This is Opera Lively interview # 149, with the famous British baritone Christopher Maltman. The interview was conducted in person on November 19, 2014, at the Metropolitan Opera House Press Lounge.
Singer: Christopher Maltman
Born in: Lincolnshire, England
Recently in: Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Figaro) Metropolitan Opera, New York City
Next in: Pélleas et Mélisande (Golaud) Stockholm, 6-8 March, 2015; same in Cologne, 13 March
Winner of the Lieder Prize at the 1997 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, Christopher Maltman read biochemistry at Warwick University and studied singing at the Royal Academy of Music.
He made an acclaimed debut at the Salzburg Festival in the title role of Don Giovanni. He is a reqular guest at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden where he has sung Papageno (Die Zauberflöte), Guglielmo (Così fan tutte), Ramiro (L’heure espagnole), Malatesta (Don Pasquale) and he created the role of Sebastian in the world premiere of Thomas Adès’ The Tempest. His roles at the Glyndebourne Festival have included Papageno, Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) and Sid (Albert Herring). At the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, he has sung Tarquinius (The Rape of Lucretia), Guglielmo, Marcello (La bohème) and Albert (Werther). Other opera appearances in Europe include Count Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro) and Aeneas (Dido and Aeneas) in Vienna; Figaro (Il barbiere di Siviglia) at the Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin and Tarquinius at the Aldeburgh Festival and at the English National Opera. An acclaimed Billy Budd, he has sung the role at Welsh National Opera, Teatro Regio in Turin, Seattle and in Munich.
In the U.S. he has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, New York as Harlekin (Ariadne auf Naxos), Silvio (I Pagiacci) and as Figaro (Il Barbiere di Siviglia); in San Francisco as Papageno; in Seattle as Guglielmo and in San Diego as Figaro (Il barbiere di Siviglia) and Laurent (Therese Raquin).
His concert engagements have included the Cleveland Orchestra with Welser-Möst, Philharmonia Orchestra with von Dohnanyi, BBC Symphony Orchestra with John Adams, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with Norrington, London Symphony Orchestra with Rattle, Otaka and Sir Colin Davis, Concentus Musicus Wien with Harnoncourt, Dresden Staatskapelle with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Boston Symphony Orchestra with James Conlon, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with Kurt Masur.
A renowned recitalist, he has appeared at the Vienna Konzerthaus, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Salzburg Mozarteum, the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, the Philharmonie in Cologne, in New York at both Carnegie Hall and at the Lincoln Center, and at the Aldeburgh, Edinburgh and Cheltenham Festivals. He is a regular guest at the Wigmore Hall and at the Schwartzenberg Schubertiade Festival.
It is extensive with close to 60 items; here are some highlights:
He has recorded the Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music for Decca; Warlock, Holst and Somervell songs for Collins Classics; and he took part in Deutsche Grammophon's complete Beethoven Folk Song project. His recording of Schumann’s Dichterliebe for Hyperion was released to tremendous critical acclaim and he has recorded Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op.24, with Graham Johnson, a Debussy album with Malcolm Martineau and a disc of English songs with Roger Vignoles. On film, he has appeared in John Adams’ award-winning opera The Death of Klinghoffer and Kaspar Holten's Juan, an adaptation of Don Giovanni.
Several of the above performances exist on blu-ray disc and DVD.
The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Christopher Maltmam
This interview is copyrighted to Opera Lively and can only be reproduced in part or whole with authorization (use the Contact Us form). Links to it do not require authorization.
Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - First, let’s talk about your Figaro in this revival of Bartlett Sher’s production, which is a lot of fun. This is a stellar cast with you, Isabel, and Larry (and now that we are talking with you, we’re honored to have all three as Opera Lively interviewees since we’ve talked with Isabel and Larry before). Now, this production was made famous with another great cast, with Peter Mattei, Joyce DiDonato, and Juan Diego Flórez. Big shoes to fill but the three of you can do it since I believe you’re just as good. Anyway, let’s talk about this conundrum of revivals of famous productions with a different cast. When you prepare for it, do you watch the previous recording, which is available on Met Player? How do you plan to make of it your own? Can it be improved upon? What kind of differences if any could we expect, in terms of staging, comedic timing, etc.?
Christopher Maltman – Whenever I come into a revival I don’t really pay attention to who has done it before, what cast has done it before, I never watch the video, I never want really to see what somebody else has done with it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate other people’s performances, because I love going to the opera, I love watching great artists perform. But when I come into a role, like for instance this revival of The Barber of Seville here, I know that there has been some fantastic people who have done this role before me in this particular production. I don’t know this production. Larry Brownlee, in fact everybody else in the cast has done these roles in this production before; I’m the only rookie.
Larry Brownlee, Christopher Maltman, and Isabel Leonard in the Met's Barber - photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
All I ever try and do is that I never bring my Figaro, if you know what I mean. I never bring my interpretation of Figaro. Of course I have my own interpretation of Figaro but I like to see how that character sits within the production, how it sits within the context of everybody else around me, how the chemistry works with other people. I try to feed off that; I try to make it as alive as possible. So if I ever do look at videos or recordings or watch another person’s performance in that production, I do it much later to see how something else might work better, trying to take tips from somebody else, but I always try doing my own thing. I think there is no other way of doing it.
