Bryn Terfel: interview

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Time Out catches up with Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel ahead of his performance in 'The Flying Dutchman' at the Royal Opera House and discovers a family man who loves Man United

  • Bryn Terfel: interview

    Bryn Terfel © Jason Bell

  • Last September, the Donaghadee Male Voice Choir, of which my father is a member, was waiting to sing in Carnegie Hall in New York. The star of the show was the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who would be singing folk songs from Britain and Ireland.

    As the choir is from Ulster, its members were disappointed to discover that Terfel was to sing their show-stopper ‘Danny Boy’ (its beauty being one of the few things everyone agrees on in the Province). The choirmaster was duly dispatched to the star’s dressing room to explain the problem, and was pleasantly surprised when the distinguished singer merely picked up his music, leafed through, removed the Irish song and announced that he would no longer be singing it.

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    Terfel’s beneficence is now legend in that corner of County Down, and when I inform him of it, he seems taken aback, embarrassed that such a small act, for him, should be so gratefully received. His powerful form is presently sprawled on a settee in a tiny room at the Royal Opera House. He is relaxing after a long day rehearsing Wagner’s ‘Der Fliegende Holländer’ (‘The Flying Dutchman’) in the basement of that labyrinthine establishment.

    Save for the brown loafers, dressed in a T-shirt, shirt and heavy leather jacket, with a beard, slightly long, tousled hair, and a scar on his forehead descending to his bulbous nose, Terfel could easily pass for one of the tough sailing folk of the northern isles, where Wagner’s ‘Holländer’ is set.The 43-year-old singer is really looking forward to starring in it. ‘In this production we have more than 120 men on stage for the choruses,’ he says in his deep though measured Welsh tones. ‘Be prepared to be blown away. It’s loud!’

    His relationship with the German composer is a poignant one. It was 20 years ago that he sprang to fame singing ‘Der Frist Ist Um’ (from ‘Holländer’), while still a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in the final of the Cardiff Singer of the World.In 2005, he burst into tears after completing his first night in the role of Wotan in Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’. ‘It was just a pure burst of emotion, one I had never encountered on the operatic stage before,’ he explains. But that Everest was climbed and conquered, and then paragliding down from that monumental height with such a force – I wasn’t ready for it.’

    It was while rehearsing to sing in another Wagner opera two years later (‘Siegfried’, also at Covent Garden) that Terfel infamously quit to be with his youngest son, who had seriously injured a finger, consequently suffering a press storm of disapproval. The singer is unrepentant. ‘It is the right decision that I made. I came to the opera house not fully committed, thinking about what was happening back home. You know, I have missed two births of my children. I think it kind of boiled up to a climactic crescendo and in that intense couple of weeks with “the Ring” you needed to be very concentrated and fully committed… so I thought I’d nip it in the bud and be home for a change.’

    And home, in north Wales, is where Terfel likes to spend his life away from opera (when he is not playing golf). He lives there with wife Lesley and their three boys (Tomas, 14, Morgan, ten, and Deio Sion, eight). Indeed, he declares he will never sing at the Bayreuth Festival (at Wagner’s own opera house in Bavaria) because it would involve spending three summer months away from home.

    Surprisingly, the Welshman’s favourite sport is not rugby but football. ‘For my teenage years it was always football. I was a very keen Manchester United fan because of George Best. I am still an avid fan and hoping to go to the Carling Cup Final on Sunday [v Spurs],’ he lowers his voice conspiratorially, ‘but I’ve got a show here later, so I better not sing too loudly.’

    The interview concluded, Terfel escorts me out. Towering over me in the lift, he explains that he learned his way around the ROH during a run of ‘Falstaff’ (a role he brought hilariously to life at the recent Last Night of the Proms). A left turn here, a right turn there, exiting through a fire door I find myself outside, amid the hubbub of Covent Garden. A firm handshake and he is off to an Indian restaurant he saw on television. As I take my bearings, his great voice booms over the crowd. ‘Say hi to your dad,’ he bellows with a smile. I have – the legend grows.

    ‘Die Fliegende Holländer’ runs at the Royal Opera House until March 10

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