Christopher Maltman on Verdi

Author: Nina Large

Christopher Maltman is well known for his intense and dramatic portrayals of many of operas greatest lyric baritone roles, as well as for his intelligent and expressive song recitals. Recently however his voice has taken him to something completely different: Verdi. He’s currently in the middle of a critically acclaimed run of Simon Boccanegra, performing in the title role with Frankfurt Opera. It’s a big change but Maltman is convinced it’s where his future lies and he is full of excitement for the direction in which it is taking him.

How has this all happened? When did you start wanting to sing Verdi?
This was not something I chased after. It was something I dreamed of doing but actually the impetus came from other people. Verdi is prime repertoire that most baritones aspire to sing, the jewel in the crown, but throughout my career I think I’ve always been brutally honest with myself and very realistic about my abilities.

Did you keep wanting to try, just to test it out when you were younger?
As a 20 something baritone I would throw myself at these arias in the practice room but I was no way ready for the stage. A big problem is that people go at this repertoire before they are really sorted out vocally and it’s a minefield then – if you don’t have sufficient technical ability and you’re trying to create the sound that people expect in these Verdi roles, then you will always be slightly hammering the square peg into a round hole.

When I was around 40 my voice really settled and then all of a sudden I found myself singing with a much more voluminous and a much darker baritone sound – I didn’t have to force or manufacture anything to make that happen.  People started to hear this sound in my lyric repertoire and began to ask me, why aren’t you singing Verdi?

In 2012 you did indeed take on your first Verdi role, Rodrigo in Don Carlos. Can you tell me more about that?
Yes it fell into my lap really. I was singing Don Giovanni with Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the Salzburg Festival back in 2010 and it began as an embryonic idea.  He just really felt I could sing it and so he asked me to do Don Carlos in 2012 at Netherlands Opera.  Before then I had only ever done bits and pieces of roles. But when I started looking at the score it just slotted immediately into my voice it was like magic, honestly.

Similarly Bernd Loebe, Intendant of the Frankfurt Opera, heard me performing in a recital and for an encore I sang the Doges aria from I Due Foscari – a very short lyric piece. We had dinner afterwards and he said how about singing Boccanegra?!  People can be blinkered by my reputation in other repertoire but these are the people who heard me and said yes of course he can do it.  He booked me and it’s paid off.  Boccanegra at the moment fits me even better than Don Carlos.

Yes as the reviews have said!  The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung credits your “voluminous, emotional singing” as one of the main reasons for the current production’s musical success. Boccanegra arguably requires even more of the baritone voice than Don Carlos – it’s a full-on Verdi role, so how is it all going?
I am finding it all hugely rewarding dramatically and vocally. I have probably had my biggest critical successes in terms of press in the very small amount of Verdi that I’ve done to this point. This is without doubt where my voice wants to be.  It’s just exactly my comfort zone – it simply sings itself. Even in the council chamber scene which is Boccanegra’s biggest sing, I feel that I can really throw my voice out there without pushing.

It was the same for me with both Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra. I started looking at the roles in the practice room and it was like I’d been singing it all my life. I can’t describe it better than that. Almost every other role I have had to really work, to put together technically someway. But these roles sit absolutely where I want them to be. I am less tired at the end of singing Boccanegra than I am at the end of singing Don Giovanni!

That’s pretty extraordinary, why is that? How does it compare to the way you sing Mozart?
Emotionally Verdi is very demanding but with Mozart I have a 50-50 blend of acting and singing, and in Verdi all of the emotion, all of the acting comes through the music so there’s more like 15 physical acting in Verdi for me, versus 85 which is the expression of the essence of the character through the voice. Whereas in Mozart I feel very much more that I am an actor who happens to be singing, in Verdi I feel like a singer who happens to be acting.

Also with Mozart the way it is written is much more instrumental, you are treated like an instrument. I sing Mozart well but my voice likes feeling like a voice and not an instrument! I didn’t realise before because I didn’t have anything else to compare it with but give me Verdi and my voice transforms.  My voice just loves it.

You started out as a bass when you began singing, has that affected the way you are singing now?
I started as a bass when I was 21 years old and the very first opera aria I ever learned was Fiescos aria ‘Il lacerato spirito’ from Boccanegra. I’ve always had a very good solid bottom to my voice which I’ve never lost even though I have sung very high baritone repertoire. The thing I can do now is to link the two up technically, which is easy for me. The thing that some baritones don’t have naturally is a profundity to their voice; so called ‘chiaroscuro’, light and dark, the tension between the brightness baritone voice lightness and that bassy quality, the dark quality that is in a true Verdi baritone voice.

Who do you turn to for advice?
I work a great deal with my singing teacher Paul Farrington – he is very instrumental in all of this. He helps me to access this part of my voice. After Don Carlos I was convinced that this was absolutely the right repertoire for me but I wanted to talk to conductors about it candidly. I went and had a working session with Tony Pappano and about 5-6 weeks later we had Il Trovatore in the diary for Covent Garden in 2015 where I am singing Count di Luna. I am really excited about that – I know the role will suit me. There are also other Verdi ideas in the pipeline.

What other musicians have influenced your understanding of Verdi?
Great vocal coaches people like David Syrus at Covent Garden – they are the people who really put the Italian icing on the cake, they really coach you in the style. Verdian style is hugely important, it has to sound Verdi. That requires a really heavy grounding in the style of the music and the way it should be delivered. It needs the prerequisite Italian flavour to it, and that comes with a real facility for the text and the way it is sung. It comes with experience and it’s getting better and better all the time.

You can also get a lot of that from listening to records of the great Italian baritones. Piero Cappuccilli, Ettore Bastianini, also the great Americans Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill people like that.

So what now?
Changing a career in opera is like steering a super tanker. It doesn’t happen overnight because there is a lag. I’m 45 years old so the roles that I take on now will be those I sing in my late 40s and early 50s. By then I would hope to be singing mainly Verdi.

I don’t think I am the finished article. For the next few years I want to be singing my Don Giovanni’s as well but I would like Verdi to become the core of my career as I go forward. On the evidence of these two roles so far it feels that my voice has the right combination of size and colour and comfort in the area, the tessitura, that Verdi wants you to sing in.

Give me Verdi and my voice transforms.  It allows my voice to be everything it is.

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