Bryn Terfel Interview

Before his concert at Atlanta’s Spivey Hall, entitled “Bryn At 50”, the Wales born Bass-Baritone sat in his dressing room for a wide ranging interview with GBOpera correspondent Lorenzo Bassi.
You have describe the role of Wotan in Wagner’s “Ring” as your “Everest”. More recently you have been singing Scarpia in Tosca. How do they compare for you?    
They’re the two most dangerous of roles to perform on the stage. With Wotan you have these wonderful six nights. Rheingold begins the proceedings going into Walküre the crescendo is already beginning, and then you come to Siegfried, where the tessitura is higher. So it is an incredible journey to be a part of the Ring Cycle, not only for the singers but for the audience. (But) once you’re past that second act of Walküre where you have the big monologue with Brünhilde, I think then one can think forward to the next Rheingold.
Even baritones fear the demands of Scarpia. As a bass-baritone, what do you think?  
For me the hardest role by any stretch is Scarpia because it has everything. Like Tito Gobbi says, “Tutto fa il brodo”, historical elements, characters, this amazing chief of police who is a connoisseur of wine and women. Interestingly enough I just sang Scarpia in Vienna and who came backstage after the second act but the Chief of Police of Rome! The actual Chief of Police!  I was wondering what he thought of Scarpia himself and how he is totally blinkered by this amazing Floria Tosca, and not even the Te Deum and the religion and all the festivities changes the course of his mind and what is going to happen in that second act. And whatever power he’s been given he misuses. So you can consider him as a misfit and a malcontent of the operatic stage.
Do you like playing this character?   
Sometimes you delve into that too much on the stage, so you sing louder than you usually do; your characterization becomes meaner. The pivotal point for me is the Te Deum. If the chorus is on the stage with me I can blend with them, but if they’re offstage it’s a different animal, and it kind of  creeps into that second act. Many times I become frightened of Scarpia in the second Act, especially towards the end. That magnificent trio where Cavaradossi comes back and finishes with ‘Vittoria! Vittoria!’  So, I still have something to achieve in Scarpia even with all the performances I’ve done. There’s something that I haven’t been able to accomplish—which brings you back to the stage with a new vigor, with a clean slate and wanting to do it better. And I think that’s a good thing-you’re not resting on your laurels.
Would you make  any distinctions in terms of vocalism between these roles?    
I try to keep to what I’ve learned in the music room and what I’ve learned. Of how to try and keep a formula. Inevitably you are going to find yourself singing in a 5,000 seat opera house and a smaller one, an 800 seat opera house, but the rudiments of that performance has got to be the same.
And you find that it is the same for Italian and German repertoire: singing is singing?     Definitely. I’m pretty chuffed (pleased) with the fact that I’m not a full blown Italian baritone, because I will never have to sing those wonderful roles like Boccanegra or Traviata and Trovatore. That is a different kettle of fish because of the nuance of the writing of  Verdi and yes, the tessitura. It’s like what Leo Nucci said, that the baritone voice was in him when his father was cradling him and singing him songs. It is a very unique position to be considered as an Italian baritone I think. They are as gold dust. I dipped my toes into singing Falstaff for instance.
Do you still go to your voice teacher?   
I wish I could have more time with him. He’s busy, I’m busy. The next time I’ll go to him is with Winterreise, when I start learning it, because all the other roles I’ve worked on with him.
Fantastic. Well, we look forward to that one. But turning to your present concert  how did you choose repertoire for concerts?
For instance, tonight is “Bryn at 50”. I’ve had a magnificent year, where I’ve reached the age of 50 on November the ninth of November. Of course opera singers’ calendars sometimes are planned three years in advance, so I had to plan this year carefully two years ago with my agent, Doreen O’Neill. I want to return to places that I’ve been and I want to sing in opera houses that I enjoy.
Did you repeat the earlier roles or take on new ones?
