Meet the Artist – Christopher Purves, baritone

Who or what inspired you to take up singing and pursue a career in music?

I had been a chorister in kings college choir and after my voice broke, kindly, my then head of music encouraged me to think about going for a choral scholarship back to kings choir as an undergraduate. So in many respects it’s all David Petit’s fault I suppose

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

There are always so many people who pass through a singer’s life, teachers and coaches, conductors and choir directors, that in a way the influences are myriad. But I’d say listening and talking to Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and taking his advice, was probably the most influential period of my career. He ordered me out of the back row of the chorus and encouraged me to go solo.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I think going from a bass to a bass/baritone and even to baritone was the most significant challenge of my career. I used to sing the arias with all the low notes but never found huge satisfaction from them. My then teacher Diane Forlano just said to me that she’d never thought I was a bass so we started working on my upper register and I began to find vocal happiness.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

The performances/recordings of which I’m most proud will always be those that have been the hardest for me to fulfil. My two solo discs have brought me delight and shredded nerves in equal measure. Falstaff, Wozzeck, Beckmesser and Alberich in das Rheingold have presented me more problems and sleepless nights than I care to remember but the most fun to have achieved and to look back upon.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Usually the evil bastards give me the most enjoyment, but then I love those roles like the Protector in Written on Skin and Golaud in Pelleas and Melisande, which have a complex psychological component to them. Having said that, I love the comedy of Falstaff and the sincerity of Sharpless in Butterfly and Balstrode in Grimes. The pot of gold lies in the combination of all these characters.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I wish I could say that I make choices of which repertoire to sing and when, but my career to date has been a bit more director led than that. If a director with whom I have a good relationship asks me for a role I’ll generally accept it as I know it’ll be interesting and challenging and that’s what gets me up in the morning.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I think most of us singers tend to like to perform in halls that have provided us with wonderful memories. Berlin Philharmonie because I got to sing with the peerless Berlin Philharmonic, de Doelen in Rotterdam because of three unforgettable Bach Matthew Passions with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Then there was the exceptional experience of Alan Gilbert’s farewell concert of das Rheingold in David Geffin Hall with the NYPHIL. I could go on…

Who are your favourite musicians?

My favourite musicians tend to be the ones who challenge me the most, from Jonny Cohen with whom I’ve recorded my two solo discs to Vladimir Jurowski who showed me the brilliance of Wozzeck. Leonard Bernstein who explained the symphony orchestra to all us nerds in 70’s to Emmanuelle Haim, my baroque fairy godmother. Sir Simon Rattle for his never ending quest for the soul to Aaron Neville’s simple sincerity.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I think my most memorable concerts in recent times were these: The concert that Arcangelo and I gave at Milton Court was a great experience for me as it reminded me so powerfully the importance of communication. I found myself almost choked with emotion as I sang the most beautiful of Handel’s arias(Fra l’ombre) and really for the first time wholly connecting with it emotionally. Then there was das Rheingold with NYPHIL last June which was a personal triumph. Never have I felt so utterly engaged in a performance.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Communicating the meaning/substance – the “everything” of the role or song to an audience in the most imaginative, creative and truthful way possible. If you can do all that and make it sound ravishing as well, you’ve done your job!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I always say to all aspiring musicians/singers alike, never stop using your imagination. Never stop digging, leave no stone unturned in finding something more to say. Just singing the words and the tune is never enough.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I’d still like to be digging away trying to keep folk entertained and stimulated.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

It would have to be just being with my wonderful family, walking with the dog or cooking, or just laughing and making great memories.

Christopher Purves’ new disc of Handel’s Finest Aria’s for Base Voice, Vol 2, with Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen, is available now on the Hyperion label. Further information

Christopher Purves has received much praise for his acclaimed interpretations of a diverse and eclectic range of roles and repertoire. A choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, Purves went on to become a member of experimental rock group Harvey and the Wallbangers. He has since developed a highly successful career on both the operatic and concert stages, in great demand with leading opera houses and orchestras around the world.

(photo: Chris Gloag)