• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Christopher Purves

    Opera Lively Press is preparing a guidebook to George Benjamin's and Martin Crimp's spectacular contemporary opera Written on Skin, which has been heralded as the best opera written in the last twenty years, and a true masterpiece. British baritone Christopher Purves created the role of The Protector in the world premiere in July of 2012 in Aix-en-Provence, and has since sung the role several times. In this context, we interviewed the talented and intelligent singer, who delivered some extremely insightful and interesting answers that are worth reading not only by those who are interested in contemporary opera, but by all opera lovers, in one of our best interviews to date. [Opera Lively interview # 138]

    Photo Credit Clive Barda

    Singer: Christopher Purves
    Fach: Baritone (also comfortable in the bass-baritone range)
    Born in: Cambridge, United Kingdom
    Recently in: The Perfect American (Philip Glass), Opera Queensland, Australia
    Next in: La Resurrezione (Handel), Berlin Philharmonic, October 29, 30, 31
    Upcoming schedule for the remainder of the 2014-15 season: includes Messiah, Gianni Schicchi, Written on Skin (March 7, 2015, in concert with the Toronto Symphony), St. John Passion, and St. Matthew Passion.
    Web site: christopherpurves.com

    Christopher Purves in The Perfect American

    Artistic Biography

    Christopher Purves was a choral scholar at King’s College Cambridge where he studied English. On leaving university he joined the highly innovative rock & roll group Harvey and the Wallbangers, touring and recording, before he was offered the opportunity to sing Don Pasquale with Opera 80. He subsequently appeared in Mozart’s Mass in C in Aix-en-Provence with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, followed by his debut at English National Opera as Masetto in Don Giovanni.

    In a close collaboration with the director Richard Jones, Christopher has enjoyed much critical acclaim for his interpretations of the title role in Wozzeck at Welsh National Opera, Tonio in Pagliacci for English National Opera and more recently the title role in Falstaff at the Glyndebourne Festival and Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger for Welsh National Opera.

    Further operatic appearances include Marco in Gianni Schicchi at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Lescaut in Manon Lescaut and Balstrode in Peter Grimes for Opera North. He was in Alcina at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich and and sang Sharpless in Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly for the English National Opera. Christopher made his Salzburg debut in Katie Mitchell’s production of Nono’s Al gran sole carico d’amore, a production revived at the Staatsoper in Berlin.

    He created the role of Executioner in James Macmillan’s Ines de Castro for the Scottish Opera and appeared in Parthenogenesis also by Macmillan at the Edinburgh International Festival. In the 2010/11 season Christopher made his debut at Houston Grand Opera as Balstrode in Peter Grimes and at the Netherlands Opera as Redburn in Billy Budd. In London he sang Méphistophélès in Terry Gilliam’s outstanding production of The Damnation of Faust for ENO, which won the Southbank Sky Arts 2012 opera award. He sang Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress f or Opéra de Lille, and Balstrode in Peter Grimes for La Scala.

    He has appeared in five of the Written on Skin runs to date including the world premiere in Aix-en-Provence and also the Dutch National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, Opéra National de Paris, Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, and Toulouse
    , and he has two more scheduled, including the first American staged performance of the opera in New York City (Lincoln Center Festival, August 2015). He is performing Alberich in the Houston Grand Opera Ring cycle (Das Rheingold has already happened, and he will be in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung).


    Recent and important releases include his solo CD of virtuoso Handel arias by Hyperion, and his performances in Written on Skin on CD by Nimbus, and also on Opus Arte blu-ray disc.

    The singer's discography is impressive, with 25 items, including:

    Benjamin - Written on Skin - DVD/Blu-ray Opus Arte (2014)
    Benjamin - Written on Skin - CD Nimbus (2013)
    Handel - Handel's Finest Arias for Base Voice - CD Hyperion (2012)
    Handel - Saul - CD - Coro (2012)
    Lutoslawski - Vocal Works - CD - Chandos (2011)
    Verdi - Falstaff - DVD/Blu ray Opus Arte (2009)
    Handel - Messiah - CD Coro (2008)
    MacMillan - The Sacrifice - CD - Chandos (2007)
    Handel - Messiah - CD - Collegium (2007)
    Beethoven - Fidelio - CD - Chandos (2005)
    Handel - Messiah - CD - Kuk-Verlaganstalt (2005)
    Mozart - Die Zauberflöte - Chandos (2005)
    Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro - Chandos (2004)
    Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera - Chandos (2004)
    Mozart - Zaide - Harmonia Mundi (2004)
    Ricci - La Prigione di Edimburgo - Opera Rara (2004)
    Walton - Belshazzar's Feast - Naxos (2004)
    Rossini - La Gazza Ladra - Chandos (2003)
    Charpentier - Leçons de Ténébres - Angel (2002)
    Handel - Judas Maccabeus - Kuk-Verlaganstalt (2000)
    Handel - Rodelinda - Virgin (1996)
    Purcell - Hail, Bright Cecilia - Archiv (1995)
    Purcell - Harmonia Sacra - Archiv (1995)
    Thomas Moore - Irish Melodies - Hyperion (1995)
    Various - The Romantic Muse English Music in the Time of Beethoven - Hyperion (1994)

    Consult this page on the singer's web site for all cover pictures, complete cast, and links to buy the above discs on Amazon: [click here]

    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Christopher Purves

    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.

