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.

christopherpurves.com

(photo: Chris Gloag)

Who or what inspired you to take up singing, and make it your career? 

There was no great moment of revelation, more a progressive realisation that I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. I’d sung with choirs and performed in amateur dramatic groups as a teenager, and enjoyed both hugely. Then around the age of 16 I won a county scholarship to have singing lessons at the Welsh College of Music and Drama. My teacher there was Beatrice Unsworth, and from the very first lesson she showed huge faith in me, and was brave enough to stick her neck out and tell me I had the potential to make a career of singing, if I decided that was what I wanted. It’s a far safer bet when giving advice to young singers to preach caution, and rightly so, but at some point an artistic career needs a leap of faith, and it takes great courage and vision to support a young artist in doing that.

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

There are too many to mention, and if I begin to name individuals I know I’ll miss someone out. In all honesty I’d say I’ve taken something, whether it be of great significance or only a small hint or reflection, from everyone I’ve met and worked with. On a personal level, I’m fortunate to have a hugely supportive network of family and friends who are all incredibly patient and understanding. Every singer needs those people if they’re to survive in the long run.

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

Getting into postgraduate music college in the first place, having come from an entirely amateur musical background up to that point. Getting through the tough first few years of my career, when I was strapped for both money and time. Continuing to motivate myself to get to work on each new piece in the first few stages of learning and memorisation.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

In terms of live performances, it’s tricky to know, since you as the performer never get to see it, and once it’s happened it’s gone forever, and more often than not you don’t have time to reflect on it before you’re on to starting work on the next project.

With recordings it’s different – you can come back to them a couple of years later and assess them more rationally. I’m very fond of my first album, Enaid – Songs of the Soul, which I recorded with Llyr Williams a few years ago – I think we came very close to achieving what we set out to achieve with it, and it still excites me to hear it, even though I’m sure we’d do it all differently now. On film, I’m pleased with the recording of Jackie O that was made when we performed it at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna – it’s a rarely-performed piece, and is very idiosyncratic, but I have a great fondness for it, and it brings back a lot of happy memories to watch it.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I’m not the best one to assess that! But I’d say the composers for whom I feel most affinity in terms of their vocal writing are Mozart, Puccini and Wagner – with all three I get a strong sense of understanding what they were seeking in terms of vocal colour and dramatic and emotional content.

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

First and foremost, I’ll need to sing whatever someone is willing to pay me to sing. That’s not a facetious answer – it’s the basic truth of a professional singer’s life. At the same time, you need to keep an eye on the horizon and the direction you’re headed in the long term. So I’ll listen to my voice, or rather, what my voice is telling me in terms of where it’s happiest, where it’s strengthening and so on (in conjunction with advice from trusted teachers and coaches), with the aim of exploring new areas of repertoire which could be viable in a few years’ time. You have to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, and be realistic about what you’re asking a casting panel to see and hear in you, while at the same time being clear in your own mind as to what you do best as an artist.

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

If you twist my arm I’d say St David’s Hall in Cardiff, from the point of view of a combination of acoustic, atmosphere and above all sentimental value – it’s where I grew up watching live music, and it always means a lot to me to perform there.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Scarpia in Tosca is always a buzz. Anything by Wagner.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Tom Jones, Titta Ruffo, Shakira.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

It’s not repeatable in polite company – you’ll have to wait for my memoirs.

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

Work hard. Learn to switch off. Remember that the work doesn’t lead to rewards – the work is the the reward. Don’t be too ready to take advice from old musicians…. By which I mean, be open to advice and new ideas, but don’t be afraid to reject them, or save them for (sometimes years) later. Remember the bottom line is that as an artist the final responsibility for your technique, career and art is yours, and your aim is to produce something unique, not an imitation of anyone else’s work.

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

Alive.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Sitting on the sofa with my wife, with football on the TV and an interesting score on my lap.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My Bialetti Brikka coffee pot.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

What is your present state of mind?

Contented.

(photo credit: Ruairi Bowen)

Who or what inspired you to take up singing, and make it your career? 

In common with a lot of singers, I’ve been singing for most of my life – first as a chorister for my dad at St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, then at St Paul’s Cathedral. The latter part has come much more recently and still takes me a bit by surprise: for my whole teenage years I was working towards a career as a jazz pianist, but singing took over during my undergraduate degree.