OL – Great. I was actually trying to compare in my mind the performance that I saw yesterday with others before you, since it’s not the first time I see this particular production, and I sincerely thought you were better than your predecessors, which I used to believe to be impossible to happen since I used to think of at least one of your predecessors as the greatest ever.
Chris as Figaro at the Met - photo Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera, used with authorization
CM – Thank you, that’s very kind. The assessment of me in this role is the audience’s. I always go into every role, every production, with the same goal in mind, which is to make the character as alive, as vivid, as interesting as I can possibly make it for myself, and my hope is that that translates to the audience.
OL - The much darker Don Giovanni being sort of your major signature role (we’ll talk about it soon), and most of your other important roles being very tragic, what can you tell us about performing comedy such as The Barber? Making people laugh is harder than making people cry.
CM – It’s true. Comedy is very, very difficult, because comedy has to be very serious [laughs]. I remember having a fantastic note – the best note I’ve ever had for comedy. It was from Sir Peter Hall when we were doing Albert Herring at Glyndebourne. After the dress rehearsal Sir Peter Hall looked very, very stern in this very dark intense way that he had, and he said “Wherever you got a laugh today in the dress rehearsal, I want you to try your hardest not to get a laugh in the first night. If you try too hard, if you ask the audience to laugh, they will hate you for it.” He is right. I mean, it was a very extreme way of saying it, but he is right. Comedy has to come from the situation being funny; not from someone being funny on stage.
There is a mark for this kind of thing but it is never how I approach it. All of the great comedic moments in something like The Barber of Seville – which by the way, I love playing comedic roles; it’s fantastic; I love drama, full stop; I just love being on stage and performing – have to have a very serious side. You are right, it is difficulty to do comedy well. This opera of course has its heart in Commedia dell’Arte; it’s this kind of stylized humor, and it does a fantastic job of incorporating those traditional comedic elements within the thing, but I hope that we played the drama as well, because without having something really, really important at stake, there is no tension in the scenes so there is no comedic release.
OL - Figaro in Mozart and Figaro in Rossini – please contrast and compare the two characters in terms of psychological traits and vocal challenges.
CM – I started out in the Mozart Figaro, singing Il Conte, then I sang Figaro twice. Then I just decided that it was a little bit too low for me, and then I went on singing Il Conte, but I have sung the Mozart Figaro twice and the Rossini Figaro many, many times. The difference between the Figaros of these two stages, is that in The Barber of Seville he is very much at the top of his game. He is very much in control of absolutely everything. He is the mover and the shaker, makes everything happen, he controls the situation, he comes out and he sings his signature song and tells everybody, “look, I’m in control of everything, everybody wants me” and he is really, really firing in all cylinders.
In the Mozart Figaro we see him in a very difficult position, and nothing that he does goes particularly right. It’s actually Suzanna who sorts everything out. I always feel that The Marriage of Figaro in this day and age should be called The Marriage of Suzanna, because she is the one who fixes it all; she is the Figaro quality in it, if you like, and Figaro is very much on the back foot the whole way through. He keeps trying to make things happen and to corner the Count, which he does, but he is more restricted in the Mozart one. They are both very interesting characters, but I think, as a character to play, I prefer The Barber of Seville.
OL – So, the Mozart one is a bit low for you. What about the patter songs and the speed and agility needed to sing the Rossini one, is that difficult?
CM – It is difficult, but it is like going to the vocal gym, singing Rossini and his Figaro. Your voice has to be in very good shape and in a very good place to sing this kind of repertoire. It’s always a good test of how vocally healthy you are. I always go back to my teacher and do quite a lot of work whenever I’m going into a production of Barbiere, because I always feel that I have to be 100%, otherwise you simply can’t do it.
OL - Let’s go back to Don Giovanni. I recently saw your movie Juan, directed by Kasper Holten. It’s been out for a while and this might sound like an outdated question, but since it hasn’t been released in America, actually only now I was able to get hold of a copy and get a region-free PAL DVD player to be able to see it. I have mixed feelings about it. First of all, the positive side is that -- oh my God, what a stupendous acting job you did! Also, there is no doubt that we got the sexiest Zerlina to date. [Chris laughs]
Chris and his Zerlina in the movie Juan - Katija Dragojevic
However, I frankly confess that I couldn’t avoid a sense of “the real thing is much better” – including because I had just watched as well your full Don Giovanni blu-ray from Salzburg 2008, so I was puzzled in terms of understanding exactly what Holten – and you, since you did participate very closely including translating the libretto – wanted to accomplish. What exactly is the public you were aiming to reach? I do understand that Mr. Holten has said that his piece was not for purists. Or was it just to have fun (it was indeed a lot of fun – as you have said, it’s “reverently irreverent”)? [See Luiz Gazzola's review of the film with more pictures, by clicking (here)]
Another scene with the Don and Zerlina in the movie Juan
CM – The Juan film is interesting. I wrote a piece for Gramophone about my love-hate relationship with recording opera, so I’m going to go, sorry, around the houses to answer this question, but I will get there, I promise.
