When mezzo soprano Carolyn Dobbin told her father she was leaving her pensionable job as an art teacher to head off and train as an opera singer, he said: "Oh for goodness sake, will you just settle down and get married?"
That was 20 years ago and sitting in her dressing room in the Abbey today, the prima donna laughs kindly. "I'm glad I went," she says. "It was a good decision."
A seasoned artist who has lived in Switzerland, Scotland, Wales and now London and worked with the finest companies, Dobbin (43) plays the witch in the new Abbey Theatre/Irish National Opera/ Theatre Lovett co-production of Hansel and Gretel, Engelbert Humperdinck's 1893 opera.
How does one become an opera singer? Reared in the "sleepy" town of Carrickfergus in Co Antrim, Dobbin took a scenic route. As a girl she sang in the church choir, as did both her parents, but there were no other clues to suggest she would go on to sing in opera houses.
When she left school, she went to art college at the University of Ulster. She was teaching art in a boarding school outside Belfast when Welsh National Opera brought Carmen to the Grand Opera House and she went along to see the show.
"I thought, my goodness, do people actually do this for a living?"
That was in 2000 and the production had such an effect on her, she went and found a singing teacher. This show changed her life, for real.
For her, she explains, it was watching the chorus dance in a wave-like motion - and it was the character of Carmen, the seductive and fearless gypsy girl who is punished in the end. "Carmen was a very strong female character. I liked that. In operas, there are not many opportunities to be a strong female character. Operas can be a little dated in their storylines."
Dobbin took a two-year sabbatical from teaching and moved to Glasgow to study in the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, where she found herself a few years behind her classmates. "I had to catch up with everybody else, I was very under pressure.
"I could barely read music, some languages I hadn't touched on. Italian was completely alien to me. I felt so green. It's been a slow old learning process."
She didn't disappoint her father, either, when she met and fell in love with her Glaswegian neighbour Stephen, and they got married. An executive director in finance and a bass player in a rock band, he is, she says, "the best thing that ever happened to me".
So she never did go back to teach art after that two-year sabbatical. "I had to make that phone call, even though there wasn't much in the diary at all for the first year or two. You've got to build up contacts, I didn't know this is how the whole thing works."
At the beginning, she says: "You flunk in auditions all the time. You take a lot of beating. You develop a thick skin."
Her career took off when Dobbin became Associate Artist with Welsh National Opera in 2010/11 and joined Opera Theatre Company's Young Artist Programme in Dublin, after which she moved to Switzerland to join a company where she could perfect her German. She beat out her own path, with a unique sideline to her repertory gifts, the Northern Irish Song Project. Perhaps a closet academic, Dobbin collects unpublished manuscripts of lost and forgotten ballads based around the places she grew up and records the material.
She made the first album Caleno-o with pianist Iain Burnside and for the second she has commissioned working composers to write song cycles from Northern Irish texts.
"So much bad stuff always comes out of the North so it's nice to do something that's very positive," she says. Exhaustingly, she also painted landscapes and portraits to accompany the launch and recital.
The voice gets bigger as you get older, this diva has been discovering. "As you get older, you have to change your repertoire a bit. The voice grows and you have to develop with that, stretch the voice to see what way it's going, how it can expand." She is taking 'baby steps' towards Wagner, towards singing bel canto, and "maybe some Verdi".
One of her early roles was the teenage boy Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, and she recently put on a suit to play Smeton in Anna Bolena. These days, however, she is moving away from the "trouser roles" familiar to all mezzo sopranos, and she's making a mark as something of a comic dame.
Villains are more fun to play she says. Her last role was in Mrs Peachum's Guide to Love and Marriage, an adaptation of The Beggar's Opera, noted by the critics for its "toxic femininity". "In that, I played a murderous villain who was very funny at the same time."
Her debut with Irish National Opera is a great moment in her career, she says. Theatre Lovett's vision for this opera, based on everybody's favourite Grimms Brothers fairy tale, sees Dobbin as a witch living in the bowels of the 'Forest Edge Hotel' where the children are lost. Cooking food in the 'Wickedly Rich' kitchen, she is a kind of "deranged Nigella Lawson," she explains.
"It's a happy ending, they actually burn me to death," she adds with an airy laugh.
Backstage, she wears her thick, dark hair piled on top of her head, double length falsies and a net skirt. This great physical presence is enhanced when she starts pulling faces: "I'm doing some serious contortion for this part," she laughs.
Dobbin shares this dressing room along with soprano Emma Nash (who plays the Sandman and the Dew Fairy), and shares a stage with the powerful Irish soprano Miriam Murphy, who plays Mother, and baritone Ben McAteer as Father; Amy Ní Fhearraigh as Gretel and Raphaela Mangan as Hansel.
This will be the first opera directed by Theatre Lovett, best known for their magical and often challenging children's shows. The arias will be sung in English in David Pountney's translation - a real treat.
"People who come to opera for the first time will be able to understand it, that won't be another barrier for them to get through," says Dobbin. "It's stunning, stunning music," she proclaims. "It's expansive and lush. Bits of it make me want to weep."
Does she have a pre-show routine? "I love to come in early. I always like to set everything up. Look at all this mess though," she says, casting a look at the room which has everything from a top hat to fishnet stockings to a double pack of Berocca. She picks up a bottle of Prosecco. She made her own Hansel and Gretel labels and gave one as a first night gift to each of the cast.
"I start warming up slowly. Physically the body first, and the breath. I then do some very strange voice exercises." She does not elaborate.
She will say that a glass of Prosecco would be a disaster during the run of a show. "If I have one glass of Prosecco, I get even chattier and laugh even more. The worst thing you can do to your voice is talk over a crowd at night."
A warning she will take with her to Longborough Festival Opera this April when she returns to perform Wagner. This, in the heart of the Cotswolds in England, and meanwhile her diary is filling up until 2023. Dobbin loves every minute of it, laughing: "I'll just keep going until my voice packs in."
'Hansel and Gretel' tours nationally until March 7; www.abbeytheatre.ie/whats-on/hansel-and-gretel/