Interview: Christopher Maltman on Marcello at Covent Garden & Don Giovanni in Salzburg

"Don Giovanni's like the Number Seven bus that takes me home. You wait half an hour for one then three of them come along at once"

5 October 2008

Christopher Maltman (Photo © Levon Biss)Baritone Christopher Maltman first came to public prominence as the winner of the Lieder Prize at the 1997 Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He'd already been singing opera professionally for several years before that and his career since has been the story of one triumph after another.

A regular now on all the world's greatest opera stages and concert platforms, he returns to Covent Garden this October as Marcello in La bohème, fresh from singing the title role in Don Giovanni at the Salzburg Festival.

We meet after a morning rehearsal for Puccini's popular favourite. I mention to Maltman that it's not a role people might necessarily associate him with. But as it turns out, Marcello is a part with which he has a long association.

'It's the first professional role I ever sang,' he says. 'I sang it for Mid-Wales Opera when I was around twenty-three or twenty-four. It was also the first opera I was involved with outside the college, since I did a production of Bohème for British Youth Opera in '92 or '93. And although I haven't sung the role very often in London – in fact this is the first time – it's probably the opera that I have the longest history with. I love it, I love singing Marcello. I suppose it is, in a way, a slight mental holiday to do a revival with a short rehearsal period in this beautiful old production; it is so detailed and so fantastically traditional but in every single positive and good way. So it's nice, in a sense, not to have to go desperately deep, soul-searching every five minutes, but I try and find as much as I can in any character; I hope I never treat any role as treading water. It's my job - for my own benefit, as much as anyone else's - to find as much as I possibly can in a role.'

It must be a big change from singing Don Giovanni at the Salzburg in the summer?

Maltman in as Don Giovanni at the 2008 Salzburg Festival (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)'Yes, I remember the first thing I did when we'd sorted everything out and the contract was sitting on my desk. I went and looked at the Salzburg website at all the other Don Giovannis that had sung there. And it's just incredible, going back to people like Eberhard Wächter, Tito Gobbi, Cesare Siepi.

'It's an endless list of legends and of people who, for me, are singing gods. So I felt a huge weight of responsibility on my shoulders at that moment. All of these people have had the responsibility of singing Don Giovanni in Salzburg and now it was my turn. It's impossible to ignore what Salzburg represents: the birthplace of Mozart and arguably the most prestigious festival in the world.

'There's a huge spotlight on it, but you have to balance those historical echoes against the modern day opportunity that it gives. And I think like any singer in that situation, you relish the opportunity of taking a role that you love onto the biggest stage you can imagine. Whilst half of my mind was thinking, "God, you've got to get it right", the other part of me was thinking, "Yeah, bring it on, fantastic, what a great opportunity!"
'Fortunately, it turned out to be a really mind-blowing experience. We ended up with a cast and a show that became such an entity in itself. It's very rare to have a cast where everybody just slots into this machine; everybody brings something to it, but the sum of the parts is much bigger than the individual contributions and it just ends up having a momentum all its own. I'm very proud of what we achieved as a cast.'

I mention the fact that when searching online for information about the Salzburg Don Giovanni, the first result was was a 'Barihunks' blog. Maltman laughs uproariously. He tells me this doesn't bother him but that it's irrelevant. 'It makes me think of a question someone asked at the first night of Don Giovanni: occasionally people ask questions and you just think, "Why did you even open your mouth?" This guy, on the red carpet, before the Audi-sponsored grand gala party after the premiere of Don Giovanni said, "Tonight there were Angela Merkel and the heads of state of this and that country in the audience, do you think that makes you sing better?" I had to reply by saying that I really hoped I would give the same performance to a dozen school children as I would to the Queen of England. It's not my job to concentrate on who's in the audience, it's my job to do my part as best I can.

'I think I give the same answer to that kind of interpretation. I try and do my job as well as I possibly can and for me, personally, that involves me being in good shape. I feel I'm more able to do what I want on stage and am more comfortable in the role I'm playing.