    Credits - Questions by Opera Lively journalist Luiz Gazzola. Photo credits given when known (we'll gladly add credits if they are sent to us); fair promotional use.

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Please explain to us how you view the psychology of the character The Protector in Written on Skin.

    Christopher Purves - For me the psychology of the Protector is a simple matter at the beginning, in that he's sure of his life, he's strong and powerful, rich, safe and secure in his belief that his decisions will be obeyed and nothing will challenge his position. This is why when the boy is engaged to log the history of his powerful family, insecurity reigns. Not only does his wife start behaving differently but the boy's proximity seems to destabilize him as well. There is a frisson in the air that whilst not tangible, is felt equally by the Protector and Agnes. But unlike Agnes who receives the frisson with open eyes and heart and recognition, the Protector can't allow himself to get involved and doesn't know what to do with the change of atmosphere. He doesn't ask the questions, he doesn't know what to do with his new feelings and responds in his conditioned way by trying to suppress the emotions and those who've caused them.

    Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves in Written on Skin - credit unknown

    OL - Any considerations to make about the scene in which The Protector seems to be erotically attracted to The Boy as well (right before he murders him)?

    CP - I'm not sure that the Protector is necessarily attracted to the Boy in the same way that Agnes is. He doesn't understand the feelings he has for the Boy and responds in a way that is shocking for himself shocking for the Boy and the audience. I feel that it's an act of possession, making the Boy a part of his property and in a way subjugating him in the same way he has his wife. It was and continues to be a problematic scene for me as the Protector, as I never really saw the attraction for the Boy in the music and certainly in the text, but I suppose this is an instance where the production and directorial choice has informed the Protector's actions. I would love to see how other productions deal with this scene.

    OL - Is the experience of interpreting a role such as The Protector which includes intense cruelty, in some way psychologically difficult for the performer? Does it get to be intense? Do you need to unwind after the show?

    CP - Violence is a very important part of the Protector's character make-up, after all he's introduced by the Boy as being 'addicted to violence". The key to being able to depict this in the opera is to take away your own attitude as a person, as Chris, and start to think from another perspective. After that it all becomes a natural bedfellow to the Protector's character, he is always likely to respond to any challenge with violence, with aggression. Yes it was hard at the start to accept that the character I was to inhabit for the next two years was a unreconstructed loathsome creature who cared not a jot for the sentiments of normal folk and responded with ruthless violence to any change. Alcohol helps sometimes but also being with a cast who never judged me in any other way than as myself, really helped me experiment and take risks with the character.

    Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves in Written on Skin - credit unknown

    OL - Tell us about the vocal challenges in singing this role. What parts are the biggest hurdles?

    CP - The vocal challenges of the role amount to what you, as an actor, are prepared to put into the role. The role doesn't really make demands at the extremes of the voice but invite you to personalize the role in a way that few other roles do. I respond to the role in a way an actor might do to a text, I like to think, it's not always about making a beautiful noise, often the opposite. I try to shape the Protector's destruction with the use of every skill that I possess. I try to weep with the voice, to curse, to threaten, to exult, to tear, to rip, to cut, to cajole, to plead, to love even with my voice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it hurts, but I hope it serves the intentions of the composer and librettist- they haven't complained yet! I think that sometimes it's confusing for an audience who's used to singers always adopting a beautiful tone, to hear me challenge this opinion with noises that can only be described as animal, but it's a risk in my mind worth taking.

    OL - What are your memories of opening night in Aix-en-Provence? Any interesting stories to tell about the before, during, and after?

    CP - Opening night in Aix was for me incredibly special, as my the 15 year old daughter was going to be in the audience. She's an experienced operagoer, but I was concerned how she was going to react to the scenes of intimacy with both Boy and Agnes, the violence and the modernity of the piece. I met a lot of people from the operatic world beforehand, all eagerly awaiting the talk of the town and indeed the talk of the operatic community. I know we didn't disappoint, and my daughter still mentions the performance as one she'll never forget.

