Christopher Maltman, in the throes of a youthful identity crisis, went to the Marches of Italy for study with Sesto Bruscantini. “Am I a baritone?” the Englishman, then in his twenties, asked his teacher. “Am I a bass? A bass-baritone?”
Bruscantini’s answer: “Forget about labels. There’s only one criterion — can you sing the part?”
Maltman, now thirty-six, took that advice to heart. Pigeonholing his somber, burnished low notes or his light, transparent top no longer concerns him. But on the occasion of his first Billy Budd — a role he knew he could sing — he took a look in the mirror and disliked the chunky body he saw. Regular exercise has taken care of that. Now his physique may excite more comment than his singing.
“Some roles require that physical presence,” he says. “So it’s an extra weapon in my armory. It makes me freer to sing and be.” His repertoire ranges from Britten’s sadistic Tarquinius (another torso role) and the dastardly Sebastian of Adès’s The Tempest to mainline fare such as Strauss’s Harlekin (the vehicle of a charming Met debut in Ariadne auf Naxos) and Mozart’s Guglielmo, which brings him to Seattle Opera for this month’s Così Fan Tutte.
Though he brings brutes to life with chilling conviction, the Maltman you meet offstage is a character of easy grace — cheerful, open, smart, his head squarely on his shoulders. Onstage, when his part allows, those qualities translate to warmth and affection, often mixed with a vulnerable dignity. They come across in spades in his recitals, the activity he loves most of all.
One role sure to bring contradictory facets into play, just as he likes his recitals to do, is Don Giovanni. He will sing it for the first time in the summer of 2007 at the Samling Foundation, a training institution in the north of England, far from the international spotlight. His beloved senior colleague Sir Thomas Allen will direct. “Is there a more poetic way to do this?” Maltman asks, his face lighting up. “I think I can do the role justice now.”