The exquisite, charming, delightful Sir Bryn Terfel: ”I want to work!”
Interview by Cristina Enescu
It is simply impossible that you know a little something about the biggest contemporary operatic stars and have not heard his voice or his name mentioned among the world’s most praised (bass)-baritones. “One of the most important and charismatic singers performing today” (Opera Magazine), as simple as that.
Sir Bryn Terfel has sung in many iconic operatic roles: legendary Mozart characters (Don Giovanni, Leporello, Figaro, Masetto), Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov Tsar, Falstaff, Scarpia, the Flyinng Dutchman, Wotan in Wagner’s Die Walküre, Sweeney Todd are just a few of the gems in his operatic crown. He won Grammys and Classical Brit Awards. His Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, staged at the Royal Opera House this past spring, has been touted as one of 2017’s must-see classical performances.
He is a COBE, a recipient of the Queen’s Medal for Music and, in 2016, was knighted by the Queen. Back in 1989, the finals of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition saw an epic battle between two who were to become some of the world’s greatest singers, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel. The Russian won the big prize, then becoming one of the greatest Verdi baritones, the Welsh received the Lieder prize, and later turned into a superb Wagnerian baritone. With his strong and smooth voice, vividly shaped roles, powerful and compelling vocal and theatrical acts, he cannot but make a strong impression on his audiences. Bryn Terfel is a force of nature and a very warm-hearted performer, also an outspoken admirer of many fellow singers and performers, whether mentors or colleagues. Indeed, after so many years performing, his sparkling, infectious enthusiasm is still intact.
On a superb September 5th evening, at the beginning of the George Enescu International Festival in Bucharest, alongside famed Scottish pianist Malcolm Marceau, Terfel seduced the audience with an impeccable arsenal of exquisite vocal skills, witty stories of Welsh songs and his own life (as a farmer’s boy, a growing and then world famous musician, recently as the lullabies singing father of a 4 months old) and laid-back humoresque (even growling) moments with the pianist, the page-turner, the audience in front and even in the back – as at one point he sang facing the few audience members seated in the back of the stage. Warm-hearted, enjoying every minute, infectiously passionate, a highly enjoyable and generous personality on and off-stage, a wizard of both singing and charming the audience – that was the Welsh superstar in Bucharest.
“Hi, I’m Lang Lang, I was born in Wales” he greeted the long line of fans following him backstage, joking about his participation in the Enescu Festival as a replacement of equally famous pianist Lang Lang, who had to cancel his performance for health reasons.
Sir Bryn Terfel, way before you became an operatic superstar, you started your career as a singer of Welsh music. How did tonight’s return to those native musical roots feel?
Well I did feel that the Romanian public reacted to hearing about Wales, there was affinity with that small country with its own language. And yes, I started singing folk songs, with the harp, songs by classical composers, when my voice broke and I then became the bass-baritone that I am now. I had no other interest to become anything else than a singer. My singing was always being fed through the Welsh culture, through competitions, those eisteddfod (Welsh festivals of literature, music and performances) which is on every weekend in a given village in Wales. There you compete, you sing, you write, sing in a choir, play an instrument. I became quite successful in that circuit, so later I made the decision to go to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I studied for five years, then the rest has fallen into place through hard work and dedication.
What is it about the Welsh music environment that makes, for example, 4 Welsh musicians to be among the currently most successful singers worldwide?
I think it’s how the schools are prepared, young singers get lessons and instruments for free, and that is how you cut your teeth to find out if you have an interest in music, be it in any style, folk, classical, rock, pop… Hence you can see many actors coming from Wales, think of Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, singers like Gwyneth Jones (soprano), Stuart Burrows (tenor).. The list is endless. I think, for a very small nation, the musical root system is quite strong, therefore it is very important for the Assembly of Wales to keep this tradition going – and maybe also have something like you have here, in Romania, the George Enescu Festival, three weeks of concerts in one city, which hosts all the best musicians of the world! It’s not Romania going to the world, it’s the world coming to Romania! That’s what it’s all about. To see people like Vadim Repin tonight (famous Russian-born violinist) with his Stradivarious, playing a concert, or Lang Lang who was supposed to be here.. It’s just incredible. Hats off to this wonderful city!
Among others, you are praised for the way you intertwine strong, even bad characters with a personal touch of humour. What is your recipe for such charming, fresh interpretations?
Yes, in certain roles I do that, for instance in Falstaff. That role is a vehicle, it’s the Porsche of any operatic role, you love to drive it, you love to find different gears. So many colours to be found in the music that Verdi wrote! Technically speaking, I have worked hard – and it’s not by chance that you arrive at a venue and are able to sing many different styles of music. This is what keeps me interested.. You have to find time to explore. I can sing with Tom Jones, I can sing with Sting… I’m somebody that’s good at taking people telling me what to do. I like to have nuggets of information, hence working with people like Georg Solti, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti, James Levine, all the greatest conductors of the world. I have a clean slate and I am ready to work, maybe it’s my background, maybe it’s where I come from, but I want to work! And I like people telling me what to do, that is to your positive, not to your detriment. It’s something that guides you forward. Success, I think, is like a good restaurant, if you get good food, good service, good wine, there’s a high percentage you’ll go back there. And you, as a singer, if you to go the opera house and you know your work, you are very good with your colleagues, you’re gentle and kind with the people who work in the opera houses – it’s not because you sing well or that the public reacted to you, it’s because you are a good person, and then you’re invited back there. It helps if you have a good voice as well, but more important is to be a good colleague.
One of the most unforgettable memories, that filled you up with joy to be doing this job?
Most probably one of the highlights of my operatic career. Ok, der Ring des Nibelungen by Wagner is something very special and unique, singing Sachs for the first time is an Everest to be climbed. But to sing Falstaff for the first time, in Australia, so far away from everybody, a beautiful production with a great cast, in a beautiful opera house with iconic architecture. It doesn’t matter if the opera house or the acoustics are very good or not, but it was a family feeling within that opera house. Having done ten performances of Falstaff has been a great memory for me. Seeing those postcards with the Sydney Opera House always fills me with joy, because it’s the first time I sang Falstaff.
What has lately been the music that you like to relax on, when you want to unwind from everything?
Well I am a Compay Segundo kind of guy, I like to listen to Cuban bands, with old men playing guitars out of tune, that is the kind of musical anthology that I listen to when I’m on holidays. But you cannot hide from somebody like Ed Sheeran at the moment either, he is everywhere, he is a monumental giant of music, you know, 12 sold out shows in 25.000 seated theatres… it’s just incredible. I’d love to meet the guy, and maybe sing along with him – and sing loudly in his ear!