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Christopher Purves, The Spectator

“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

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