Christopher Purvesused to be a rock star. At 32 he discarded that to become an opera singer, and a successful one at that. He's in Houston now running through final rehearsals for the upcoming Houston Grand Opera production of Peter Grimes where Purves will be singing the Captain Balstrode role.
Purves was a member of the UK group Harvey and the Wallbangers (which maintains a website and still sells CDs), a retro act that did '50s and '60s music in the '80s. The graduate of Kings College (with a degree in English Literature) had been recruited because "I could sing very low. It was a doo wop group."
Mutual friends told the founder of Harvey and the Wallbangers about Purves. He came to hear him in a university performance and offered him the gig. "I was a member of Kings College choir. I didn't go to conservatory or singing college like so many of my peers. I sort of picked it up on the way."
He told Art Attack that when the group's manager died in 1987, the band members decided to call it quits.
Which is when Purves became a choirboy again. He had a new family to provide for (he's married and now the father of three), and he needed more security in his life. (Asked about the biggest difference between rock and opera, he responded: "The lifestyle is very different, but maybe we won't go into that.")
He sang in various choral groups in the United Kingdom over the next few years before moving into small roles in opera. Asked what the attraction was, he responded: "Well I think always deep down I knew it was something I wanted to do. I'm the fourth boy in a family of four boys. I always realized showing off and being loud was a prerequisite to being heard in the family. Opera is shouting on pitch and lots of showing off."
After a while, Purves got tired of being back in the chorus - "My ego got the better of me," he said - and moved up in roles. Billed initially as a bass because he could hit those very low notes, he transformed himself into a baritone.
"My old singing teacher would say to you I was never a bass; I was a lazy baritone," he said. "Emotionally and psychologically I was always a baritone. They're more on their toes, more energetic. Some are downright evil. Roles written for baritones have always appealed to me."
His big break occurred in 1996 when he created the Executioner role in Ines de Castro for the Scottish Opera and got good reviews.
He's sung the role of Faninal in Der Rosenkavalier for the Welsh National Opera, Tonio in Pagliacci for the English National Opera and the title role in Verdi's Falstaff at the Glyndebourne Festival.
Actually, he said, there are similarities between his old and new life. The doo-wop band and choir both required "incredibly complex harmonies" as he put it. He learned to read music in choir which helped with all the rest - in choir you often didn't have long rehearsal times; you had to be able to pick up music quickly by reading sheet music, he said.
And both rock and opera require a certain stage presence to be successful, he believes.
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"You have to find a way of being at ease on stage and selling a song. If you can't communicate in rock music you go nowhere. The great opera writers have found something extremely important to say. It's all about communication."
This isn't the first time he's sung Captain Balstode, one of the few friends of the troubled Peter Grimes. "I did a production that won multiple awards in Britain," he said. Peter Grimes is not as melodic as say a Madame Butterfly, he said, but "it's an incredibly thoughtful opera" about "an outsider being ostracized for being different."
"Opera is not just about making pretty noises."
Peter Grimes, a co-production of Houston Grand Opera and Opera Australia, runs October 29 through November 12 at the Brown Theater. For ticket information call 713-228-6737 or go to www.houstongrandopera.org.