With the demise – not exactly the demise, but the way the recording industry has diminished in terms of its importance in opera over almost exactly the course of my career – I came in in the mid-nineties when it was still quite strong, then it has just gradually quit; there is very little money in it anymore; but as a young singer I was disturbed by that; I thought “my God, I missed my opportunity.” For me the most important thing about that, you know, one has to be philosophical about these things: what does it make us do; what actually does recording in any form of opera bring to it? Nothing, because if you go to a studio and you can sing it for weeks on end and you can polish it until it is absolutely bright and gleaming, you get something that is not actually a performance of opera; you get this perfect representation of it over many, many days and many cuts and edits and all the rest of it.
So, if we don’t have that, if that is not what we are aiming for in terms of our revenue anymore and our artistic focus isn’t on being a recording artist in that sense, it has to be on live performances, where it begins and where it ends. So I think, recording opera in any way is a difficult thing, and doubly so when it comes to filming opera. The two don’t sit very well together; they are kind of antagonistic. The kind of performance that one requires in opera doesn’t sit well with good film as a medium.
So let me come to something like Juan. Almost all of the opera films – in fact apart from another opera film that I’ve made; we filmed The Death of Klinghoffer in 2003 – are an attempt to film opera in some way, whereas what Kasper wanted to do, and Kasper is genius in this way – is that he wanted to make a film that just happened to be an opera. He wanted to approach it very, very much from the side of being a film. So, instead of respecting the opera in a way – which he did respect the opera; I defend him to a hilt; I think he was absolutely in love with the essence of Don Giovanni, the essence of the piece – what he then said was, “look, let’s put the film first, let’s cut it into a film shape, let’s not exactly translate Da Ponte’s libretto, but make an adaptation of it that fits our scene exactly.
So, in that sense it’s not for purists. In that sense what Kasper was saying was that it is not for people who want a perfect representation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but what he tried to do was distill the essence of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, then make a film of it that happens to be sung.
It’s not for everybody. I think that as far as opera on film goes it is the most successful film that I’ve seen. I cannot stand those over-dubbed and polished filmed versions of opera. Simply having a stage set of opera filmed is pointless. Why? I just don’t understand it. It feels artificial to me. So what I thought we found in Juan is that we kept the essence of the piece but it did get kicked around quite a bit, and I have to apologize; you are right; I was involved in a lot of the translation of it, but what we tried to do was keep Da Ponte’s verse structure, respect the poetic way he writes, but uncompromisingly make a film rather than making an opera, which is why it is going to divide people, but nevertheless I think it is a really good piece of work.
OL - Fair enough. The update to a modern city and to the cinematic medium with car chases, etc., was very successful in my opinion. I was less thrilled with the fact that it was in English. Again, maybe it was to enhance the diffusion, but this movie which so far has only been distributed in Europe as far as I know, wouldn’t encounter any rejection if it had the music in Italian, with subtitles. Frankly, it was very weird to expect, for example, “Batti, Batti” but to hear instead “Hit me, hit me.” These phonemes are too different so it was a bit of aural shock. Why not sing it in Italian? I know that Mr. Holten wanted to use cinematic style rather than operatic one, but my readers are passionate opera fans and many are purists, so in terms of a relevant discussion for them, I’d still crave a discussion of this aspects, with you.
CM – The decision to sing it in English was Kasper’s; absolutely it was Kasper’s. He wanted it to be as popular a piece as it could be. In that sense, he wanted to go even further, he wanted to really completely rewrite everything. I argued very strongly that we had to respect Da Ponte and the way Mozart set Da Ponte. But he was adamant that it had to be in English.
Why not sing it in Italian? I think simply because he wanted it to reach as wide an audience as possible. English being the largest second language across the globe, he wanted it to be accessible, and to remove that intellectual hurdle that some people have about watching something in a foreign language. Of course for Italians it wouldn’t be a foreign language, but he took it as a majority decision; he felt that that way it would appeal to more people.
I can personally argue the rights and wrongs of singing in the vernacular until I’m blue on the face. On the operatic stage I’m very, very much of the opinion that it should be sung in the original language; I see no reason why it shouldn’t; however if you take something like a film like Juan which really throws the rule books out, it’s open to discussion, but I think in the end it was quite successful.
OL - Independently of the intention of the creators, now that the piece is out, what do you think about its possibilities in terms of being used to popularize opera? I’ll say upfront that I don’t think so. If I were to demonstrate to a novice or an opera virgin how rewarding opera can be, and I wanted to play to the person a DVD, I’d pick your Don Giovanni from Salzburg any day instead of Juan. I just think there is nothing as good as well performed, complete operas. So, that’s what I think but maybe you have a different opinion. Any comments?
