“I’m always excited to come back to Mozart, he’s excellent for the voice.” Erwin Schrott has sung Figaro, Leporello and Don Giovanni at The Royal Opera, returning as the libidinous Don as the new season opens. The smouldering bass-baritone revels as the “bad boy”, with a trio of Mephistophelean roles, Scarpia and the Hoffmann villains in his locker, and his larger-than-life personality leaps across the footlights, making him a house favourite. During rehearsals, we meet to discuss how the role can be played, why he breaks the fourth wall and his relish for playing the devil.

Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni)
© ROH | Mark Douet

Last time he played Don Giovanni at Covent Garden, Schrott starred in Francesca Zambello's production, where the Don met his doom in a furnace of flames so fierce that the heat could be felt from the Amphitheatre. This time, he makes his debut in Kasper Holten's staging, which is somewhat different. “Well, there is no fire in this one for a start! You have no idea how hot that was!” he exclaims. “It was super safe because of the stage managers, but it was still hot. The productions differ completely, both visually and conceptually, with many interactions that happen differently. In the quartet here, for example, Don Giovanni sings to Zerlina, who is overhearing, even though she isn’t in this quartet. But it makes sense.” It's early days in rehearsals and Schrott deliberately hasn't watched the DVD, but he's aware that Holten’s production is very psychological. At the end, what is hell for Don Giovanni? Flames? Damnation? No, hell is to be alone, isolated. “Hell is in his head, in his own thoughts.”

Is Don Giovanni, I muse, the embodiment of the devil or is he a Casanova figure? “If you are going to set him as an evil character, with a connection to the dark side, I would portray him as someone who is seeking that final encounter, hoping that one day he has the chance to challenge this highest power as an equal. But if we present Don Giovanni as a Casanova – a gentiluomo – and emphasise the seducer, then every situation, every single interaction that Mozart and Da Ponte write makes more sense. You cannot divorce the drama from Mozart’s gorgeous music. In that last scene, before his death, there is a minimal amount of “devilish” music. If Mozart had wanted to portray Don Giovanni in that way, he’d have given us a diavolo in musica.”

Erwin Schrott as Don Giovanni in Francesca Zambello's production
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore (2012)

Don Giovanni is a pertinent character for the #metoo era. “But, this is not the first social revolution we are going through,” Schrott points out. “Le nozze di Figaro is about a massive social revolution – a challenge to royalty, nobility, political institutions – and how the whole of society lived through such changes. This is exactly what is going on today. I believe that humankind is in continuous evolution, in continuous development. This social revolution of the 1780s was very well documented in art. What Mozart and Da Ponte did in Figaro is like being in front of an historical encyclopaedia but with a human aspect.”

As well as the Don, Schrott also sings his servant, Leporello. “Vocally,” he explains, “they are both comfortable. Leporello is much easier, as the role basically lies a third lower. I had so much fun as Leporello, but I have fun with Don Giovanni too because I am laughing internally all the time about the crazy things that he is saying – the nonsense, continually mocking others whilst playing serious. The fact you get to behave in a way you would never dare to in real life just makes me laugh because it’s so ridiculous. I try always to keep Don Giovanni playful because he refuses to take anything seriously. Everything is a game to him, a stage.”

That playfulness has always been evident. In Zambello's production, Schrott would happily interact with the audience. “I still do,” he grins. “I always do – if the director allows it. We all know who Don Giovanni is, what Don Giovanni is made of, so he can break this sacred fourth wall that exists between the singers and the audience. Don Giovanni can makes this transgression; Mephistopheles never should because he has the power to do it, so with Mephistopheles I will never dare to have this complicity with the audience. But Don Giovanni is the only character in opera that has the right to break – momentarily – this magical, electronic force field. He dares to go against anything and anyone; all restrictions become like meringue before his eyes!”

Is Don Giovanni the ultimate “bad boy”? “Yes, but I find him a lonely character as well. His life is so superficial. There is no depth in any of his statements or ideas. There is no philosophy to his life.” Don Giovanni exists, I suggest, merely in Leporello's ledger of his conquests. “That is the sum of his achievements,” Schrott agrees. It's worth remembering that during the course of Mozart's opera, Leporello isn't required to add to the Don's tally.