'If it's Billy Budd or Don Giovanni or any character who's supposed to be physically powerful or physically attractive, it helps me immensely. It's a selfish thing, too: I like to look good and I want to be in as good shape as I possibly can be. All of these things I throw at my job and it's all in order to sing better, in order to act better and to inhabit the characters. My job ends there. Any interpretations people make, any impressions they leave the theatre with are their own, and they're absolutely welcome to them.

'I don't mind it at all but I suppose there's one negative aspect: that people can dismiss you out of hand, saying "Oh, he just takes his shirt off." I have never, hand on heart, suggested that I take my clothes off on stage, ever. It's always been a product of which path the director wants to take with it. It's not something that I consciously choose to do or would want to flaunt in that sense. I hope it's only ever used in an honest way.'

I ask if Maltman sees it as advantage that directors are now freed up to create more physical interpretations of roles and mention David McVicar's Magic Flute production. At the latest revival Maltman shared the role of Papageno with Simon Keenlyside, who had created the physically demanding interpretation of the character. 'Yes, well that's grist to the mill, so long as we don't lose our musical standards. Simon is a prime example of how we can give opera another dimension, how we can make it more believable. But it's not about leaving behind beautiful singing. In a conductor-driven age, you'd stand at the front of the stage, you'd sing forwards and you'd have to watch the conductor. It was just about making music above all; the director and designer were merely there to make the picture pretty. Opera for me can be so much more than that and all the best experiences of opera I've had, both as a participant and an audience member, have all been about that sort of melding of musical, visual and dramatic arts. Chuck them all together and all of sudden they strike sparks off each other. So the more drama and the more realism we can bring to opera, why not? It's all well and good. It's not just about looking pretty on stage, it's about adding that to all the other elements.'

Christopher Maltman (Photo © Levon Biss)In May last year, Maltman worked on a production of Don Giovanni at the Sage in Gateshead, directed by another eminent British Don, Sir Thomas Allen. Is there something special about British Don Giovannis? 'It's true, there really seems to be although I don't think there's anything special about British Don Giovannis per se. In Tom's case, I suppose, he has all the qualities I admire in a singer. That means not only vocal and dramatic ability, but also a keen intelligence and a thirst to search for what makes a character a character, not to settle for just singing him on stage. It's about trying to inhabit that role and really trying to bring it to life. Perhaps we have a dramatic tradition in this country that allows us to have easier access to that or perhaps just a more disciplined musical tradition.

'For me, though, Don Giovanni is predominantly an acting role, he has no real set pieces and none of the arias like Leporello; or Donna Anna who has these great dramatic scenas; or Don Ottavio who has these beautiful arias. Everybody has their arias except Don Giovanni. Of course he has 'Fin ch'han dal vino', 'Deh, vieni alla finestra!' and 'Metà di voi qua vadano', but none of them are vocal showpieces. Perhaps 'Fin ch'han' and 'Deh, vieni' are, in a sense, but they're limited in their scope, they're not great big concert arias. And 95% of the role is the recitative; it's in the drama, it's in the pacing and the sheer amount of charisma you can bring to the stage. I think that's what makes him fascinating to play - and also difficult to play because it's sometimes purely just about sheer horse-power!' He laughs, 'And that you've either got or you haven't.'

The Royal Opera is just in the middle of a run of Francesca Zambello's production of the opera, are there any plans yet for him to bring his Don Giovanni to Covent Garden? 'Not for Covent Garden, at the moment, unfortunately. I'd very much like to do the production here. There are plans, though, for lots of other Giovannis, most of which I can't talk about now. It's sort of like the Number Seven bus that takes me home. You wait half an hour for one then three of them come along at once. Well, there's a nice stream of them off into the distance.'

Maltman already had a an enviable career when he walked away with the Lieder Prize at the 1997 Cardiff Singer of the World. He is a renowned recitalist and already has a good number of song and lieder records under his belt. Does he feel as though the Cardiff prize led to him being labelled as a song specialist? 'I don't think the competition itself labelled me, although at that stage I was doing more recital work and concert work than I was opera. Recital singing has always been one of my greatest and most consistent musical joys. I love it and I do it despite the fact that it's not desperately lucrative. It's a difficult part of your career to take on because it takes up an enormous amount of time and effort for very little monetary reward, compared with opera at least. I don't want to be too romantic about it, but it really is a labour of love. I have really enjoyed doing it and will continue to do it – I still sing quite a lot of recitals every year – but there's a kind of set of blinkers that descends in the music profession when you start singing Lieder recitals: if you don't have a huge presence as an opera singer, then people think of you as a Lieder singer – and I don't really know what that's supposed to mean. For me, all the things that make you a good song singer make you an even better opera singer. It's a different palette of colours, a different shade of dynamics on the operatic stage, but it's exactly the same process.'

