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Cheryl North Interviews Bryn Terfel

This material appeared in a November 1997 column in ANG newspapers. An additional quote from a 2000 column is included.

by Cheryl North

Bryn Terfel doesn't look like an opera star. Moreover, on a one-to-one basis, he doesn't ACT like one either. But, make no mistake, the husky Welsh bass-baritone, now in his mid-30's, is one of the operatic world's greatest treasures. He has just completed a stint singing the role of the diabolical Nick Shadow in the San Francisco Opera's recent production of �The Rake's Progress,� by Igor Stravinsky. Earlier this month, he performed a sold-out, critically acclaimed solo recital with pianist Malcolm Martineau at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.

Although the 6 foot 3-inch singer is often awesome and larger than life on the operatic stage, he was unassuming and friendly one afternoon a couple of years ago as he personally led me down the narrow back-stage hall leading to his dressing room at the San Francisco Opera house for a hastily scheduled interview. Dressed in a casual golf shirt and slightly crumpled pants, he had a benign, hail-fellow-well-met presence and bonhomie that made me think of Smoky the Bear.

But, as he spoke, images of the late Richard Burton, a fellow Welshman, came quickly to mind. Terfel, like Burton, seems to caress each word he speaks, burnishing the English language with a warm Welsh burr.

His singing voice is one of the truly magnificent instruments of the 20th century with a massiveness that warms the soul like a blazing hearth fire on a snowy night. It is a keenly focused voice with huge proportions, yet it is flexible and has a texture one critic dubbed �like cashmere.� Moreover he has a way with phrasing similar to Frank Sinatra in his salad days and like Sinatra, he can imbue a song (or an aria) with an immediacy and intimacy that can reach out and grab an audience.

Yet, Terfel the man is amazingly modest and unassuming in demeanor and deportment. �I didn't really plan to be a singer,� he said. �I was interested in sports when I was young and played soccer and rugby. Had I not gotten into singing, I probably would have become a policeman or a fireman,� he continued, as the corners of his eyes crinkled along with his smile.

Terfel and his brother, now a physical education teacher, were born on a sheep and cattle farm in Pantglas, Wales, a small village in the country's rugged north. While sports were his greatest interest growing up, music did play an important role. Both his father and mother sang in church choirs and he easily followed in their footsteps.

�It was just part of village life,� he says of singing in Wales. �It was something that brought people together and we simply enjoyed yourselves.�

Terfel also took piano lessons, tried trumpet, clarinet, and guitar, and regularly sang in the local Welsh singing contests (eisteddfodau). Whenever he won one of the monetary prizes in a contest (about $20), he would usually use the money to buy football boots or a bit of sports equipment.

However, as his teenage years drew to a close, he was urged by a music teacher to head for London to audition for a music school. Although he had indeed sung a lot in his youth, opera was not part of his early training. Like most teenagers, his musical interests centered on pop and rock and his favorites were Elvis Presley, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd and Queen.

�If someone had asked me who Pavarotti was when I was 16, I couldn't have told them,� he said.

As a result of the teacher's prodding, for the first time in their lives, Bryn and his parents set out for London where he was to audition for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Going to London was �like culture shock,� he says.

And - in London, it was vini, vidi, vinci. He came, he saw, and he conquered. He was not only accepted at Guildhall, he was awarded a scholarship. While there he studied voice with Arthur Reckless and Rudolf Piernay and haunted the school library where he listened to opera and song recordings and studied scores. In his last Guildhall year he entered a competition and walked away with the school's Gold Medal.

Since then he has won the Kathleen Ferrier Competition, one of the most prestigious in Britain, as well as the Lieder (art song) prize in the highly visible �Singer of the World� competition in Cardiff, Wales in 1989. (Another young baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, won the first prize that year).