CM – Yes, popularizing opera is a very tricky question. You are right, in a sense. The Juan film is very much its own thing. Like I said, it’s a film that just happens to be sung rather than it being a full-blown opera.
I’m very much against dumbing down opera, or all classical music, full stop. One of the great joys of classical music and opera is that it is an intellectual exercise. It is not a completely easily digestible thing; it is full of beautiful music, incredible melody, great drama, great libretti, and fantastic dramatic performances. It is full of all of these things, but it is the complete antithesis of modern entertainment, which is expected to be pre-digested and given to audiences so that they sit there and are fed it like chickens in a battery farm. They just have entertainment poured in their throat and they don’t need to do anything. Opera, theater, great art requires an activation of the brain, requires the audience to make that intellectual leap onto the stage, to want to find out; it does require a little bit of effort.
So, I really don’t like the idea of things being dumbed down, but I don’t think Juan was dumbed down in that sense; it was just very much its own thing; it was just designed to be a film and to perhaps bridge that gap and bring people into a movie theater who had never seen an opera before and might make that jump. I don’t think that was terribly successful because most people who haven’t seen an opera simply wouldn’t go and see that because they have no interest in a film that was basically about Don Giovanni, and a film that basically was an opera, just simply on the screen.
So how successful the Juan movie might be in terms of popularizing opera is debatable. I don’t know. It was an artistic exercise in its own right. Kasper just tried to make it as good a piece of work as he possibly could. I don’t think it was ever intended to be a tool in order to entice people into opera. And I think absolutely, the very, very best way for people to come into opera is to step through the doors of the theater; just come and see and experience it.
There is a funny yeast-based spread which goes on toast in the UK and it is called marmite, and the whole of the United Kingdom is divided into two kinds of people – those who love marmite with all their heart, and those who hate it with a passion. There is nobody in the middle who thinks, “oh God, it’s OK.” In fact its whole advertising campaign has been “marmite, you love it or you hate it.”
People have leveled the criticism of opera that it is exclusive, that it excludes people. It absolutely doesn’t. It excludes people in the same way that marmite excludes people. People like it, or they don’t. You know, there is no intellectual judgment on somebody if they don’t like opera.
I’m not a particular fan of fine art. I love some painters and portraits but some of it just leaves me a bit cold, and other people live for it; does it make me an intellectual dunce? No, absolutely not; it’s simply my taste. Opera does not exclude people in a way, but yet if we put 4,000 people here at the Met who have never seen an opera before, I don’t know how many people would come back. I’m not sure. But those people who would come back would love it.
That’s how you develop an audience: you somehow get people through the doors of the theater, you get people to make that leap and trust themselves to not be too stupid to enjoy it, because they are not. You don’t have to be clever to enjoy opera. You just have to be willing to come through the door. I think it is wrong to feed them pre-digested and dumbed down pieces of music, because that’s not what classical music is.
OL – Yes, great. I can respect that, and I think the Juan film as an exercise of cinematic language for an opera is interesting in its own, as long as it is not used to popularize opera or to dumb it down. What you said actually removes most of my objections to it, because it is what it is, and it is an interesting work. But to do real opera and show it to people -- maybe six or eight percent of the audience will come back -- probably is the best way.
CM – Absolutely.
OL – I found that Don Giovanni from Salzburg astounding. It became my favorite recording of it. Joyce DiDonato told me in an interview that the best way to promote opera to new generations is to perform the best opera you can.
CM – Absolutely. That’s it, end of the story. If I am going to be a little bit controversial, I’m also not sure that doing short versions of operas in English like they do here at the Met sometimes is the best way.
At Covent Garden they have a schools matinee. There are five or six operas throughout the year that have special schools performances. We did one for Manon Lescaut earlier this year, and Covent Garden is full of two and a half thousand kids, 11 to 17 years old or so. We did Manon Lescaut complete and uncut, in Italian, not dumbed down in any way, exactly the same performance that everybody else got. And the end was like a rock concert. It was like nothing I heard before. Honestly, two and a half thousand kids screaming at the top of their lungs. It was crazy; absolutely amazing.
I’m sure not all of those kids will go back to opera, but they had a positive experience with opera and so that will stay with some of them, and some of them will think “actually I can go to an opera; I enjoyed it.” So, we removed that barrier. There is no exclusivity in opera.
OL - Very nice. OK, my criticism apart, now please tell me how fun it was to make that movie. Any interesting memories of the creative process and the filming to share with us?
CM – Oh, yes, it was a fun thing. The process of making that movie was fun but bizarre; I mean, totally bizarre. We shot for six weeks in Budapest and basically lived like vampires because we shot almost everything at night. So you get up at five o’clock in the afternoon and you start rehearsals at six, when it gets dark you start shooting; we’d be shooting until four thirty in the morning; you get home at six in the morning and you go to bed, get up at four in the afternoon.