Maltman as Papageno at the Royal Opera (Photo © Bill Cooper)Maltman laments the fact that the classical recording industry is 'dying a slow and painful death' and that the time of big budget opera recordings seem to be past, but his work as a singer of Lieder is well represented. As well as recital with Julius Drake released on the Wigmore Hall's own label, Maltman has produced a steady stream of recordings for Hyperion. Graham Johnson picked him to record Dichterliebe as part of the company's ongoing Schumann series, and he has recently put down a disc of Brahms, again with Johnson. Maltman has also recorded the next release in the label's Strauss series, with Roger Vignoles, pencilled in for a February 2009 release. Early 2009 will also see Maltman join Sir Roger Norrington in two performances of Haydn operas, L'anima del filosofo in Boston and then, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The Return of Tobias at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall.

When I ask about other plans for next season, Maltman's response reflects an extremely busy schedule: 'What season is that? 2009-10?' He admits 'I'm not very good with my diary' but names L'heure espagnole ('a fantastic production'), more Bohèmes and The Cunning Little Vixen as his forthcoming plans at Covent Garden. 'Then I'm at the Met singing Magic Flute and I have a Don Giovanni in Cologne.' He lights up with talk of another potential project: a film of Don Giovanni with a Danish company called Norse Film, 'although they haven't secured all the funding it needs yet. It's going to be directed by Kasper Holten who's the intendant at the Royal Danish Opera. Who knows if it will happen or not, it's very much in the balance. It would be a proper film, though, which would be very exciting.'

The Royal Opera's L'heure espagnole is coupled with Gianni Schicchi. Maltman has expressed a desire to tackle the title role of Puccini's comedy before. 'Yes, but in a long time. It can wait, as can Falstaff. The next couple of years will see my first forays into Verdi, and also Wagner. Wolfram [in Tannhäuser] will be in there and a Don Carlo as well. I'm interested in just good roles and they have to turn me on musically and dramatically. All the roles I'm drawn to have several dimensions to them. And as many people have shown, like Bryn Terfel, Falstaff is a multidimensional character. He's not just a drunken lout, there are many, many layers to Falstaff or Gianni Schicchi, and Bryn was fantastic when we did that double bill first time round. There are many other roles I'd love to do; whether I will or not I have no idea. I'm keen to do some more Wagner and that will be starting, I think, from around 2011, and the Verdi from around the same time.

Maltman in the Royal Opera's Magic Flute (Photo © Bill Cooper)'There are some interesting things coming up, and it's exactly what I wanted to happen. For the past fifteen years now I've really been working on my lyric roles. I turn forty in 2010 and I think then will be the time to start moving onwards. Going back to what I was talking about before, with the Salzburg Festival website, people weren't as much in a rush then to sing all the big roles, and I'm certainly not in a rush. My voice is getting better, it's getting more usable in that larger repertoire and I think that's because I'm taking things steadily and have built myself up.' He admits to having had a few 'silly offers' such as Kurwenal and Orest in Elektra over the past ten years, 'but it's fairly easy to say no to most of them because it's just ridiculous.'

Maltman read Biochemistry at university before turning to singing and is not afraid to talk about his lack of official qualifications as a musician, more a source of amusement for him than anything else. 'I started singing probably when I was about fifteen or sixteen years old and through one happy accident or another, I ended up being introduced to a singing teacher in London. Of course, at that stage, I was just about to do my O-levels and so my academic path was pretty much set and music wasn't in there at all. I still have no particular musical qualifications, certainly not O-level or A-level or any grades.' He laughs, 'The stupid part is that I think I'm now a Fellow at the Royal Academy of Music, have a diploma in opera and a teaching diploma in singing, too, which I find quite bizarre sometimes!'

