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Comedy In Dark Places: An Interview with Christopher Maltman on his latest role as the Forester in The Cunning Little Vixen by Gavin Dixon (GDn)

Christopher Maltman as The Forester


Christopher Maltman talks like he sings. His voice is rich and deep, his articulation clear, and the lilt of his tone imparts a musicality to every phrase. Opera is clearly in his blood.

We meet backstage at the Royal Opera House to discuss his latest role, the Forester in The Cunning Little Vixen. It’s his first Janáček and a typically adventurous foray into the less well-know corners of the 20th century repertoire. There are plenty of challenges here that you won’t find in Mozart. ‘It’s tough musically’ he tells me ‘one of those pieces that seems to exist on the edge of falling apart, but when it does come together it is great. We are just about there now, which is timely as the dress rehearsal is tomorrow.’

Anybody who has looked through the score of a Janáček opera will know what he means. It is music that seems to possess an inscrutable inner logic, expressive and direct, but clearly very demanding for the performers. ‘It is not difficult to listen to’ he assures me ‘because it is very beautiful, but it is very stream-of-consciousness, with all sorts of folksy influences that give it lots of unpredictable rhythms. It often changes time signature and there are tempo changes in almost every bar.’ Quite a challenge then, but the work has paid off. ‘Once you’ve learnt the piece, you will simply never forget it, because it has to be so ingrained in you. You can’t skate over the surface; you have to dive deep.’

Fortunately then, the conductor for this production is Charles Mackerras, a man with a deeper knowledge of Janáček’s music then other musician, living or dead, including, quite possibly the composer himself. I’m curious about the rehearsal dynamics – how does operatic teamwork play out when one of the participants is the undisputed authority on the repertoire? ‘It is like going back to school, you’ve just got to listen and learn. He is just so unbelievably inside the music and so unbelievably passionate about it. He has so many interesting things to say, like about little nuances of tempo and rhythm and above all about the spirit of the music.’

Maltman reminds me that he has worked with Charles Mackerras before, at Glyndebourne where his first Papageno was under Mackerras’ baton. ‘Mackerras is as great a Mozartian as he is a Janáčekian.’ Very true, but up until now Christopher Maltman’s name has been far more closely associated with the former. Still, you really get the impression that Maltman’s respect for Mackerras is based on the conductor’s ability to communicate the spirit of these composers.

This production of The Cunning Little Vixen is being sung in English, a double-edged sword for the singers. ‘The translation buys you immediacy of comprehension, both for the audience and for us. It means we can play the scenes very naturally. The downside is that the text doesn’t really fit 100% with what Janáček has written.’ But again, Mackerras’ loyalty to the spirit of the work rather than the letter of the score has shown the singers the way. ‘I was struggling to fit the English translation to the music, thinking that Sir Charles would want all the note values exactly observed. But no, his advice was to try to sing the words in the most natural way I could. That is what Janáček has done with the Czech, so it is what he would have wanted with the English.’ As Maltman points out, it is another reason why you need a deep understanding of both the music and the drama. ‘You have to almost improvise the words on top of what Janáček has written and often have to change the note values slightly. It is something you have to just feel with the words and then make sure it is faithful to the spirit of the music.’

Publicity photographs of Christopher Maltman always portray him as the rugged, macho type, but it puts years on him. Meeting him face to face I’m surprised at just how young he looks. It is a testament to his acting that he can convince in so many senior roles. The Forester is one such character I suggest. ‘Yes, he is supposed to be. There is a sort of unholy triumvirate: the Priest, the Schoolmaster and the Forester. It is a bit like Last of the Summer Wine, they all sit around in pubs, mildly resenting each other. But they are trapped in this relationship, they are the only people there. They are mature men, the exact age isn’t important. But they are aware of their impending ends and spend a lot of time reflecting on mortality.’