So it was very strange and I can see why movie stars go completely mad, because you live in this ridiculous bubble. It is crazy. Everything is done for you, which is very, very nice. One story that I will tell you: we were doing “Deh, vieni, alla finestra,” my beautiful little romanza; it was about 4 o’clock in the morning and in the script I’m supposed to cry during the second verse; I was so tired, my voice was absolutely dry, my eyes were dry, everything was dry; Kasper was saying “you have to cry, you have to cry at this point! Look, it’s in the script; in thirty minutes we will lose the light, you have to cry now!” so they put this mint stuff in my eye to try and make me cry and it didn’t work. In the end I just said, “look, is the food wagon around? Go and get an onion!” So they chopped this onion, I stuck my finger into the onion, got this onion juice and jammed my finger into my eyes and shouted “just start shooting now” and I started singing, and of course this big fat tear dropped down my face. That’s the magic of film; there we go. [laughs]
OL - How comfortable were you with the shower scene? Did you do it with no second thoughts, or did the idea of singing the famous Champagne Aria, well, butt-naked, take you aback?
Chris' shower scene in the movie Juan
CM – Hm… I wasn’t bothered by it at all, really! I suppose it’s because I’m in reasonable shape! [laughs] So, I felt relatively confident about doing it, but also it didn’t seem out of context in the film. Had I had any massive objections to it, if I thought it was simply gratuitous, I wouldn’t have done it, but it was very much in the spirit of the piece so it seemed a very easy artistic decision to make.
OL - Are there plans to release the DVD with format and region appropriate for America?
CM – I have no idea of the release plans for it; that’s in the hands of the distribution company. I don’t know what is going on with it. I don’t have any say in it.
OL - Then, let’s go to the real thing, your Salzburg Don Giovanni directed by Claus Guth. Now, that one is stupendous. You did one of the best singing and acting jobs I’ve ever seen, and so did Erwin Schrott. Now, that’s an update that worked very well, in my opinion. Tell me about your memories of that production. [See Luiz Gazzola's review of that DVD with more pictures by clicking (here)]
CM – The Salzburg Don Giovanni was an incredible and special experience. Perhaps if I can name one production in my life that totally absorbed me, changed me, and really grabbed hold of me as an artist, it was that. It was amazing working with Erwin; that was the first time we worked together, and it was brilliant. I love being on stage with him; he is crazy.
OL – Yes, the motor tics, the acting… it was a great job. (See the video clip below, with Erwin Schrott's spectacular performance of the Catalogue aria in that production, while Chris shows great acting as the failing Don)
CM – Completely crazy, and we had such a good chemistry on stage! It was difficult and edgy and strange, and a very crazy and deep psychological process as well, and Claus is a genius. That production just cuts for me right to the heart of Don Giovanni. I don’t want to exactly spoil it, but the idea that Don Giovanni is basically dying throughout the whole piece, really physically dying, is just a stroke of genius. It really liberates things that other productions simply haven’t touched. I think that was possibly… no, without a doubt, the most important production of my career.
OL - In both Holten’s movie Juan and Guth’s production of Don Giovanni, the Don has consensual sex with Donna Anna rather than raping her. This has been a favorite variation from the original, in other Regieoper productions. What do you think of it?
Donna Anna (Annete Dasch) and Don Giovanni (Christopher Maltman), Salzburg 2008
CM – I think it is difficult, I don’t know… There is something interesting psychologically about it, in this modern day and age. There is something ambiguous about Donna Anna and Don Giovanni’s relationship, and I think there always should be. If it is simply a brutal rape, it doesn’t quite cut into the deepest psychological implications of Don Giovanni’s psyche, and the way that he infects women and controls people.
I don’t believe it is simply a rape, because for Giovanni, he’s gone past it; it’s not about sex anymore. It’s not about the simple act of sex; it’s about being inside people’s heads and pushing their buttons; it’s about feeling alive in that way. I don’t know, perhaps he just reaches the point where he needs something different; I mean, two thousand and something women already gone; it is not something about the act of sex; perhaps he just wanted to push it further.
He just needed to feel something else, perhaps it’s why it turned into something violent. But there is a darker undercurrent, and a more complex undercurrent to that first scene. How one interprets that is open to the director. Perhaps it is too simplistic to have Donna Anna as just some sort of man-hungry beast who is actually in love with Don Giovanni, but there certainly is an ambiguity with that scene that needs to be brought out.
OL - In the wake of the recent controversy with the Met’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer, I re-watched the DVD of it with the London Symphony and you in the role of the Captain. Now, that one is also filmed opera, also with some cuts to fit the 2-hour frame, but as far as good filmed opera that also conserves elements of the cinematic arts, I liked it better than Juan. Please contrast and compare these two works in terms of filmed opera.
CM – I think the essence of The Death of Klinghoffer movie and the Juan movie is actually the same. Of course The Death of Klinghoffer was originally written in English so we don’t have to cross that hurdle where we are using the original words, although as you pointed out it is cut.
OL – Minimally.
CM – Minimally cut, yes.