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

An insultingly short list would have to include my parents and extended family; my singing teachers to date – Ulla Blom, Susanne Carlström, Philip Doghan and Ryland Davies; Ralph Allwood, Nick Goetzee and Jim Wortley at school; at Cambridge, Stephen Layton, the director of music at Trinity College, Paul Wingfield, my director of studies, Maggie Faultless, who took over performance at the music faculty, and Alice Goodman, chaplain at Trinity; hosts of generous teachers, colleagues and friends.

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

As I’m still a student, I’m hoping sure the biggest challenges are still to come, but a fair answer for now might be the two roles at Cambridge which were my operatic baptisms of fire, Pelléas and Tom Rakewell.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

When often working on the maxim that “you’re only as good as your last gig”, I’m going to go with the positive version: each project or concert, whether it’s months or hours long, is something worth taking pride in, and I wouldn’t particularly like to pick between them.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

My musical first love is Bach, and I’m lucky to have a voice which fits some of his occasionally specific challenges – all human life is there, I think, even if filtered through potentially arcane theology which is a fascinating area in itself. I need a new music fix quite frequently, and have been lucky to work with some brilliant friends in that regard – new operas by Kate Whitley and songs by Joel Rust & Jude Carlton are some recent things which have stayed with me.

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

Within vocal reason (sadly I see little Wagner in my imminent future), I’ll jump at anything which leaps off the page, makes light work of all the defences daily life throws up, and goes for the guts: recently that’s been Ives and Messiaen in the 20th century, Rameau and Handel in the early 18th, Mozart Mozart Mozart. The rhythm of the year gives a natural shape with regard to concert work – the Passions in Lent, the Messiahs and Christmas Oratorios in December, and summer throws up interesting operatic projects.

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

Not particularly: currently I’m enjoying the Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, where I’m studying, which affords a mixture of grandeur and intimacy. But every venue has its ups and downs – I can’t recall any real shockers, however, which is perhaps tempting fate.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

A tricky one – I’ve mentioned the Passions, which are inexhaustibly wonderful masterpieces, but very often it’s whatever I’m involved in at the moment. Listen to is a very different matter – the last concert I went to was the LSO’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, which is up there for its extravagance, visceral thrills and blinding virtuosity, but day-to-day between me, the tube and my iPod, it’s mostly jazz, funk, soul.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

An endless list, but the letter J is a good start: JS Bach, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius, John Zorn, an expensive vocal quartet of Jessye Norman, Joyce Di Donato, Jonas Kaufmann and John Tomlinson.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Turangalîla again, actually, at the Proms in 2008 with the BPO and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. I’d queued my way to right in front of Aimard, and could see every single intention between score, eyes, hands and whatever else. Then in the outrageous piano cadenza in the fifth movement I fully lost track of time – that 12-second shower of notes seemed an ecstatic eternity, which was something. Seeing Dave Brubeck when I was eleven was pretty influential for the next decade, and I was lucky to see Ravi Shankar at the Proms in 2005 – I’d just started playing the sitar, and to see the global master incredibly close was wonderful. As a treble, a run of concerts with Oliver Knussen on Louis Andriessen and Elliott Carter made a lasting impression, both in terms of loving new music and having the nerve to get out on a big stage and deliver – much harder to start from scratch as an adult, I’m sure.

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

I’m still very much an aspiring musician, but hard work, keeping a childish enthusiasm, and a streak of punk aesthetic seems a good mix.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’ve been working on two different productions of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, in a tour with Ryedale Festival Opera and on the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme in Aldeburgh – a work which could take a lifetime to unpick, let alone a summer. In between those,  plenty of work preparing for my first year in the Academy’s opera school, with Gianni Schicchi, The Rake’s Progress and Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement.

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

Hopefully doing more or less what I’m doing now, at as high a level as who’ll have me, and 10 years into my project of writing about every song written by Schubert in chronological order, 200 years after the fact – 1824’s a fairly quiet year, actually, but doing any kind of justice to Die schöne Müllerin the year before might take a bit of work.

Born in Hereford, Gwilym Bowen is a postgraduate student at the Royal Academy of Music, having graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2011 with a double First class degree in Music. He studies with Ryland Davies and Jonathan Papp, and is due to take up a place at Royal Academy Opera from September.

Gwilym’s full biography

Interview date: 19th July 2014

 

http://www.gwilymbowen.com/