Talking with singers: Christopher Purves Photo by Chris Gloag.

Talking with singers: Christopher Purves

Jenna Simeonov

“I was the youngest of four boys,” says baritone Christopher Purves of his early introduction to music. Surrounded by ambitious siblings, and perhaps on a hunt for earned attention, “I started using my show-off gene to very good effect,” he remembers. “I got noticed.”

With a family that valued music and singing, Purves began a well-rounded music education that included the violin, French horn, and trumpet, before he began to concentrate on singing. “[My parents] would come around to concerts,” he says, “I would be appreciated. And I thought, ‘there we are, that’s how to do it.’”

Still, Purves was a relatively late bloomer on the opera stage. “My first opera wasn’t until I was about 30, which is pretty late,” he adds, recalling his first role as the Notary in Don Pasquale. “I don’t think you can get any smaller roles than that,” he laughs.

Without a post-secondary concentration on singing, Purves had no choice but to build his own career. “I didn’t go to an Academy or the Royal College or whatever. People had no idea who I was, so basically, I had to start from scratch.” Without the backing and experience offered by academic institutions, Purves was about 40 before he sank his teeth into roles like Marcello or Figaro.

Now, at 55, Purves has an enormous range of roles in his repertoire, including Golaud (Pelléas et Mélisande), Tonio (Pagliacci), Wozzeck, and Falstaff. Settled in his current roles, he has less of an urge to look ahead to the next new project; instead, “what I’d rather do now is to revisit some of the roles that I’ve already learned, and get them better.”

On the top of that list is Wozzeck: “I’m desperate to do that again. I’ve never done it past 2009, I did the Richard Jones original, and then I revived it.” Roles like Scarpia, Alberich in Das Rheingold, and Wagner’s Beckmesser are the kind with which Purves craves more time.

“You do may be five, maybe ten performances, and by the end of it you’re really thinking, ‘yeah, actually, I think I understand this role,’” He explains. “You want to immediately get back involved and start all over again.”

Sex appeal & playing the Don

Purves is currently in London, rehearsing Richard Jones’ production of Don Giovanni at English National Opera, where he’ll sing the title role. “I talked to Richard when we first started talking about doing this together, I said, ‘please, whatever you do, get a good cast that can act their socks off.’”

He sees Giovanni as a character that is seen through the lenses of the people around him. “How do you play Don Giovanni?” he poses. “You just don’t - other people do it for you.” In the same way that the opera tells the story of a scandalous man through the eyes of others, Giovanni himself is best discovered without self-consciousness.

“It’s a bit like Carmen,” explains Purves. “When people do Carmen, you say to yourself, ‘how can I be sexy, will people find this sexy?’” He is convinced that Giovanni’s power doesn’t come from good looks alone, and that as a performer, looks are not the powerful tool. “I have no idea if I have any sex appeal…so why should I be thinking that?”

The amoral Don Giovanni is constantly attractive to audiences, perhaps precisely for that reason. “He’s the person that we’d all like to be if we didn’t have any sexual taboo.” Purves likens Giovanni’s behaviour to that of young kids, who can hit and steal with little provocation or compassion. “Don Giovanni is a lot more sophisticated,” he says, “but the effect is quite similar. He has no regard for the consequences.”

That element of sophistication comes from Giovanni’s keen understanding of other people. “He knows exactly, with one look or brief conversation with a person, he knows exactly what their sexual proclivities are, and he knows exactly what they would like to do.” Paired with confidence and unhindered by morals, Giovanni is free to say, “I’m gonna shag her, I’m going to screw this woman.”

“We see through these people,” Purves adds. “We look at the Don Giovannis in the world and go, ‘It’s so fucking obvious.’” And yet so much of the story of Giovanni comes from the hope that he can be molded into a better person. “Somehow for the person involved, it doesn’t matter. Because they know that actually a) they’re going to have a great time, and b) there’s always the thought of ‘I might be able to change him.’”

“He’s just a bad, bad, bad man.”

Tough roles & Written on Skin

This season, Purves returns to the Royal Opera House to sing The Protector in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, the first revival of Katie Mitchell’s 2013 production. He found the role a difficult one to tap into at the start of the process, and that “accessing that anger, accessing that level of vitriol is hard.”

The Protector, whose wife, Agnès, has slept with the younger man he has hired to illustrate a manuscript about his family, is a character with an arc that moves from being “quite simple, quite Alpha-male in the first half,” to “psychotic” behaviour after he finds out he has been betrayed. “You feel sorry for him, because he has been abused by the Boy and his wife,” Purves explains. Yet, at his core, The Protector “really is a tyrant.”

Along with Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan as Agnès, Purves has been at the core of the positive audience reception of the opera. “Typically, I hadn’t done my homework,” Purves recalls, “so I didn’t know who Barbara Hannigan was. And everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, she’s like the doyenne of contemporary music.’”

“Her level of commitment is something we should all be aiming to live up to,” says Purves of Hannigan. “I don’t think there are many people quite as dedicated to the art form as her.” Like he found with The Protector, Hannigan too found the role of Agnès a true challenge. “If you are the ‘doyenne of contemporary music,’ there’s a huge amount of pressure on you to produce nightly, every day, the most extraordinary stuff. And she found [Agnès] very difficult, originally.”

Since its premiere at Aix-en-Provence in 2012, Purves and Hannigan have reunited for staged and in-concert performances of Written on Skin. “We sort of found a way so that we can, in a way, switch it on,” he says of returning to Benjamin’s opera. “And yet there’s still that visceral connection onstage. I think it shows that we are totally committed to the piece.”

Yet like any role, the challenge becomes more and more fulfilling as questions about the characters are answered. “Once you work on it, once you try to find out the reasonableness of the suggestion to kiss someone else, to grab someone by the hair and throw her on the table, and to be quite vicious, as I have to be. Once you work that out, it becomes really enjoyable.”

“The art of telling the truth”

“There is quite a natural tag around maybe 35-40, where someone’s realised they’ve gone as far as they’re going to go.” In his own singing career, Purves never had that questioning moment; instead, “I got to such a stage where I can’t do anything else. I didn’t have anything else I could do.”

He has grown objective about the fluctuating levels of satisfaction that can come with a life in opera. “It depends where you are in the rehearsal period. After the first night, you say, ‘I sing because I love it! It’s just the best thing in the world, the roar of the crowd, the respect, the glow, the glitz, the glamour, the glue!’” Inevitably, that rush is contrasted with tough rehearsals, and long distances away from home and family. Yet Purves remains pragmatic about that side of singing: “you do it because it’s a job. It is a job.”

Purves is a singer driven by the process, a much more reliable friend than audience approval or the push to land that great gig. “You always have to bring something fresh. I think that’s what has kept me going, really, is the possibility of doing something extraordinary,” he says. “It’s the art of telling the truth.”

Purves sings Don Giovanni with English National Opera from September 30 to October 26. For details and tickets, click here.

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