Fresh from his high-seas adventure this September in Billy Budd, tenor Robert Brubaker returns to the San Francisco Opera stage, starring this time as the cackling, Hitchcockian witch in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.

Brubaker may have begun his professional career at the New York City Opera as a baritone chorister, but when he left 17 years later, he was a leading tenor. He has since racked up a slate of high-profile roles, from the dashing Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème to the devil himself, Mephistopheles, in Busoni’s Doktor Faust.

Ahead of the American premiere of Antony McDonald’s Hansel and Gretel on November 15, Brubaker discusses his wide-ranging career — and the wicked fun of getting into character.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What’s the most fun you’ve ever had on stage?

ROBERT BRUBAKER: Actually, it wasn't in an opera. Way back as a young baritone, I once played Oliver Hix in The Music Man, and got to sing in the barbershop quartet. That was awesome!

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’ve played some really strange and diverse characters — a grisly Mime in Wagner’s Siegfried, a Karl Lagerfeld-esque Herod in Strauss’ Salome, a brooding Mao Tse-tung in John Adams’ Nixon in China. What draws you to your roles?

BRUBAKER: I've always enjoyed the acting side of performance as much, if not more, than the singing. I love taking on roles that are complex, quirky, and interesting. Many times, it was a casting director’s idea. After a time, I suppose, I became known for this type of big character role. 

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: In playing the Witch in Hansel and Gretel, you’re revisiting a role you’ve previously performed on the Metropolitan Opera stage. How do you get into the headspace of a kid-eating witch?

BRUBAKER: To be honest, it's simply my job as an actor: to take the script given to me and inhabit the character as honestly as I can. I don't spend time judging the characters I've been asked to play. I think about my characters from an "analytical" point of view outside the studio, but I have no problem leaving the role and the emotions of those characters in the studio and on the stage. 

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: As you know, the Witch can either be played by a mezzo-soprano or a tenor. How does that impact the way you see the character? And how do you push the comedy beyond the point where the audience is just laughing at a man in a dress?

BRUBAKER: Well, there again, if I'm doing my job well, the audience will see a Witch with a very strange voice and personality, and not a woman being played by a man. I don't approach it as cross-dressing, drag queen performance art, or anything like that. I don't parody femininity, or play for the joke unless the director asks for it. If the Witch is funny at times, it's only because of her bizarre penchant for seducing, fattening up, and eating children. And remember, this is a fairy tale, and the production may (or may not) call for "caricature." I need to be a good villain! (Possible backstory: she was probably a misfit in the community who was constantly teased and harassed by children so she ran off into the forest and devised a plan to get back at them!)

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: In your opinion, what keeps this particular fairy tale relevant, even to this day?

BRUBAKER: To this day, right now, millions of children experience poverty, starvation, fear of betrayal, fear of being abandoned by their parents. And just like Hansel and Gretel, these children often have to rely on their own intuitive instincts for survival. Children in the audience always cheer when Gretel pushes the horrible Witch into the oven!