    OL - You have now created a role in an opera that has been heralded as one of the best works of the last several decades, which is likely to have lasting power and to be regarded by musicologists, critics, and the public in the next century, when they look back, as one of the operatic peaks in history. This is akin to some immortality. How do you feel about it?

    CP - To be involved in any creation in art is an unbelievable privilege, and this Opera which we recognized as a masterpiece is no different. As a relative unknown in contemporary music, and unknown in Europe, I came to the production with rather a lot to prove, a lot of people had put faith in me for which I'll always be incredibly grateful. To make musical history is something to tell my grandchildren, but to be part of the initial process from which this production has taken shape is a gift that I do not take lightly.

    Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves in Written on Skin - credit unknown

    OL - How were you picked by Benjamin for the role?

    CP - I'm fairly sure that George had looked at a few other baritones before he came to me. I was recommended by a mutual and trusted friend who obviously sold me very well. We met up at his house in London and sang through most of the rep that I knew, with George accompanying me on the piano. We sang Wozzeck, Falstaff, Handel and Bach, works from composers very close to my heart. I don't know why he stopped his search with me, but by God am I glad he did.

    OL - Please describe the process of creating the role with Mr. Benjamin, Mr. Crimp, and Ms. Mitchell.

    CP - The process of putting flesh on to the character with George and Martin and Katie, and of course the rest of the cast was an agonizing one. What choices do you make? No one has done it before so there's nowhere to go for clues. Martin's response was in many ways rather like his text; a little ambiguous, a little too profound, but always very respectful of the choices I found myself making. George was so utterly helpful likewise, so protective of his magnificent score and yet so tolerant of the course I was steering. But with so much of great art, so much clarity comes from understanding the context, the intention, and there are enough 'signposts' along the way to provide answers to your searching questions.

    OL - Considering your performances of this role in five different occasions – Aix-en-Provence, DNO, Covent Garden, Bayerische, and Toulouse, would you please describe briefly differences in staging and public reaction in these five runs?

    CP - I suppose the audience appreciation has grown with our own growth as performers of this Opera. Certainly in Aix the reception was ecstatic as of course they and we were witnessing this work for the first giddy time. As performers have slipped seamlessly in and out, myself included, the standard has remained at the highest level. All the orchestras we've encountered have risen gloriously to the challenge, and I can safely say that the reception we received at the Opéra Comique in Paris, was just incredible.

    OL - You’ve performed very well the title role in Wozzeck. It has some similitude to Written on Skin. How do you compare the two operas, and the two roles, musically, dramatically and vocally?

    Christopher Purves in Wozzeck - Photo Credit Brian Tarr

    CP - You ask me to compare my two favorite roles, The Protector and Wozzeck, God I'm just so lucky to have been able to sing them both. Wozzeck is a harder challenge vocally as it takes in the extremes of my voice (top Bb to bottom C, just under the three octaves!) and asks the performer to be blown about, emotionally, like a small boat in the ocean. The Protector is in many ways the Ocean to Wozzeck's boat, he is the bully, the oppressor. But both roles ask you to inhabit the mind of someone so different to oneself. In many ways I use the same performing technique for both roles, I set my brain as a blank piece of paper with no preconceptions no thoughts no external interruptions, and sing the words of Crimp and Buchner to the best of my ability, using the imagination that I've refined over the years. I suppose in crude terms both operas last about 1hr 45mins and have 15 scenes a death and a suicide at the end, and I'd still like to be singing them until I die.

    OL - Another role and opera that would be interesting to contrast and compare to The Protector and Written on Skin would be Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande which is also in your repertory. Please tell us about it, just like in the question above.

    CP - When I first read through Written on Skin I had a feeling I'd travelled this road before. Golaud is also a man who finds that insecurity is a very destructive force, and a lack of absolute certainty can lead to ruin. Neither man can cope with change, neither man can open himself to the possibility of a different life to the one he lives, and neither man can trust the influence of the outsider. It seems that I'm destined to play closed, scared and oppressive men. Real life mirroring art and vice versa?

    OL - You have an impressive range of styles, having performed from Baroque such as Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Alcina all the way to contemporary Written on Skin. What period of operatic production you feel is the most comfortable for you?

    CP - My love of Baroque opera and music in general comes from the feeling that it's very much up to the performer how to interpret the character of the music. Now that Baroque music has been liberated from the hands of the "authentic" Police (tongue in cheek) we performers feel that in a way the roles are a blank canvas onto which we can paint away with imagination allied to decorum. I can't think of anything better than performing the aria from Bach's St. Matthew Passion, "Mache dich mein herze rein," with the knowledge that the conductor is allowing me to use my musical imagination to tell a personal story rather than being a little hidebound by some historical rules and practices. For as long as I have a voice I'll always want to mix Baroque and Benjamin.

