British baritone Christopher Purves is one of this country’s most versatile singing-actors. His repertoire includes a wide and diverse range of roles including Wozzeck, Falstaff, Basltrode (Peter Grimes), Beckmesser (Meistersinger) and Figaro. He’s currently appearing as Mephistopheles in Terry Gilliam’s staging of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at ENO, which opened to rave reviews last week but his early career couldn’t have been more different as he joined the rock ‘n’ roll group Harvey and the Wallbangers when he left university. Very ‘Popstar to Operastar’ – but as I caught up with him between performances at ENO I discover that classical music was an integral part of his life from early childhood.“I was in a famous choir when I was a little fella – King’s College Choir to be precise. It was a way to get an extremely good education, both musically and academically for next to no money and that appealed to my parents. I boarded from the age of seven and when my voice broke, it broke kindly so I went back to sing in the choir. Classical music has always been a big part of my life but the rock and roll element came about when I met a guy at university who had started this group and he said ‘do you want to join’, and by that stage I’d probably had enough of institutionalised singing, so I joined and thoroughly enjoyed being part of Harvey and the Wallbangers.”
Although Christopher admits that at this time he didn’t know what it entailed, but deep down what he really wanted to do was opera. Having come from a large family, with three elder brothers, early on he had discovered that the only way to be heard was to be loud. “Showing off was good because that made you noticed as well, so I had to use all the ammunition I could to get noticed by Mum and Dad, so I suppose it just developed form there as the natural extension to being loud is to be loud in tune and showing off which is really a prerequisite for opera.”
The group eventually folded and Christopher realised that he needed some formal singing training and applied to various colleges, but was unable to attend any of the auditions as he was too busy on the farewell tour with the Wallbangers, so went back into choir singing and made a fairly good living in choirs such as The Sixteen, The Monteverdi Choir and the Tallis Scholars. This was the late 80s – early 90s but as he says: “I think my ego got the better of me as I wanted to be out front, rather than being in the background so I auditioned for various opera companies, and Opera 80 (now English Touring Opera) gave me my first job.”
Cutting his teeth on roles such as The Second Armed Man (Zauberflöte) and the Notary (Don Pasquale) he also was given the opportunity to cover many of the principal roles and gradually began to build up his repertoire. Bigger opera companies came to some of the performances and offered Christopher smaller roles, “and I suppose I rose to the occasion each time and they noticed that rather being a good third lead, I was a good second lead and before I knew it I had been invited to sing Figaro so for the last ten to twelve years I have been increasing in size, not girth, but in the weight of operatic roles I have taken on which is where I am now.
He has sung some of the most important baritone roles in the repertoire ranging from Wozzeck to Falstaff, and brings an intense, dramatic stage presence to everything he does, but given the immense gallery of characters that he has brought to life, there must have been some standouts. “Well the role that gave me my first big break was the role of the Executioner in MacMillan’s Ines de Castro for Scottish Opera. I had a gruesome scene all on my own –the character came from nowhere and then sang on his own for ten minutes, retelling the most macabre story of the execution of one of the protagonists in the opera and I just got noticed from that.” It became apparent that Christopher could hold the stage and he went on to sing Marcello (La Bohème) and Figaro for Scottish Opera then found himself singing major roles with WNO, Opera North and then ENO. He is enthusiastic about the collaboration he has enjoyed with director Richard Jones and conductor Vladimir Jurowski and counts himself lucky to have worked with them on Wozzeck “a role I absolutely adore” and Falstaff at Glyndebourne “which was just wonderful in every respect and really was one of the happiest times of my life.”
He’s equally full of praise for Terry Gilliam, whose staging of The Damnation of Faust has opened to rave reviews at ENO. “It’s been a wonderful experience – it doesn’t always happen with directors, but Terry trusted the instincts of all of us to guide him. He had a structure and flights of fancy which can only come from an extraordinary imagination that Terry has, and he provided an atmosphere of calm and happiness and above all of a sense of fun. We worked out what we could do with the text within the confines of his imagination and because it’s not an opera there were certain things he wanted to explore with the use of video and non-singing actors and dancers that we fitted in to.”
The results are spectacular and as Mephistopheles, Christopher adds yet another finely-drawn, larger than life character to his impressive list of stage successes. When we discuss the future he is excited about maintaining the devilish theme by playing Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress in Lille and is looking forward to working with Richard (Jones) again on Peter Grimes at La Scala Milan where he makes his house debut as Balstrode next year. “And I would love to sing some of the big Verdi baritone roles, such as Iago or Rigoletto…” Watch this space.
Christopher Purves sings Mephistopheles in Terry Gilliam’s staging of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at ENO until 7 June. www.eno.org