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Death and mortality are evoked as part of a deeper theme of renewal through nature. It is something the Forester gradually comes to terms with over the course of the opera. ‘That is one of the most interesting things about the work dramatically,’ Christopher tells me ‘the transformation of the Forester from this rough, tough woodsman, who tries to steal a fox, tries to take a bit of that wildness back home, tame a little bit of nature. But in the end he realises that he has to give in to nature; all he can do is be part of it and allow the wheel to turn.’

The opera is often described as Janáček’s only comedy, but for Maltman that doesn’t ring true. ‘I would never have pegged it as a comic opera. There are some funny moments in it, but a lot of it is very serious. It is a sort of tragic-comedy. He finds comedy in dark places.’ Janáček evidently has some deeper themes to explore, and when I ask Maltman what they he lists: sex, life, death, love and hate. It’s all traditional operatic fare, but I’m intrigued that the Royal Opera are marketing the production to children as much to adults.

‘Actually, I think it is quite a good piece for kids. I’ve got three kids myself and having been subjected to endless trash for kids, I’ve realised the things they love the most are the things that are very real, and that don’t talk down to kids. This opera has everything in it. The vixen dies! She gets shot. It’s sort of like Bambi, there is a sort of stark reality to it, which you wouldn’t immediately think is very child friendly. But it is all done in a very simple and straightforward way, which I think appeals to children. Also, there is loads of dance, there are even circus acts, and there are a lot of kids involved in the production playing baby foxes and flies and all kind of creepy crawlies. Visually it is very appealing, both for adults and children.’

Janáček makes some logistical demands on the Forester that some singers might find unreasonable. In the first act, a frog lands on him as he sleeps. Later he grabs the vixen and carries her offstage – and both the frog and the vixen are singing roles. It seems for this production they have children playing the two roles, and the frog jumps over his head rather than actually landing. ‘He’s missed me every time so far...Thank God.’ Even so, there is still a bit of carrying involved. ‘It seems my entire season has been carrying things around. In L’Heure Espagnole I was carrying clocks around, and in this I’m carrying around children and various singers. It’s fine, fortunately we have some little singers and little children, so it’s dead easy.’

Looking beyond this production, I’m keen to hear about Maltman’s musical plans for the future, they’ll undoubtedly be as diverse as ever. ‘I have a recital at the Wigmore Hall in April, it is the third instalment of the Schubert cycle I have been doing with Graham Johnson. We have already done Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, and the last one will be Schwanengesang. That’s been a great project, it has been a privilege and a pleasure to do. I have a lot of recitals in April and May actually, in Vienna, Madrid, Washington, Montreal, La Scala... The recital work has always been hugely important to me. It really helps me to focus on finding enough vocal variation in the music to sustain a whole evening. When I apply the same philosophy to an operatic role, it just gives a little bit of a head start in finding variation and a way of singing that doesn’t wear you out too much.’

And future opera appearances? ‘I’ve got four Don Giovanni’s this year; it’s a Don Giovanni year. There’s one in Cologne, that’s a new production, and then a revival of the 2008 production I did in Salzburg, then Beijing and then Munich.’ It must surely be a challenge to play the same role in so many different productions? ‘To be honest, I find it fascinating. It forces you to discover more about a character, about the ways it can be played. If a director forces you in a direction you don’t really want to go, sometimes it reveals things that you would never have discovered. Don Giovanni is above all an acting role. It’s great if you can sing it well, but I try to approach it each time as if it were a straight theatre role.’

A hint there of why Maltman is so often asked to play the Don, it fits well with his reputation: the all-round opera performer, the singer who can really act. Then there’s the sexual chemistry – but that’s another story. We wrap up the conversation by talking about his jet-setting lifestyle. He has good words to say about many of the houses around the world in which he performs, but Covent Garden clearly holds a special place in his affections. ‘The general standard of the Royal Opera House is really excellent. I love this house and I love what they do here. The atmosphere here is wonderful. I work in so many great places around the world, but so often I just find myself thinking ‘I wish I was back home.’’

© Gavin Dixon 2010

Production picture © Johan Persson


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