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Christopher Purves, The Spectator

Posted on September 19, 2013 by adminLeave a comment

“We all feel inadequate, we’re all frightened of looking absurd.”

One of “the great operatic artists of the present” sips coffee in his quiet Oxford kitchen. The artist is Christopher Purves, the description Michael Tanner’s (The Spectator 13 March). In recent years, Purves’ fluid, eloquent baritone and considered acting have received rolling acclaim: Glyndebourne, La Scala, Teatro Real Madrid; Falstaff, Mephistopheles, Beckmesser and more. This year came his psychotic Protector in Written On Skin at Covent Garden, and now Walt Disney in Philip Glass’ The Perfect American at the ENO.

But first we talk about his children, whose pictures mosaic the kitchen cabinets, and mine. Purves is my cousin Edwina’s husband, and my son Benedict’s godfather. Over 20 odd years, from the couple’s Stoke Newington flat to this Oxford house, in pubs, family parties and backgarden football, he has remained the same effusive, funny man; an energizing, affectionate presence but who, thick-set as a prop forward, drives himself hard.

After King’s College, Cambridge (a choral scholar, he read English), he joined Harvey And The Wallbangers, the mid-80s, Albert Hall-packing pop eccentrics. Then Purves began his determined journey to La Scala et al, taking singing lessons paid for by performing in early music ensembles.

“I love the perfect pop song that takes three minutes to unfold, develop and go back into its shell.” He closes his hand. “But opera has everything you could want.” He opens it. “Pop music wasn’t on a big enough scale”.

It gave him one crucial insight though. “The audience come not to pillory, they want you to do well. A lot of performers think the audience is 2000 critics and it’s not. I feel very happy on stage, probably happier than in most social contexts, because I’ve learnt it’s safe.”

Two pivotal experiences made it safer. The late director, Clare Venables, pared his acting. Rehearsing The Cunning Little Vixen, she questioned his “big lumbering” entry.

“I said ‘But how will the audience know I’m the Forester?’ She said ‘They’ll look in the programme. And if you’re clever, you’ll do nothing that shows that you’re not the Forester.’”

The other was Ines de Castro’s world premier in 1996. He held the stage for 10 minutes as the Executioner, and exhibited his strength at dark roles.

“People went away thinking, ‘That executioner, that was really interesting.’ And they weren’t repulsed by it.”

Surely, I say, they should have been?

“They should, but if you’re not immediately repulsed, you’re drawn in. And the audience realise there are qualities the character has in common with a lot of people. We all have it in us to be horrible.”

Is it worrying he can identify with these characters?

“Yes it is, but I feel at home on stage because those characteristics you employ to flesh out a character, remain on stage. A lot of imagination goes into a character that you would never, ever exhibit in normal life.”

Derangement has been good to Purves, and self-affirming: as mad Wozzeck in WNO’s awarding-winning, 2005 production, “I wasn’t listening to myself and thinking ‘Will the critics like that?’ I wasn’t trying to make it clever, just truthful.”

How do established roles, like Wozzeck, compare with newly-minted ones, like Walt?

With new roles, “Everyone is giving you guides but really it’s up to you. You have to invent it, learn it and have it under your skin, so at the first performance, chyoo!” He throws an imaginary dart. “There it goes. That is a wonderful feeling, inventing.”

Established roles have limits. “If a director says, ‘It should go like this’, it’s my job to try and do his bidding. I think some performers try to influence a production because they feel inadequate. I’m not being judgemental: we all feel inadequate, we’re all frightened of looking absurd. But a lot of people don’t want to do anything different, because somehow it’s going to make them feel different. I love feeling different.”

And trying different things. In Written On Skin, Purves made the Protector’s voice increasingly harsh, to reflect his growing psychosis. “He started to lose beauty of tone. You start off thinking opera is about the beautiful voice, but for me it is trying to work out what the composer and librettist want, and trying to express that.”

“I think, ‘What are the words, the story, telling me, now?’ No one wants to see a rehearsal of everything you’ve learnt in the rehearsal. The idea of rehearsal is you know it so well you can investigate anything. You don’t have to worry about the cues, music, words, it’s all there. And now is the time to let your imagination run wild.”

If the result isn’t mass-market entertainment, Purves won’t worry. “Opera is something that doesn’t necessarily have to be popular and doesn’t necessarily have to please everyone. There is a danger in our culture of thinking everything has to be nice, that opera has to have a nice tune. It doesn’t. Some of the most extraordinary emotional moments in our lives come from discord.”

Ambitions remain: singing more early music (his solo CD last year was all Handel), demanding Verdi roles like Rigoletto, Nabucco, and “bigger Russian stuff”. He’s still driving himself, isn’t he? Purves smiles. “I’ve never gone for the easy life.”

The demands of The Perfect American, which premiered in Madrid in January and place him on stage almost throughout, are physical.

“From a contemporary point of view [musically] it’s the easiest thing I’ve done. The music shifts slowly, one idea is explored then another, there are lots of repetitions. You have to slow your body clock, but you can’t slow your mind. I found that really, incredibly hard.”

Will he get first night nerves?

“I always get nerves. We have this joke, before you go on stage ‘If I turn left now rather than right, will that will be alright?’ But as soon as I go on,” He clicks his fingers. “I’m fine. Nerves heighten the importance of what I’m about to do: be as good as I possibly can.”