OL – Some recitatives are cut in half, and a few interludes.
CM – Quite. So, I suppose, The Death of Klinghoffer didn’t need updating; it was set exactly where it was set; it was very easy because it is set in the modern days anyway. I can’t remember the exact date when it happened in the eighties…
OL – 1985.
CM – Yes. So whether it is set in the eighties or nineties or two thousands, it doesn’t really matter. I suppose one of the major differences is that Juan was brutally cut and brutally updated and translated and even adapted into English. The Death of Klinghoffer obviously didn’t suffer from those problems; it was a much simpler exercise to put together in that way and to make a movie of it, and also the whole thing lends itself very much more easily into cinematic interpretation.
Again, Kasper Holten, that was his first film, and I think he did an incredible job in it. He poured his heart and soul into it. For The Death of Klinghoffer we also had Penny Woolcock who also is a genius filmmaker, and a very, very experienced filmmaker, so she brought a kind of narrative to that piece and a presence that is simply impossible on stage. I think The Death of Klinghoffer, the movie, is one of the few opera movies that really transcends a stage production of it, because you get to put in so many other themes and stories!
OL - How do you describe the psychological traits of the character the Captain?
CM – Oh, the Captain is very interesting because he is essentially a very powerless character. He is sort of, I suppose, the blank sheet of paper upon which everything unfolds, and he is the eyes of the audience, in a way. He is the man who stands between the action and the audience, and he almost mediates the flow of the story between what is happening on the ship and the audience’s appreciation of it.
So, he is a very sort of neutral character in a way, but a man who is desperately, desperately trying to fulfill his primary role which is ship captain. I met with a couple of ship captains, actually, to talk to them about it. The primary role of the captain is the safety of his crew and his passengers; that’s it, and that’s what he tries to do the whole time. It must have been an awful and impossible situation for him to watch one of his passengers die. It’s a desperate situation so I feel very sympathetic for him and for everybody in that. It’s a good piece, I think.
OL - I’d like to address how it feels like for the singer/actor to incarnate a character involved in such an emotional situation. When you sing “Mrs. Klinghoffer, please sit down” – even though what you are doing is your job as an actor and you are a trained pro, I wonder how you feel inside. Then she sings back “You embraced them!” and it is a huge slap on your face. Was it emotionally exhausting?
CM – Oh, yes. It was emotionally exhausting, especially those kinds of scenes. I mean, you have to invest something of yourself. You have to feel very deeply for these characters. I do feel very deeply for the Captain, and especially in the confrontation with Mrs. Klinghoffer.
Absolutely, it is impossible; he tried to be a human being, to understand everybody, to talk to the terrorists, to appeal to their better nature; he tried to somehow communicate with them, and did. But also Mrs. Klinghoffer’s reaction was a totally human one. She was angry and hurt with the unspeakable tragedy of the death of Leon Klinghoffer, and the unspeakable horror of the act of his murder.
It’s an absolutely terrible situation for the Captain to have been in, because he was desperately trying to mediate the situation. That’s one of the cruxes of the piece, is that we can’t simply be blind and dismiss people on either side of this awful conflict. There are people who are trying to say something perhaps in a completely abhorrent and wrong way, but we have to try and understand where people are coming from on both sides of this terrible situation, in order to try and find reconciliation at some point. You know, we only ever have to make peace with our enemies, and I suppose that lies at the heart of my lack of understanding of protest that have been going on.
OL - I was about to ask you about the protests.
CM - The Death of Klinghoffer is controversial because it is perceived as being anti-Semitic, although I don’t understand why. It gives voices to all of the characters; it gives voice to the terrorists, but it doesn’t condone their actions in any way. It shows the human tragedy of it in a very impassive way; it does, but I don’t think it really judges or makes that point; that’s rather open to the audience; but that, again, is the point of the piece.
I think the protesters are frankly wrong. It’s a work of art and is there to be seen; it doesn’t come down on the side of the terrorists at all, as a piece, I don’t feel; but it does give everybody a voice. If that’s controversial, then that seems a very narrow-minded and short-sighted way of looking into the problem.
I have to say, I don’t condone any act of terrorism or violence in the name of anything. What the terrorists did aboard the Achille Lauro was an abhorrent and unforgivable act, but simply to give them a voice and explain a little bit about the origins of their grievances, that’s surely not condoning them or giving them a platform in any way.
OL – I totally agree with you. I think art is there to actually bridge and reconcile things. It is not a documentary. We have enough politicians, diplomats, and activists talking about the real-life aspects of this conflict. What art does is to propose that we reflect about it in a different way that actually can be helpful.
Protesters talk about it giving a voice to the Palestinians; but hey, it could go the other way around. What if one day someone in Palestine watches this piece and says “you know what? I can see this human being Klinghoffer and empathize with him even though he is Jewish; now I can see his side and I understand it better; maybe we should actually sit down with our enemies and find reconciliation.” I think it is a spectacular piece that is an example of high art and does what art should do; that is, it adds something to the reflection.