Erwin Schrott
© Dario Acosta

Schrott revels playing wicked characters. He sings Mephistopheles in three great works: Gounod's Faust, Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust and Boito's Mefistofele. “The devil gets the best tunes!” he laughs, explaining that this familiar line is used in the voiceover of his new show Tango diablo, which he premiered this year at the Bayerisches Staatsoper. “I did all the opera arias with tango instruments for accompaniment. Did you know, the bandoneon was used in church as well? It was usually because of a lack of space and money, where it was too expensive to buy an organ. Germans say the bandoneon is Deutsch not Argentinian!” The show was evidently a hit, encouraging newcomers to the operatic art form. “This makes me extremely happy,” Schrott purrs. “If we don’t work together to keep our lovely Lady Opera healthy, it would be a big loss for our society, for our culture, for our children.”

Recently, Schrott has starred in productions of Boito's Mefistofele in Munich and Baden Baden and it's clearly an opera he loves. “It’s not often producers take up the challenge but I often present the arias in concert.” And as the devil, does he do his own whistling (a feature of the role)? Schrott gives an impish smile and nods. “I’ve had people come up to me as I come off stage and whisper ‘You know, you shouldn’t whistle on the stage’ and I tell them, ‘It’s not me, it’s Mephistopheles!’ I think it’s supposed to be disrespectful… which is just right for the devil!”

Schrott clearly enjoys playing to the gallery, especially in wackier productions. Who can forget his dramatic Act 5 appearance in Stefan Herheim's staging of Les Vêpres siciliennes, when Procida gatecrashes the wedding celebrations dressed in a sparkly black ballgown, wielding a flagpole whose fleurs-de-lys tip he uses to stab the French aristocrats? “Like a peacock singing a high G!” he guffaws, “the craziest thing ever. This character is a hero, a revolutionary leader… and he appears as a drag! ‘Hello everybody, we are going to kill all the frickin’ French people!’ I f***ing believe you! I mean look at you, dressed in your gown, your chest tattooed, talking to us with the deepest voice you can imagine, telling us to kill the French. I’m in!! I’ll do anything. It’s going to be fun!” His roar of laughter fills the room. “But seriously,” he adds, “the great thing for me about Stefan is that he knows the music. He understands what he is doing. To create a character with him is great fun – he is so obsessed, so brilliant.”

Bryan Hymel, Malin Bystrom and Erwin Schrott in Les Vêpres siciliennes
© ROH | Bill Cooper (2017)

Looking ahead, Schrott is planning to add another Verdi role to his gallery: Philip II in Don Carlos. And then he is flirting – “ well, not just flirting but having an affair” – with Wagner. His career, he explains, has been mapped along “a very simple structure: Mozart, bel canto, adding Verdi roles, but always coming back to Mozart. And now I’m adding all the Verdi that I’d like to sing to the high standard that I set for myself. Then, if the voice is still in shape and not extremely wobbly, Wagner.” It's early days, but Wotan, the Dutchman and Hans Sachs are on his list.

“I structured my career many years ago. I did a lot of comprimario roles at the start of my career because that would give me the time to grow up, to mature the voice, to learn more about technique. When I started my international career, I already had a daughter. I was 24 years old so, as a young father I needed time. I sang things like Colline, Timur, Banquo; they are not the main characters but I learnt at a young age the word “cameo” – I learnt it here in Britain.

He leans forward and confides, “There are no small roles – there are only small artists! I heard this many years ago. It was my teacher who said it. I was 18 or 19 and a colleague of mine – a soprano – was complaining. She wanted to sing Violetta, Giovanna d’Arco etc and my teacher told her she was too young and needed to go towards the “-ina” roles: Norina, Adina, Despina. “No, but these are too small!” she complained. And I remember my teacher protesting, “There are no small roles, but small artists!” There was a massive silence in the room. This was a lesson for everyone, not just her.”

Erwin Schrott
© Dario Acosta

Bass-baritone is an interesting voice category. I ask Schrott if he considers himself more bass than baritone. “You know I really have no clue. It’s not that I care much either. When I started, my teacher told me I was crazy for wanting to sing some things that were for bass, others that were for baritone, so I would point to the score and said ‘This says written for baritone. It does not say written for baritone, basses stay away!’ If it feels comfortable and I can interpret the character, I tend not to mind whether it says bass or baritone.” I point out that a lots of great basses, like Cesare Siepi and Nicolai Ghiaurov, sang Don Giovanni and Schrott agrees.

But if he woke up one day and discovered that he was no longer bass nor baritone, but tenor... which role would he sing? “There is so much wonderful music for tenors,” he starts, before his eyes suddenly light up. “But if I had to change my voice for something it would be a mezzo-soprano... you know how well I wear a ballgown! As a mezzo, I would have to sing Cherubino. I adore that music. I also love Nozze di Figaro, so my mezzo debut will be as Cherubino.” That's going to be some production.