Terfel's subsequent ascent into the stratosphere of operatic superstardom has continued with rocket speed. He has appeared in Strauss� �Salome;� Wagner�s �Das Rheingold;� as Wolfram in Wagner�s �Tannhauser;� Scarpia in Puccini�s �Tosca;� Verdi�s �Falstaff;� Offenbach�s �Les Contes d�Hoffmann;� Britten�s �Peter Grimes;� has sung the roles of both Leporello and the Don in Mozart�s �Don Giovanni;� and Stravinsky�s �The Rake�s Progress� and in productions of �The Marriage of Figaro� with the Welsh National Opera; English National Opera; Santa Fe Opera; Royal Opera, Covent Garden; the Salzburg Festival; New York�s Metropolitan Opera; Chatelet in Paris; Lisbon Opera; and at La Scala in Milan. And, to the opera world�s great delight, he has finally contracted to sing his first �Wotan� in Wagner�s �Das Rheingold� in Munich in 2001.

His recordings of Schubert�s �Schwanengesang;� �An Die Musik: Lieder;� �The Vagabond;� Rodgers and Hammerstein hits; Lerner and Lowe favorites, have earned kudos from audiences and critics alike.

He has also worked with some of the world's greatest conductors, including the late great Sir Georg Solti, of whom he says, �It was like working with a God. He was 84 at the time, but his energy and enthusiasm levels put everybody else to shame.�

�As an opera singer, your path is pretty well sorted out and planned six years in advance,� he says. �Yet, I can't complain. I'm in a very fortunate position with my career now. I can more or less pick and choose whatever I want to do. I have a contract with Deutsche Grammophon and they are very flexible with my brainstorms. I hope to even record some Gilbert & Sullivan one day.�

Nevertheless, he maintains close links with his Welsh roots. He regularly sends postcards back to the Pantglas Post Office, which are, in turn, posted on a board for all the locals to share and he meets as often as possible with the mates he grew up and still considers among his closest friends. All this is helped along, no doubt, by his marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Lesley, and the subsequent birth of their son, Tomos, now three-years-old. (Tomos is the Welsh spelling for Thomas).

�We met in primary school,� he says of Lesley. �She's my best friend and critic. You've got to have somebody to tell you the truth about how you're doing, and she does!� He also noted happily that Lesley and Tomos often traveled right along with him.

Terfel remains keen on sports, but due to the constraints of his singing career, his former jousts on soccer or rugby fields have been replaced by milder forays at snooker and golf. Recent back surgery has also slowed his athletic activities a bit.

Although he has enormous respect for fellow baritones like Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Thomas Hampson, and the like, he doesn't foresee any combining of forces for a baritone equivalent of �The Three Tenors.�

�We're all in the same lake, so to speak, but we're all in different boats,� he says.

He also retains his eclectic taste in music and recounted rather gleefully his appearance on British television several Christmases ago with fellow Welshman Tom Jones.

�The show was called �Tom Jones and Friends,�� he said, �and included me, the American singer Toni Braxton and Mark Knofler of �Dire Straits.� Jones and I sang �Green, Green Grass of Home� as a duet.�

He also noted that, although an opera singer's life resembles that of supermodels and stars like Cindy Crawford, Pierce Brosnan, and the like, with stops along the same circuit - Milan, Paris, London, New York - the accompanying fame is not at the same level. �It's the kind of stardom that allows us to go to the corner Safeway and be treated like everybody else,� he said.

As an example, he recounted the occasion during his last visit to San Francisco when he, Lesley, Tomos, and the nanny all dropped into San Francisco's Planet Hollywood. �The food was great and I didn't seem to be recognized. Maybe someone thought I was Gerard Depardieu or something because of my nose - I wracked it up two or three times on the rugby field - but no one singled me out for special treatment. That was cool.�

From Cheryl North�s June 2, 2000 Column in ANG Newspapers: Force of Nature

The inimitable Bryn Terfel, whom Lotfi Mansouri agrees is �a force of nature,� will further display his remarkable versatility during a Cal Performances recital featuring songs by Hugo Wolf; Robert Schumann; Brahms (``Vier Ernste Gesange''); Butterworth; John Ireland; Hubert Parry; Roger Quilter; Michael Herad; Idris Lewis; as well as a number of traditional Welsh songs, at 8 p.m. Saturday in Zellerbach Hall on the University of California campus in Berkeley.

�1999-2002 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and ANG Newspapers

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