opera's new production of Puccini's Il Trittico, he is headed straight down to the footlights. With his very first line, the audience is in "in cahoots" with this loveable rogue. Count on it. His "talent to amuse" is almost as great as his need. It comes as no surprise to learn that he has a burning desire to play pantomime dame. A far cry indeed from Scarpia (Tosca), Rigoletto, or Beckmesser (Die Meistersinger), three of the roles most likely to break the stranglehold that the blundering buffo buffers currently have on his growing international reputation. Another might be to accept an invitation from Trevor Nunn (and this is not a fiction) to leave his singing voice at the Coliseum temporarily and work at the National Theatre.

Which brings us to one of his crazier ideas. Laurence Olivier once famously played a double-bill of Oedipus Rex and Mr Puff in Sheridan's The Critic. Shore wonders if he might also do the same with Wozzeck and Gianni Schicchi. And he's completely serious. Well, he is and he isn't. Like I said, it's a fine line.

`Il Trittico', English National Opera, The Coliseum. Performance tomorrow night, 6.30pm. Box office, 0171 379 1264.