Totally Terfel

On the eve of his Australian tour, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel chats intimately about Wagner, Verdi, viticulture and the NSW Golf Club.

The stentorian bass-baritone voice of Bryn Terfel resonates from the upper floors of a historic palazzo as I’m buzzed into the lobby of what appears to be a Milanese Valhalla, glazed in white Carrara marble and polished brass. I follow the strains of the aria up a travertine stairwell and find a molto Milanese Terfel dressed in black jeans, a white tailored dress-shirt and smart leather shoes. The 47-year-old Welsh bass-baritone is back in Milan for two Teatro alla Scala role debuts – Falstaff and The Flying Dutchman – under the auspices of the 2013 birth year bicentenaries of both Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. In a well-appointed kitchen, Terfel puts the kettle on and fans the pages of a thick, well-loved manuscript of Verdi’s Falstaff. Librettist Arrigo Boito’s native Italian words have been phonetically-dissected and spliced with references to Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV. “I have done my homework and my research... dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s,” he reflects on being the Shakespearian rock star of this Robert Carsen-directed, joie-de-vivre Falstaff, set in post-WWII Britian, which garnered critical accolades when it premiered at Covent Garden last May.

His recent La Scala role debut, however, was not without incident. “I had actually rung La Scala to tell them that I wasn’t very comfortable doing my first Falstaff with just a couple days’ rehearsals, so between performances of The Flying Dutchman in Zurich, I jumped on the very efficient Swiss trains, coasted through three hours of amazing vistas covered in 20 feet of snow which had Heathrow grounding planes to a halt – and got into Milan exactly on time. I rehearsed Falstaff for two days, finished my performances in Zurich and came backto Milan to prepare. I was still mulling over what had happened in those rehearsals when I got a call from La Scala, saying, ‘You’re on!’” Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri had fallen ill, and Terfel was required to step in two days earlier than planned.

“These things happen to us,” he says matter-of-factly, a disarmingly unpretentious attitude for an opera superstar whose laurels include two Grammy awards and four Classical Brit awards. This stardom was gradually cultivated over the two decades following Bryn’s big break – the 1989 Lieder Prize in the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. In 2003, he was made a CBE for services to Opera in the Queen’s New Year Honours list; three years later, he was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music.

“For a farmer’s son from North Wales, to be able to sing Falstaff at La Scala is the stuff of dreams,” he confesses. “You walk into the theatre through that first corridor with the historic posters like Callas’ Norma and Tosca, Di Stefano and Corelli, and you feel the butterflies immediately. I mean, this is where Falstaff premiered! This is our Roland Garros, our Wimbledon.”

Terfel’s bond with the Milanese theatre dates back to June 1993, when a fresh-faced 27-year-old was invited to perform Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder under the legendary Giuseppe Sinopoli. He is now a veteran of La Scala, and his vivid Falstaff twinkled with wit and panache until, in Act II, he dragged his soaking, grimy girth onto the shore of the Thames, only to return, penitent, in the final fugue, Tutto nel mondo è burla (All the world’s a joke).

“It takes an hour and a half to transform into Falstaff. When I sit in the makeup chair and the wig goes on, then the false nose and the big lamb chops, something transforms in me – I’m giggling – it’s pure, total humour and enjoyment. It sets a great mood that carries me right into the beginning of the opera.”

The voice, however, requires no dressing up. “Falstaff is a glove for me and it fits quite comfortably in the vocal tessitura. Verdi took Falstaff away from the usual Verdi baritone tessitura, which I will never even attempt to sing. I can’t even imagine myself singing an aria from those operas – Rigoletto, Trovatore, Traviata. I wish I could, but I know I can’t!”

Italian baritone Leo Nucci, the golden standard of those lighter Verdi roles, once described the composer’s writing for this range as “the voice of authority – it’s the voice that as children, we heard in the arms of our fathers, right next to his heart.” Terfel smiles at this, pointing out that he finds shades of his father’s voice in his own: “That’s the Italian baritone, whereas in the arms of my father I would have undoubtedly heard a bass-baritone voice. My father has a better voice than I have, but he wasn’t trained and went into what all of his brothers and sisters went into – the farming industry.