    OL - How do you see the possibilities of contemporary opera, in terms of seducing the public? Do you think younger audiences such as teenagers and young adults are more likely to engage with contemporary opera, or with modernly staged ancient opera (including the use of modern imagery technology), or with plain traditionally staged ancient opera – or does it matter?

    CP - I really do think that in opera in general we have to ask ourselves what do we think that the audience responds to best, what will keep this wonderful art form alive? For me it's simple. Hearing Barbara Hannigan scream with every sinew of her body, the last note to scene 10 of Written on Skin is about as close as you get to experiencing what it is to feel an emotion. You are left in no doubt that she is about pain, revenge, hatred and so much more besides. It's that directness and unabashed commitment to the delivery of human emotion, that, no matter the format, the audience can relate to. The frustration, the damage, the hatred of that note is heard the world over, and it's so human. I do believe that as soon as you take the human quality out of Opera, and it becomes a chess game of ideas and pictures and attitudes, you lose the audience that it was written for. The human voice is so powerful not just in decibels but in nuance in suggestion in all its subtleties, that an audience whether it's watching modern opera or modern reconstructions of older opera needs it as the centerpiece. I think as soon as the voice becomes a subsidiary to the 'Concept' then as an art form it's lost.

    OL - Most of your roles require strong acting skills, which you do have. How have you acquired your solid acting?

    CP - Acting for me is adapting your own sensibilities to suit the character you're portraying, then add in a very liberal amount of imagination, humor, and insight and observation, and you're there. I've never had any formal training whatsoever, I never went to music college or conservatoire, I've just watched and watched and adopted certain traits from other folk into my own life and handed them all over to whatever character I'm supposed to be.

    OL - You returned in April 2014 to Houston Grand Opera for your first Alberich in the Das Rheingold. Is this something you approached with trepidation? Are you planning to plant a solid foothold in Wagner (Beckmesser is also in your repertory), or to remain eclectic (sometimes Wagnerian singers tend to be type-cast)?

    Christopher Purves as Beckmesser (on the right) - Photo Credit Brian Tarr

    CP - I've loved my Wagner experiences, I've found the roles of Beckmesser and Alberich almost impossible to get to grips with, but over time and with some of the finest nurturing talents around, take a bow Anthony Negus at WNO and Kathleen Kelly at HGO, I've come through on the other side. But to limit myself now to Wagner would be to ignore the challenges of Written of Skin and Handel and Verdi and Mozart, the list goes on and on. No, I'll never stop with Wagner; there's too much great music to discover.

    OL - If you are at a liberty to say, will you be in the Lincoln Center American staged premiere of Written on Skin in August 2015? (I do know you’ll be in the Canadian concert premiere in Toronto).

    CP - Yes I'll be there in NY, you bet!

    OL - Please if you don’t mind let’s switch a bit to the man underneath the artist, so that our readers get to know you a bit more. How was your encounter with classical music in general, and opera in particular, growing up?

    CP - I was in choirs all my life so I'm steeped and indeed pickled in classical music. It's only a short hop to opera, especially when you throw in a desire to show off, wear strange clothes and pretend to be someone else and, as fourth son of four boys, a desire to be noticed by my parents. Oh and I like to be loud and the drug of singing is a very powerful one.

    OL - How do you describe your take in life and personality?

    CP - I like to think of myself as a calmish person, witty, irreverent, cheeky, kind, attentive, caring and loving to those who I know intimately and to new colleagues alike. I have some horrid demons in my life, don't we all, these help me and hinder me in equal measure, but I do happen to have such a beautiful family to help me, and the most long-suffering and intuitive, beautiful wife who shows me the way to go.

    OL - What are some of your extra-musical interests, passions, and/or hobbies?

    CP - Outside of musical life I have my wife and family of three gorgeous children, a girl and two boys, who take up all my time. I play field hockey and football and golf with my boys and we've just come back from the most incredible surf driven holiday in Australia with my best friend from school. My daughter is a very good flautist so a lot of time at home is spent taking her to this lesson that orchestra and the other conservatoire. I have a great dog called Stanley who needs huge attention when I'm home and of course I like to drink beer in pubs.

    OL - OK, that was our last question.

    CP - Thanks for such interesting questions, I could have said ten times as much.

    OL - Thank you for your very insightful answers; I believe our readers will love them.


    This promotional piece from the Royal Opera House for Written on Skin has brief interviews with the creators, including Mr. Purves who appears singing a line from the opera, around the 2 minute mark:

    Let's listen to the singer in this aria that is made awkward in purpose by Wagner (Beckmesser's contest aria is supposed to be bad), but still requires excellent singing and acting, which our artist displays masterfully:

    Another moment with a good dose of humor, in this Purcell aria from King Arthur:


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