At the advice of his teacher, Mark Wildman, now Head of Vocal Studies at the Royal Academy, Maltman continued along his academic path and completed his degree at the University of Warwick. It's clear he sees no disadvantage of not having come to formal musical tuition at a music college until later. 'For me to have started at eighteen would not have been any benefit whatsoever and might actually have been more harm than help. So when I went to the Royal Academy of Music aged twenty-one, it was as a postgraduate and I didn't have to do any of the academic side of the course that you have to as an undergraduate. All I had to do was sing, take drama classes, movement classes, put on operas, and learn languages, so I was kind of in Disneyland, really; it was like being given the keys to the candy store. After three years of biochemistry I kind of knew I didn't want to do that, so I threw myself heart-and-soul into the Royal Academy and did four years there. Perhaps because I hadn't had the kind of musical saturation that some people get – mine was a very different route to the music school one, where people are glued to their violin from the age of three - I was very open to the experience of being there and didn't see it as yet another stage in my musical education, I saw it as the gates of paradise opening. I loved it and I thought if I could do this for a living, that would be brilliant. And that spurred me on through those four years. I've been lucky in that I've been working ever since I left in '95. And I was working from a year or two before that really, going away and doing jobs in the summer and the Easter. So I've never really stopped since twenty-one. Still, I have no paper claim to being a musician at all. You know, I'm just a singer!'

Christopher Maltman (Photo © Levon Biss)Maltman's trajectory almost seems too effortless, I say, but it's an impression that he's quick to qualify. 'It's always a lot of work,' he admits. 'Going back to the issue of physicality, it all needs training. Some people talk about it like it's a criticism and think I go out and have a good physique. It's not, I work really, really hard for that. And it's the same with the rest of it. I can't tell you the amount of hours I spend working on music, working on songs, or in the gym training. It's endless, but I never consider it as work in that way. Occasionally when my kids are up at six o'clock in the morning and I'm supposed to be rehearsing all day and I have no other chance to go to the gym, I go at six in the morning in order to clear enough time so I can have breakfast with my children and then the train to London to rehearse for the day to do the job that I'm supposed to be doing.

'At times like that, yes, I do have to crack the whip over myself, but it's certainly not work in a conventional sense. There's absolutely no drudgery about it, and I'm immensely grateful for what I do. This month alone I've been in London, Minneapolis, Paris, out in the wilds of Austria, Rotterdam, all over the place. My life is never dull, never boring, and I so rarely think, "Good Lord, I must work today." But you have to apply constant pressure to any endeavour I think; left to its own devices it will gradually decay.

'There's a constant effort of will, purpose and energy that has to be applied to this endeavour that I have in order to keep it out there in orbit. Of course, I'm not just abasing myself in front of the great altar of music, there is a selfish aspect to it: I love it, I'm very ambitious, I like to achieve things, I like to be good at what I do. But it's not ignoring the sanctity of this thing that I'm involved with. I have nothing bad to say about singing, except that it takes me away from home a lot.' Maltman is married to singer Leigh Woolf and tells me they're expecting a third child in February. 'It's wonderful but with my career going very well, it just means more spanners into the works and more obstacles that we have to scoot around. With a bit of careful diary planning and a bit of careful management, we should be able to get around it.'

There can be few singers on the international opera circuit who are as humble about their art and Maltman cannot emphasise enough a deep love for his chosen profession. 'I try not to take what I do for granted. It's an amazing thing to be involved with at any level, and I find myself in the enormously privileged position to be paid to do something that would be part of my life anyway. It truly is a great privilege, that's no flimflam, and it's also a responsibility. It's my responsibility not to treat my art form with contempt through over-familiarity. I try never to complain about it because it's just an amazing thing. If you'd have told me when I started with my singing teacher aged sixteen that twenty-two years later I'd be singing leading roles at the Royal Opera House, travelling around the world, making my living being a singer, I'd have bitten your hand off. I wouldn't have been able to believe it. I'd have taken it straight away. It's an amazing thing to be doing and I feel very grateful to be here.'

By Hugo Shirley

Christopher Maltman stars in La boheme at the Royal Opera House from 11 October 2008.

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