Before meeting Christopher Maltman I make a mental note: don’t mention the biceps.
True, ‘best body in the business’ is an accolade to which many would aspire, but the topic crops up in interviews with such tedious regularity he must be sick of discussing it. And MusicOMH shall not stoop to such depths!
This is trickier than you might imagine. We meet at Covent Garden ahead of his reprisal of the role of Ramiro in Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, a hunk of a character who spends much of the time hauling large clocks around the stage and whose rippling muscles catch the leading lady’s eye. When the production premiered back in April 2007 Maltman’s performance had critics (yes, even those upright broadsheets) breathless with enthusiasm for his toned physique. But this was coupled with equal admiration for the shape of his voice, and with good reason: Maltman’s baritone is darkly focused yet warm and lyrical, and equally suited to the demands of the recital platform and the opera stage.
Often described as a comdie musicale, L’Heure Espagnole follows Concepcion, the highly sexed wife of the clockmaker Torquemada, who is frustrated by the string of male visitors she receives while her husband is winding the town’s clocks, until Ramiro comes along. Maltman’s synopsis is more succinct: “We have Concepcion just desperate for a shag,” he says with a naughty laugh, “and she ends up finding it where she wasn’t looking for it. I think it’s actually quite a sweet, touching story.” Jones’ production is stuffed with bawdy imagery: heaving cleavages, suggestive-looking chilli peppers, and a riot of pink and polka dots. “I live in Brighton and it reminds me of those seaside postcards pinching bottoms and a saucy, cheeky feel about the whole thing,” Maltman says.
In a twist worthy of the drama itself Christine Rice was forced to pull out of the role of Concepcion due to pregnancy she is replaced by Romanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose but otherwise the original cast remains the same, as does the conductor, Antonio Pappano, and again it will be paired with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Jones’ double-bill made a huge impression at its premiere with its tragic-comic assessment of the power of lust and greed, and Maltman enthuses about his talents as a director: “Richard’s style is very consequentialhe constructs scenes very beautifully, with real emotional integrity, and he has brilliant views on the characters. This is a production that works really well within his own vocabulary and a show I have a real soft-spot for.”
In the past, many of Maltman’s roles have involved huge energy and, in the case of Achilla in McVicar’s Giulio Cesare or Papageno in The Magic Flute, dance movements and gymnastics and I ask him about the increasing physical demands placed on modern opera singers. “I think opera can benefit from more depth and more believability, from having productions that allow the music to speak in a more profound and interesting way, so I don’t see there’s any conflict. It leads him (unprompted, I hasten to add) to one of his grievances: “I do resent it when people think that taking your shirt off on stage is somehow self-serving, that it’s been put in by the artist. I have never once suggested I do anything to show myself off physically. It may sound overly angelic but I try to put myself in the service of the director.”
Maltman’s diverse and wide-ranging repertoire stretches from Monteverdi (he has recorded L’Orfeo with Emmanuelle Ham and Le Concert D’Astre) to Thomas Ads (Maltman created the role of Sebastian for the premiere of The Tempest) and settles somewhere in the middle with roles including Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva and Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia. Marcello is also a favourite and Maltman is reprising the role for the upcoming Royal Opera Bohme and he will later debut as Gamekeeper in The Cunning Little Vixen with the great Jancek conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras, again at Covent Garden. As Maltman approaches 40, however, he is keen to venture into heavier, more dramatic roles: already, he has his first Don Carlo fixed for Amsterdam in 2011 and plans are being made for his first Wagner role, though the details are still under wraps.
Given Maltman’s achievements it’s astonishing to think that his singing career took off by accident. Growing up in Lincolnshire, Maltman showed no particular interest in music but he had a band with some friends and was persuaded to join the local church choir in order for them to qualify for the annual talent spot concert. I ask about the band and he describes their music as “eighties electronic”, and his role as a singer of sorts and a one-finger keyboardist. So it was kind of Kraftwerk-esque? I suggest. “That’s it, yeah,” he says, squirming slightly. And what was the band’s name? “Oh, I’m not going to say, it’s too embarrassing, absolutely not!” A reluctant choir-member at first, it wasn’t long before Maltman started to enjoy himself, and his choirmaster, impressed by what he heard, arranged for him to take singing lessons in London with Mark Wildman at the Royal Academy of Music.
Maltman’s path was already set on sciences when he came to apply to university and he studied biochemistry at Warwick (albeit with musicals on the side) before focusing on singing with a postgraduate degree at the RAM. Winning the Lieder Prize at the 1997 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, confirmed his talent and since then Maltman has not looked back. Concert recitals are still important aspect of his career and he has sung at many of the most important venues, including the Carnegie Hall and at the Aldeburgh and Edinburgh festivals, and is a regular guest at the Wigmore Hall. I ask what it is that particularly appeals about recital performance, and how it informs his operatic work.
“It’s more exacting and a more disciplined thing,” Maltman replies. “Lieder recitals force you to find subtleties of expression, gradations and larger sweeps in terms of cycles they force you to become adept with your instrument and get to know it better, and also if you can sing a recital in front of 400 people who can see your nose hair I don’t think anything holds any terror any more.”
Never one for complacency, Maltman is continually exploring new repertoire and new territory. Much of this summer was spent filming an contemporary adaptation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni titled Juan (due for release next May) on location in Budapest. It was the brainchild of Kasper Holten, intendant at Royal Danish Opera, but Maltman did the translation and he is clearly excited about the project. Most of the filming was done at night, he explains, and all the singing was done live: “we had James Bond earpieces giving us the continuo while we were singing and then giving us the orchestral track when we were running around the streets.” Not for nothing was Maltman once described as ‘the Daniel Craig of opera’.