Erwin Schrott on Figaro, Tango and Opera Blogs

by Jenny Beeston (Whatsonstage.com)

Back in 2006, Erwin Schrott made a memorable impact in the title role of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House. A fine actor and singer with the stunning natural attributes of a deep chocolatey bass-baritone, superb comic timing and smouldering good looks, he has played the part to great acclaim all over the world. He now returns to reprise it at Covent Garden.

Though he now unhesitatingly describes Mozart as a genius, Schrott wasn’t always so fond of the opera. The first time he saw it, as a child, he didn’t even stay for the end of the show. With the benefit of hindsight he’s worked out why. “The staging was missing something. It was just not entertaining.”

That charge couldn’t be levelled at David McVicar’s acclaimed production. Its realistic sets and nineteenth century costumes satisfy traditionalists, yet McVicar’s punchy and involving storytelling is anything but old-fashioned. Schrott is full of praise for McVicar, who, he says “is exactly what a director should be.” Gesturing extravagantly, he explains what he means. It’s like sitting in the driving seat of a car, he says (leaning forward), when another hand reaches out and starts to turn gently in another direction (he mimes a steering wheel) without taking control from the driver.

This fourth outing says Schrott will be even more tautly drawn than the first run. “Instead of spreading all this energy around we are just focussing in one direction.” Schrott himself has changed physically in the last four years too. He’s dropped a few pounds, honing his physique to the rangy muscularity of a professional footballer. Close-cropped hair, twinkling eyes and a single, delicate earring lend him a piratical air. When I ask him what role he most identifies with it’s no surprise when he says “the devil!”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to watch yourself”

By coincidence, BBC TV were about to re-broadcast a show from the 2006 run a few hours after we met. I asked Schrott if he’d be tuning in. “No!” he said firmly. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to watch yourself. I am very glad if they allow me to take a look after filming just to give my point of view, but after that, no.” Unlike some singers, he’s not keen on listening to other performers’ interpretations to help form his own either. “I love to go to see my colleagues in the theatre, but I will not be creating if I am watching them to steal” he explains. Instead he reads a lot: “for Figaro, Beaumarchais is a must.”

Reading is one of his hobbies too, though nowadays it’s restricted to books. “There was a time that I was reading on the internet quite a lot. I was even having fun because there were a couple of them (blogs) that were quite funny and interesting in many ways. But then I asked myself what are you doing? Reading about opera on the internet? Why is this very little tiny world which is called opera all of a sudden starting to be so important?”

“Never google again, not log in, nothing”

Schrott said it was like an illness: it causes you trouble, so you should keep away from it. And so he resolved to “never google again, not log in, nothing”. I mentioned something the tenor Marcelo Alvarez said in a recent interview, “Blogs are the cancer of our operatic world.” Schrott approves. “So there are two things that you don’t have to do – to smoke and to read blogs!”

Instead Schrott prefers to be with his family, which now includes soprano Anna Netrebko, who played Donna Anna to his memorably sizzling, shirtless Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House in 2007, and their one year old son, Tiago. Busy schedules often keep them apart, but at the moment Netrebko is with him in London as she prepares for her forthcoming Covent Garden appearance in Manon. Tiago usually travels with Netrebko, but a couple of times he’s stayed with Schrott. “Usually kids are all mummy, mummy,” says Schrott, but little Tiago was “fantastic, no problem at all.” He also spends a lot of time with his 12 year old daughter, who lives in Montevideo with her mother, “a very good friend”.

Schrott’s parents provided him with a musical background, and remain an important part of his life. “My mother loved to listen to classical music in the house all the time. My grandfather was a violinist – blind – he created the first Braille orchestra. My father is a tango man, he loves tango.”

“I was born with tango”

His mother’s tastes may have been the first to influence his career, but now his father’s are getting a look-in too, as Schrott gets ready to record a tango album. His tango covers have gone down a storm as recital encores, and BBC Radio 3 listeners received a little taste when Schrott performed a couple of numbers in a recent live broadcast from the Royal Opera House. “I was born with tango” he says. “I was listening in the house while my parents were drinking mate (a traditional Uruguayan drink) in the evening, in these huge blackouts in the military regime in Uruguay, listening to this little radio with batteries inside. My father told me the stories about the composer, the singer, the player, everything.”

To sing tango, Schrott has had to make adjustments to his operatic singing style. “I have to learn how much volume to use because the membrane of the mic cannot take it all. If you use too much, it (the compressor) will take all the beauty from your voice.”

Not giving up opera yet

But he’s not giving up opera just yet. In recent years, Schrott has been known mostly for his Mozart, but he started out with heavier fare, “these roles you should sing when you are 40 something but I was not even 20.” After advice from such renowned singers as Mirella Freni, Leo Nucci and Placido Domingo (whose Operalia competition Schrott won in 1998), he decided initially to concentrate on parts which were healthier for the voice.

Now at the age of 37 Schrott is starting to reintroduce Verdi to his repertoire. Following Attila at the Met, he will return to the Royal Opera House for I vespri siciliani. After that it’s the five act French version of Don Carlos, and a work he first tackled many years ago, I Lombardi.

One project he’s definitely not involved in is the 2011 season opening at La Scala. Internet speculation had linked him with Anna Netrebko for a new Don Giovanni. “It is not true!” he says. Endless rumours are an unfortunate consequence of their high-profile relationship. “They are saying like 10 times that Anna is pregnant. Maybe next time they are going to say that I am pregnant.” Now that really would be news.

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