Being that good starts at the bottom of the garden. Past a giant trampoline and scattered footballs is a timber summer house. In its small practise room, a piano is scattered with scores. (Neighbours couldn’t hear him when he stopped practising in the main house, and complained.)

So if he is on stage at the Coliseum it’s all – “Been prepared in here, yes, in my little 10 foot by 4 foot.”

Does he imagine himself on stage as he practises?

“No, I’m just getting it into my thick skull. So when I get on stage, I can do whatever I want.”

1 June 2013

Qais Akbar Omar, Economist.com

Posted on September 19, 2013 by adminLeave a comment

“There used to be trees and flowers everywhere. Now there were dead bodies everywhere, human parts here and there.”

When the Taliban left Kabul in 2001, life restarted for Qais Akbar Omar. He helped rebuild the family carpet business, interpreted for the UN, worked on a Dari language version of Love’s Labour’s Lost and co-wrote an account of it, Shakespeare In Kabul.

Omar’s new book, A Fort Of Nine Towers, is a poetic, funny and terrifying account of his family’s life between the Soviet Army’s exit and the Taliban’s retreat. He describes his family’s attempts to escape Afghanistan, their time living among Kuchi nomads and in caves by the Bamyan Buddha statues (which the Taliban destroyed in 2001). They return to a Kabul of rockets, capricious snipers and civil war as armed factions fight for power. It is a book of hellish encounters – a fighter who grows roses in severed heads, predatory Talibs – and familial love.

Omar is  taking a degree in creative writing at Boston University and, from a distance, helping run his family’s carpet business in Kabul . He spoke to The Economist from Boston – his voice light and urgent – about faith, war and the carpet-maker’s art.

The book is so extraordinary I must ask: is it all true?

Yes it is, everything. After 9/11, foreigners in Afghanistan wanted to know what it was like during the civil war. When I talked about the past, I felt better because before that I had nightmares. My friends said it worked like a therapy so why not sit and write? Two, three years later I thought I’ll try it, because I still had those dreams. So I sat in my bedroom, started writing, and couldn’t stop for two months.

The book describes terrible events. Why didn’t they shake your faith in God?

Poetry plays a huge role in our culture. Of course there were times you felt despair, then you read a poem and it brought everything into perspective. There is a poem by Rumi: ‘A new challenge every day/ You keep away and delay/ When I have to close the gap/ Fate says there is a bigger play.’ No matter what I do, how hard I play, fate has a bigger play. You just submit to the will of God.

Why would the events be God’s will?

Yes, when there were rockets raining over the city, we talked about these big issues. Why are we deprived of peace? Should there be a lesson in that? We try to see good in everything, to find something to hang on to.

What effect did seeing your father and grandfather terrified have on you, as a child?

A really huge affect. You think ‘If these people cannot find a solution, how will I?’ Sometimes I would try to find the answers in books. I used to read Socrates, Plato, the Old Testament, the Koran, poetry. Sometimes I found a solution, sometimes not, but it kept my mind busy and away from what I was feeling.

You were also a child when your family tried escaping Afghanistan. Was that an adventure or did you realise the dangers?
Except when I had to deal with seeing my father or mother in despair, it was the greatest adventure of my life. Like in Bamyan, running from one cave to another, playing with kids. Running in the mountains, playing in the river.

You call the civil war The Time Of Shaitan [Satan]. Do you see that literally?

Yes, because Satan would do those things. Satan would try to destroy a peaceful country, that was a lush garden, that had nice people. We don’t lack in culture or family values, and you [Satan] come and destroy.

Did being boxers help you and your father endure the civil war?

It helped a huge amount. I went to the room where I had my punching bag and I would punch that thing for hours and get all this pain out of me.

How did your mothers and sisters endure?

They spent a lot of time reading, and writing letters, to cousins, aunts, uncles, in other parts of the city. As soon as we had a ceasefire, we exchanged letters with them. When you walked out [in a ceasefire] you remembered how there used to be trees and flowers everywhere. Now there were dead bodies everywhere, human parts here and there.

What are you studying?

Creative Writing. There was a gap between my visa and my next programme. The professor created an [extra] American Literature programme for me, so I don’t have to go to Afghanistan and get in trouble because of my book. Some of the people I have written about, the factions, are still there. I didn’t write about them much, just the effect of war on an Afghan family. Who was the cause? Who should be blamed? The readers will decide.

So you need to gauge reaction to your book in Afghanistan before returning?

Exactly. In Afghanistan, as soon as you raise your voice, they try to shut you down. I don’t want to be shut down.

Is writing your future, or carpets?

I did not intend to be a writer. Everyone is saying I should continue and I will try to, probably, but carpets are my passion. How you wash the wool, spin it. Dying is a whole mystery. Then the designing, weaving, the wash. Every level is fascinating.

Is creating carpets and books similar?

When you create a carpet you have a medallion, a border and small patterns that fill the gaps. I try to apply that to my story. The medallion is my family, the small patterns around the medallion is what happened to us.

Has the book chased away your demons?

A huge amount, like 55% but I am still dealing with 45%. A few nights ago I saw what was happening in Syria, there was a graphic scene, a rocket landed. Something like that brings a lot of memories back. Then I have to deal with it for a few days and get it out of me: I keep myself busy, exercising, gardening, designing carpets.

15 June 2013

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