CM – Yes. Look, there’s been controversial subjects throughout the history of opera which have been dealt with. Look at Beaumarchais and The Marriage of Figaro, for God’s sake. Beaumarchais was intensely provocative at the time. In fact I’m going to do The Ghosts of Versailles in Los Angeles next year, when Beaumarchais blames himself for starting the French Revolution, and for the death of Marie Antoinette. Art can’t simply sit back and hedge; it does have to ask difficult questions.
OL - Not only I greatly admire your voice (truly; I’m not saying so just because I’m in your presence), but your acting skills are simply phenomenal, and arguably among the very best ever displayed by an opera singer. Have you ever felt tempted to engage in a career in spoken theater or in the movies?
CM – Spoken theater! You know, I’ve never ruled it out. I’ve worked with many theater directors and I’d love to be involved in straight theater. Whether I’d be any good at it or not, I have no idea. But I’d love to be involved in film, and I’d love to be involved in the stage in other ways; even musicals I haven’t ruled out. I think they are all points on the artistic spectrum, on the continuum of artistic expression that are separated by very, very small distances. There isn’t anything essentially different about being on stage in theater and in opera. There are some practical and logistical differences, of course, but I’d very much love to have a go at it. I just love acting; I love being involved.
OL - Tell me about your Wotan in Seoul you just did in September. How do you feel, voice-wise, moving into this territory?
CM – Wotan I supposed on paper is a bit of a departure for me in terms of where my voice is going, but I try to approach everything in exactly the same way. I don’t sing with anybody’s voice, but my own. I approached Wotan the same way – the Rheingold Wotan specifically. I’m not sure that I’d do the Walküre Wotan now. That perhaps isn’t entirely right for me at the moment, but the Rheingold one is a very gentle sing, actually. There isn’t very much big singing, it’s very declamatory, it’s very leider-like; Fischer-Dieskau used to sing it, Matthias Goerne sings it now; there is a long history of it being sung in a sort of slightly gentle way.
That being said, I think my voice is moving into heavier territory. I sing my first Conte di Luna soon; I sing Boccanegra; I also sing Marchese di Posa; Verdi is coming into my career and also a little bit of Wagner, in singing Kurwenal and Wotan. To be honest I think the Rheingold Wotan suited me a great deal better than Kurwenal.
OL - And what can you tell us about any differences in the audience, production values and working style, of opera in Seoul as compared to Western countries?
CM – Working in Seoul was fantastic. Honestly, the audience’s demographic over there is so young! It’s filled with young people. I don’t know if it has something to do with the educational system over there, but there is such an enthusiasm for opera, and for Wagner! It’s the same in Japan. It’s extremely inspiring; amazing facilities, amazing halls, great orchestras, wonderful discipline; the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra is very, very young but under Chung they were sounding astonishingly good, and I only hope they go from strength to strength; they are really wonderful.
OL - I counted at least 25 items in your discography. What do you recommend as your best work in terms of recordings, both in audio and video? What recordings you did that are most dear to your heart?
CM – I think it is probably more like 50 or 60!
OL – Really? Wow!
CM – Yeah! I recorded a lot! I would say the things I’m most satisfied with in terms of song singing, were my first Schumann disc with Graham Johnson with Dichterliebe on it [Editor’s note – this is Volume 5 of Graham Johnson’s The Songs of Robert Schumann on Hyperion], and also my debut CD with Malcolm Martineau. [His first CD with Martineau seems to be the one in 1997, the 17th volume of the Complete Beethoven Edition, with his folksong arrangements; we are not sure if this is the CD Chris is referring to, since he has a long list of CDs with Malcolm Martineau at the piano]. Both of those were big vocal milestones for me and intellectual ones as well; I felt that I made leaps forwards in both of those.
I like a lot of the recordings out there but I’m so hypercritical of myself on disc; it’s awful. It is very difficult to listen to myself. The two contrasting things that I would urge people to look at if they do have any interest in seeing me on film would be to watch the Salzburg Don Giovanni, and Juan.
OL - You are a very committed Lieder singer. Do you experience more personal pleasure singing Lieder than opera? Can you contrast and compare the experience and the vocal challenges of performing a full and long recital or concert, versus performing in an opera?
CM – I am a committed lieder singer. I think it’s such a pure way of performing! Again, it’s so naked as a singer! To have to entertain and engage with an audience simply with a piano and your voice for approximately an hour and a half of music is a very difficult thing to do, and it has to be completely and utterly honest, rehearsed really within yourself. It’s not something you can do without a great deal of work and a great deal of commitment to it.
Being a song singer is something you only do because you absolutely love song. It’s not something you do to make yourself a lot of money, because there isn’t a lot of money in it. For me I suppose it’s the most consistent musical joy that I have. But in a strange way I don’t think there is a great deal of difference in singing a Lieder recital and singing opera. I think actually singing a Lieder recital is more difficult.
OL – You are singing non-stop and you don’t have breaks or pauses.
