Magazine article The Spectator

From Pop Star to Opera Stage

Magazine article The Spectator

From Pop Star to Opera Stage

Article excerpt

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 (Arts, 13 March). In recent years, Purves's fluid, eloquent baritone and considered acting have received rolling acclaim: Glyndebourne, La Scala, Teatro Real Madrid; Falstaff, Mephistopheles, Beckmesser and more. This year has seen his psychotic Protector in Written on Skin at Covent Garden, and now Walt Disney in Philip Glass's The Perfect American at English National Opera.

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 games, he has remained the same effusive, funny man; an energising, 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-Eighties, 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 2,000 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 in James MacMillan's Ines de Castro world premiere in 1996. He held the stage for ten minutes as the Executioner, and exhibited his strength in 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 that 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 characteristics that you would never, ever exhibit in normal life.'

Derangement has been good to Purves, and self-affirming: as mad Wozzeck in WNO's award-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, such as Wozzeck, compare with newly minted ones, like Walt? With new roles, he says, 'Everyone is giving you guides but really it's up to you. …

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