“Today, I think my voice certainly still has the flexibility of a young bass-baritone. When you’re singing and cutting your teeth on the professional circuit with Mozart, Donizetti and Rossini, those roles are second nature. But the older you get, you delve into more difficult repertoire like Wagner and Strauss. There’s an authority in them. You have to look after yourself more.”

In recent years, Terfel has segued into grittier Wagner Gesamtkunstwerk with peerless interpretations of Wotan in Der Ring des Nibelungen (May 2012 for the Met and September at Covent Garden), Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the title role of The Flying Dutchman. He admits that it’s been a challenge to step into these meaty roles and leave behind lighter footprints of his youth.

“By any yardstick, Flying Dutchman’s the shortest of Wagner’s operas, but don’t be fooled, because it’s one of the most dangerous!” he warns. “It’s a pitfall. Don’t rest on your laurels. The four scenes that he has in this very short opera are very dramatic. Verdi and Wagner were very good at placing characters on the stage to show their emotions and to tell a story, but you never know what’s going to happen on the stage with Wagner. The Dutchman has places where I can struggle. The duet with Senta is good for anybody who wants to try out Wagner: find a soprano, take her into the music room, sing through the duet and see if you can get to the end of it without sweating!

“I think of the role of Hans Sachs [in Die Meistersinger], again by any yardstick, is the longest ever written for this voice. Maybe more lyrical than the dramatic acts of the Ring Cycle, but still, in a rehearsal process, you will never, ever sing that whole role until you get to the piano dress rehearsal. And that’s the only time you know whether you can actually get through it... So going from Mozart to Wagner is like going from a 100-metre dash to a real marathon.”
By contrast, Terfel’s April concerts in Australia will be a walk in the park, stamina-wise. They begin at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall with a gala concert to fête Sir Andrew Davis’ official return to Australia as the chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, at which Terfel sings excerpts from Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. He then heads to the Sydney Opera House with accompanist Sharolyn Kimmorley to perform a selection of songs of the Celtic Isles and Schubert Lieder.

Terfel says he’s honoured to collaborate in Sir Andrew Davis’ inaugural concert with the MSO, whom he first met at his Last Night of the Proms premiere in 1994. “To perform with Sir Andrew Davis is a treat. He doesn’t conduct me very often so when I do have the chance, I jump at it. And to be given such an important concert in Melbourne, I accepted it with open arms.”

While in Melbourne, he’ll also reacquaint himself with the landscape, and the local drop. “Being in Melbourne gives me the chance of going down to one of my favourite wine destinations, Margaret River. It’s like time seems to have stopped – and the light there is incredible. Your cares and worries, if you do have any, seem to vanish. I have two very favourite wineries there – Cullen Wines and Leeuwin Estate.

“When you see such passion and the creativity behind making the wine – one does it biodynamically and the other one has been making white wine that wins awards all over the world – you start to think of it in terms of your own profession. Because at times, I certainly take it for granted: I turn up to these places and I sing and greatly enjoy what I do, but sometimes you have to step back and give yourself perspective. It’s amazing that I’ve been able to do this and have almost 30 years of a career.”

The Melbourne gala concerts culminate with Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony, with Terfel as choral soloist joining Australian mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell and two young artists from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, soprano Tracy Cantin and tenor John Irvin. “My very first introduction to Beethoven’s Ninth was through an Australian conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras, who of course was highly regarded for conducting these monumental pieces. Through the years, I’ve seen different countries and their reactions to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – from singing it with Carlo Maria Giulini in Vienna to Claudio Abbado in numerous places and with Sir Colin Davis. Then I sang it with Zubin Mehta in Japan, where they absolutely revere it. I don’t get many opportunities now to sing it, so I think this could maybe be my Beethoven’s Ninth swansong.”

A few days later, Bryn sings Lieder and Celtic Isles songs at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. “Sydney’s my favourite city in the world. When I land in Sydney, I’ll be smiling, thinking, ‘I could live here.’” Terfel first came to Sydney in 1999 to sing Falstaff at the Sydney Opera House. “Back then, vocally I was great, but in character, personally, and really knowing the opera, I wasn’t,” he admits. “I was this young, naïve, very confident bass-baritone that thought that he could just go to Australia and sing for his supper.”

