Out of Character with Christopher Purves

Photo by Chris Gloag

Leading British baritone Christopher Purves, who last appeared on the Wortham stage as Pasha Selim in The Abduction from the Seraglio and as Alberich in Götterdämmerung in 2017, marks his triumphant return to HGO this fall in the title role of Barrie Kosky’s lauded production of Handel's Saul; a role he originated in the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival to much acclaim. The role is emotionally and physically demanding and requires the talents of an experienced opera singer able to constantly push himself out of his comfort zone.

When asked what advice he would give to young opera singers eager to eventually reach his level of expertise, Purves responded in a jocular tone. 

“I would say, just wait until I finish my career, and then you can have a good career yourself,” he laughed, sounding very much like the character he brings to life onstage at HGO this fall. “I would say, watch. Invent. Use your imagination. Don’t take anything for granted. Keep questioning.”

Purves shared more thoughts with Daniel Renfrow in a late-summer phone interview conducted while the opera star was in Slovenia.


DANIEL RENFROW: What made you decide to become an opera singer?

CHRISTOPHER PURVES: I’m the fourth son of four boys. So, I’m the little one. I’m the baby of the family. And I found that the only way I could get our parents’ attention was to make a little noise. That was my preferred way. And I think it’s quite a natural path, or it felt like a natural path for me, to go from being the shouting last son to actually being paid to be loud. And I went to a British choir school, so I learned how to sing. I learned how to read music. I learned how to interpret a composer’s ideas and thoughts.


You’ve performed quite a bit of Handel. What do you enjoy most about his works?

Most of the Handel I sing is a great challenge. It’s a vocal challenge. It’s an interpretive challenge. And some of the stuff I sing requires me to sing like the tenor, then two seconds later, I’m singing right at the bottom of my voice. It’s like Handel gives you a blank canvas; I think he gives instructions, and then says to you, right, show us what you can do with this. Now, what does it mean to you? Make it personal. It’s not just a question of coming up with ornamentation or repeating a section. It’s a whole gamut of what you take from—what does this mean to you? How did it touch you? How did it make you feel? What do you think the words really mean? And for me, it’s so exciting. You can invent.


You originated the role of Saul in Barrie Kosky’s production of the opera. What was your experience like working with Kosky and working on that production in general?

It was the best time of my life. Really, it was just incredible. It was all imagination. It was all about taking what Barrie gave to me. It was an extraordinary, extraordinary company. We had six weeks of rehearsal. And in those six weeks, we charted a character. We charted a path for the character to maximize what Handel and Jennens, the librettist, had given us. I think that what we came up with was about as good as it can get—it wasn’t just about notes. It wasn’t just about standing in the right position. It was inventing this whole character, this whole descent into madness, this whole route from avenging king to the total desperation and the knowledge of this whole character. You know he’s going to die at the end, but you don’t know how he’s going to get there, and you don’t know the twists and turns. I think in order to invent something, in order to put an oratorio on stage, you have to have license. And I think he gave us that license to invent in a most colossal way.


Do you have a favorite moment in the production?

I think my favorite moment is when I’m at my sort of wit’s end, in a way; when I’m down to my shorts. I’m absolutely helpless and hopeless. There’s a line, “Where are my old supports?” He has no one on stage. It’s just me. And it’s pitiful, it’s so sad, but there’s also an intense, a really sort of courageous path that Saul tries to find—I try to find as well. It’s often pitiful, yet also courageous. It’s the realization that I’m going to have to do something rather extraordinary in order to solve this particular problem for myself.