CM – No, and you have to find colors in your voice and also you have to be singing beautifully well. You really have to sing well, so it’s again a good barometer for your vocal health.
OL - You studied Biochemistry in college. How and why did you make the leap to classical music?
CM – Biochemistry; the thing was, I had no musical background whatsoever, really. I kind of fell into singing through a local church choir when I was about sixteen years old. At that stage my academic path had already been chosen, and because I couldn’t then go into classical music in any academic way as an undergraduate at the age of eighteen because I simply didn’t have any musical qualifications -- I had no second instrument; I didn’t play piano or anything like that -- my singing teacher at age sixteen just said to me “look, there is nothing to be lost by going to university, getting your degree, and then pursuing singing when you are twenty-one.”
Of course, telling a sixteen year old to wait until he is twenty-one is like asking him to wait until the end of the universe. And so, I thought “I’ll be dead by the age of twenty-one.” I wasn’t. So then at the age of twenty-one I decided to study classical music as a post-graduate for which I needed no other qualifications than the voice, which I had, thank God! [laughs]
OL - Please describe your training and the learning opportunities in the United Kingdom – I’d like to understand where we are here in the United States as compared to what other countries do to train their opera singers.
CM - I can only speak of my own experience which was that I did four years of post-graduate at the Royal Academy of Music, I got my degree, but as I say, I came into the world of music and musical training as a complete musical idiot. Really, I could barely read music when I got into Music College. And that contrasted very strongly with most of the people who were there, who had been through musical colleges, done musical exams, and had been immersed in this musical education process for most of their lives.
So when I got there I was like a kid in a candy store. It was amazing, people only asking me to sing, I just couldn’t really believe it. I thought the musical training I received was very thorough and very good, and very rigorous. They beat reading music into me. I came out of it quite well equipped.
As to how that would compare with musical education here in America I don’t know because I haven’t been through it. I don’t know the educational opportunities available here. All I can say is that there is a very strong tradition of musical education in the United Kingdom. We have a reputation for being very thorough and diligent musicians. I think that’s been brought out in my experience of meeting others who have been through other systems. We tend to be very well prepared. We British musicians in general tend to be very disciplined in our approach to learning music, to languages, etc. Apart from that I don’t really know what I can say about it.
OL - How do you go about life? What is your philosophy of life, so to speak?
OL – I don’t know. The past year I suppose has been a big emotional journey for myself. I had to reevaluate a great deal about myself and about the way that I live my life. I’m married, I have a fantastic wife, and I have three children. I spent too much time thinking about my career; more than I did thinking about them. That’s not to say that I didn’t think that they were important; I did, I love them dearly. They are the single most important thing in my life, and whilst I love performing, I won’t lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t sing this or I didn’t sing that; I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t spend more time with my kids, and that I haven’t been the father and the husband that I should be, and the man that I wanted to be.
So, I try to approach everything in terms of its real worth, in terms of its authenticity, to not simply me but also my family, my wife and my kids. That being said I try to approach everything with as much joy and positivity as I possibly can, because I have the most unbelievably privileged life. I spend my entire life immersed in the love of my family with three fantastic kids, and immersed in classical music, doing it for a living; people pay me to do this. It simply couldn’t be a more idyllic existence.
That’s the main thing I have to remind myself every day. I don’t really have to remind myself of it, but I like to. What an incredibly privileged position I’m in! And then I act in accordance with the privilege of my position, which is to never take it for granted; to treat it with joy and respect, and to treat my colleagues with joy and respect, and my family, because it’s just an amazing thing to be doing.
OL – What a great answer! What do you like to do outside of classical music and opera?
CM – Apart from spending as much time with my kids and my wife as I possibly can? I had a very bad back injury earlier this year. I had a herniated disk, which has forced me again to reassess myself physically. I’ve always been very physically fit. I needed to go another step further with that, so I like to keep myself very fit. Now that’s very much Pilates base; I’m very much into flexibility and a sort of more meditative approach to wellbeing, a more holistic approach to it, trying to be better to myself in terms of diet. I enjoy looking after myself and being physically fit. I think that informs me on stage and allows me to be very active on stage which I enjoy; I enjoy that freedom.
I am also a big wine fan, and wine collector, and a wine drinker though possibly I won’t be able to get to all the bottles that I bought because I have thousands. And food as well is just a constant joy for me, and being here in New York City is just gastronomes’ heaven; there are so many great restaurants and so many fantastic cuisines to try! I try to enjoy all of these things as much as I possibly can.
OL – That’s pretty much what we had to ask. Do you have anything to add?
CM – No, just thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to talk. That’s another thing I like to do is talk. [laughs]
OL – [laughs] I enjoyed your answers very much.
CM – Thank you!
Let's see some video clips with the singer:
The excellent Largo al Factotum in the same production we talked about:
Chris rehearsing with Isabel Leonard for the same production, interviewed by Joyce DiDonato:
The trailer for the movie Juan - warning; very provocative, includes nudity:
Admirable Deh, viene alla finestra - what a gifted singer and actor!
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