Michael Volle is big-boned, with commensurately bold features and leonine locks, and his speech has the unstoppable flow of a preacher – which is what this German bass's father was. As the youngest of eight brothers and sisters, he was inducted from infancy into the world of German church music. "I was very privileged," he says. "We all had to sing in the choir and play in the brass ensemble, which proved ideal for my later, unexpected, career."
Unexpected, because although he was a baritone from the start, he decided after military service to specialise in teaching handicapped children. But music drew him inexorably back. "Grand opera was far from my mind, as I was existing in the baroque era. Even now, I need my annual Messiah or St Matthew Passion or Christmas Oratorio."
But when, at the late age of 30, he took his first operatic job, it was with a German company that nursed him swiftly to prominence: "In my first year I graduated from second prisoner in Fidelio to singing Figaro himself, going from the bottom of the heap to the top." Which is where he has remained ever since, both as an opera star and recitalist.
He studied early on with the celebrated singer Rudolf Piernay, whose previous pupils included Bryn Terfel. Now, by taking the role of Jokanaan in Salome, he's following once more in Terfel's footsteps. Significant?
"Certainly. When I read, 18 years ago, that Bryn had worked with Rudolf Piernay, I thought I too would work with him, then I might be as good as Bryn. I now have to admit that Bryn is unassailably special."
But Volle looks the role as much as Terfel did, and in this production, his character will be a very realistic fanatic. "It's wonderful, the way the two worlds of hedonism and purity crash into each other on stage, as they do in the music. I feel that clash in my body, as I am tortured – I like to feel my part in my body." A bell rings for rehearsal, and he makes apologetically for the door: "Sorry, now I must go and be tortured again."
In rep from tomorrow to 12 March (020-7304 4000)