Christopher Maltman is one of this country’s most sought after baritones, having appeared with all the major opera houses in the world. I caught up with him at The Royal Opera House midway through rehearsals for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte where he was about to reprise the role of Papageno which he sang to huge critical acclaim at its last revival.
Like many of today’s most acclaimed singers, singing began as a hobby but then turned into something more serious as when I ask Christopher why he wanted to become an opera singer he laughs and admits: “I guess it was something I fell into. My academic path was sciences, but at around the age of 16 or 17 I became interested in music, so started singing in a choir and the choir master thought that my voice was worth training and I thought ‘great’ – that’s a nice thing to do, I’m enjoying it and I enjoyed the music more and more.”
It was whilst studying Biochemistry at Warwick University, that music became more and more important in his life, “so I found myself doing more singing, in a completely amateur kind of way, in Gilbert and Sullivan, musicals and plays. I was signing solos in the University Chamber Choir and doing little bits and pieces whenever I could.”
On completing his degree Christopher realised that Biochemistry was not his future, despite enjoying it in an academic sense but as he explains, “It didn’t really light my fire.” Music however did and he counts himself lucky that he was able to get a place as a postgraduate at the Royal Academy of Music, where he spent four hugely enjoyable years under the guidance of his singing teacher Mark Wildman. “Becoming an opera singer was a gradual process so it’s difficult to say where it stopped being something to pass the time and became a passion. I guess I found that it was taking my life over and I didn’t put up much of a fight.”
On leaving the RAM in 1995 he began working with the WNO, where he was given small roles and covers which kept him busy, and also began appearing in roles at the Berlin Staatsoper and although his career was beginning as he admits ‘it didn’t have much momentum’ but that was all about to change after he appeared in the Cardiff Singer of the World in 1997. “It was a massive shot in the arm, publicity-wise, in fact people still come up to me now and mention it. Looking back on it thirteen years later I think it was even more significant than I gave it credit for at the time. It was a wonderful experience and at that stage in my career gave me a much, much wider audience – potentially up to 14 million people and it’s very difficult to appreciate how important that exposure was.”
Christopher adds that if it hadn’t been for his choir master at school who believed in his talent and ability at an early age then he probably wouldn’t have embarked on a singing career: “At that stage I couldn’t read music. All I had was an interest in it, and he introduced me to my first singing teacher Mark Wildman, who is now Head of Vocal Studies at the RAM, so that introduction to Mark really was a milestone in my career as he taught me for the next ten years kept me out of trouble and set the stage for everything else that happened.”
Similarly he is effusive in his praise for Graham Johnson whom he first met in the mid-90s on winning a singing competition who advised him that one of the most important things he would need would be good management, “and Graham really took an interest in me. He put with my current management (Askonas Holt) and I began a hugely successful musical relationship with Graham that has continued to this day. He has been a constant educator, friend and illuminator of all things musical. Working with him has been like going back to all the lessons at school that you wished you had paid attention to – it’s like having a second chance.”
As I said earlier, Christopher is back in London to sing Papageno with The Royal Opera, but one role which we have yet to hear him sing in London is that of Don Giovanni, which he has sung to huge critical acclaim in Claus Guth’s Salzburg staging and at the Bayerische Staatsoper. “I thought I was ready to sing the role when I was in my late 20s, but my agent said no, so I’m glad I waited. I was lucky enough to sing it for the first time under the direction of Thomas Allen at the Sage in Gateshead and I remember feeling drained after the performance and Tom coming into my dressing room and saying ‘Now you’ve let the genie out of the lamp, you’ll never be able to put him back in,’ and that’s been the case.”
Hopefully London will see his portrayal of Mozart’s libertine before too long and talk turns to other roles that are in the pipeline or on his wish-list. “Well there’s Posa in Don Carlo under the hugely talented conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Iago is on the horizon as well. As the voice gets bigger I also have my sights on Wolfram in Tannhäuser and Amfortas in Parsifal. I would love to sing Wozzeck as well, but it’s all about working out the dates.”
Let’s just hope that all those plans come to fruition and we’re lucky enough to hear him in most of those roles in London.
Christopher Maltman sings Papageno in The Royal Opera’s revival of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte which opens on 1 February. www.roh.org.uk