As an avid golfer, Terfel treasures Sydney for its enviable courses (he cites the New South Wales Golf Club as the most beautiful) and, as with Melbourne, he appreciates its rich wine legacy. “During those two months in Sydney, I met some wonderful people. Like Len Evans. He was a Welshman who went to Australia and was instrumental in building the wine community. I went to stay with him in the Hunter Valley. He ignited my passion for wine, a good fit for Falstaff, who was constantly drinking on stage!”

The Australian concert dates grant Terfel a brief departure from the opulent, grand opera stages of Milan, London and New York and he enjoys the intimate, elemental aspects of concert performances. “Recitals bring it back to the bare essentials of two performers on the stage,“ he says, referencing his six years in London in the mid-1980s at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where he studied under Rudolf Piernay. “Most of my technical thoughts with my singing teacher came through songs. I learned how to sing through these wonderful songs by Schubert and Brahms. That was the repertoire and the way that my teacher taught me the colouration of vowels. Singing Lieder, of course, is like

an incredible oil change to a Formula One car. It really does make you think more technically. I love it. In fact, if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t have the chance to sing in the Musikverein in Vienna or Carnegie Hall in New York City or the Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood.”

And while Terfel name-checks the world’s great classical halls, let’s not forget that this country boy cut from the lush North Wales landscape has also trodden the popular stage, performing American musical theatre, Welsh folksong and Christmas classics. His tribute CD to Rodgers & Hammerstein classics evokes a swaggering Hugh Jackman, a likeminded showman of many hats who has segued into musical theatre. Will Terfel’s next chapter further explore the world of Broadway? “If I decided to do six months of Javert in Les Misérables, it’d be something I’d have to learn from the people around me who are deeply involved in musical theatre. Singing eight performances a week in a musical is a very different animal. And not only on stage but off it as well. What time do you get up in the morning when you’re in musical theatre? How do you recuperate what you’ve lost by singing two shows in one day? I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it would be interesting to find out later in life.”

If so, Terfel admits he has some tough competition, as the stars of Hollywood are currently experiencing a fetish for musical theatre. In the same year the bass-baritone sang a concert performance of the title role in Sweeney Todd as part of the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall, Tim Burton cast Johnny Depp as the demon barber of Fleet Street in a gothic Hollywood adaptation. The same goes for Javert in Les Misérables, handed to Russell Crowe. Here, Terfel playfully drops his voice to a gravely basso profondo and imitates the Australian actor in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator: “‘My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.’” “Who knows?” he jokes with a mischievous smile, “Maybe there’s one left for me? Camelot? Which, incidentally, starred a very famous Welshman, Richard Burton, in the original stage show in the 1960s.”

These Hollywood icons are more than just cultural figures to Terfel, and he looks to idols such as Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra for inspiration. “I sang duets with Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. People might snigger at it, but I looked closely at Tom Jones and I saw how he breathed and how he created a sound. He still sings the same songs in the same keys as he did in the 1960s, hitting top B-flats that any tenor would be proud of.”

Quite apart from the pop-idol amusements described on his social media feeds – exclusive sporting events, rare wine scavenging and bons mots tossed to starry Welsh crossover darlings Charlotte Church and Katherine Jenkins – the dangerous art of genre-crossing has unlocked opportunities normally inaccessible to opera singers, leading Terfel to rub shoulders with celebrities you wouldn’t expect to find in his address book.

First, after meeting one of his heroes, Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters, Terfel was invited to sing in the former rocker’s 2005 French Revolution opera, Ça Ira. In September 2011, while singing Wotan at The Metropolitan Opera, Terfel was requested by Andrea Bocelli as a special guest in the Italian tenor’s Central Park spectacular with the New York Philharmonic. Backstage, Sting was so taken with Terfel’s voice and charisma that he asked him to sing his own Police-era hit Roxanne –“like in the Moulin Rouge movie, as El Tango De Roxanne, Terfel explains – at his 60th birthday party the following month, alongside artists such as Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. “Lady Gaga played the piano, a great performer with an incredible voice. It was a total eye-opener. If I had given myself a career straitjacket and said, ‘I’m not going to do these kinds of concerts and straddle this crossover genre, ’then I surely wouldn’t have all these great anecdotes to tell my children later in life when I’m sitting on my boat with my fishing rod.”

Bryn Terfel performs at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on April 28-29 and at the Sydney Opera House on April 30.

Copyright © Limelight Magazine. All rights reserved

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of Limelight Magazine.

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Totally Terfel
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