I started the Summer with Fiddler On the Roof, with the Grange Park Opera (Chicago). I sang Tevye for the first time. I then decided to do a recital tour which included places like this, Spivey Hall. I made sure that in this tour that I came back here, because I enjoyed it. I did Sweeny Todd with Emma Thompson in the English National Opera. I sang Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House last month for the first time. and within my 50th year Boris became one of the highlights of my career., the  hardest thing I’ve ever done, the biggest hurdle.
Because of the language?    
Yes, and that fits into this regimental planning because I needed Russian coaches for eight months. from Paris onward, and thankfully I had Natalia (Katyukova) who’s playing for me tonight with me in New York and in Colorado when we had a concert together. In German, Spanish, English, Italian, you can correct yourself, but in Russian I can’t so I needed someone like Natalia to tell me how to do it, and finally within two weeks of the first rehearsal I felt comfortable with singing the whole role.
How does the role suit you, both dramatically and vocally?
Boris Godunov has everything: from the Coronation Scene into the scene with his children, into his monologue about what he thinks he’s done for Russia…and even towards the end where all the Boyars have turned against him and push him over the edge. The final death scene with his beautiful young son is so touching, so moving. I had watched all these amazing basses sing this role, people like  Ghiarov, and Furlanetto, Ramey, all these magnificent basses, Boris Christof, Chaliapin., and I’ll fight anybody tooth  and nail if they say it’s a bass role, because it is a bass-baritone role.
 In your concerts, you perform the Jacque Ibert Don Quichotte songs, which were written for the 1932 movie in which Chaliapin played the title role. Was this coincidence?
It’s a connection that I have in the recital. I chose that because I had just done Boris and Chaliapin was such a magnificent Boris himself.
That’s Bryn at 50. What about the young Bryn? You titled your album of English Songs after a Welsh folksong you had sung since you were three years old. What was your home life like? Was there a musical homelife that happened?    
Yes, definitely. My parents sang. My grandparents sang from both sides.
Was there a piano in the house?   
Yes, there was a piano in the house. My father and my mother..both loved singing in their different choirs, so there were always words cellophane-taped on the kitchen units whilst they were preparing for a competition or a concert. Every Sunday we would go to church twice a day…   
Does the Welsh culture promote music and poetry?   
From a very early age you’re learning repertoire in the Welsh medium. The culture is the Eisteddfod in Wales. It’s the weekend  competition that we have in Wales. In any given weekend you could go to a village and compete. Everything: reciting, singing, writing, instrument playing, that’s the Eisteddfod that brings people together. My parents were passionate about taking me to different places. With being successful in there there was also an added incentive in the fact that you would also win some money and they helped to by some soccer shoes or a football or anything that I was keen on.
Did you have a favorite part of the competition?
There is a tradition in Wales, a competition within the Eisteddfod, of singing with the harp, and singing poetic verses. So the harp has a melody and you have to sing these verses within her accompaniment. And I was quite good at that, because my enunciation was good, my diction was good, what I thought of the poetry. Undoubtedly that’s the Meistersing, Beckmesser, Hans Sachs situation. I would say that what the Eisteddfod did give you was a very firm ground to start your singing career…and there was enjoyment, there was camaraderie-you’d meet wonderful people, from north, south, east, west of Wales.
When you started your career at such a high level, who guided you inspecting repertoire.     
Well, I think that is predominantly decided by opera houses, what you sing in the first decade of your ‘cutting your teeth’ within the profession.   Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right timeI was offered Masetto in a recording in Sweden with Arnold Oestman and this was unheard of for a student in the first year of the Opera Course (at the Guildhall music conservatory). I was nearing 21, and of course it was an absolute honor to be chosen as a representative to the Cardiff “Singer of the World” competition. Yet there’s great pressure that comes along with it but hard work and dedication quells that pressure. It’s in your preparation.
 Did your career take off like a rocket after the “Singer of the World” competition?   
I wasn’t prolific. I auditioned after Cardiff  in forty opera houses I was given two jobs out of that. The first one was Donner in Das Rheingold at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the second one was Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro in Hamburg. Figaro became a little bit of a calling card. It was the first time that I’d sung in Europe. That’s when the curtains opened on what this profession is going to be like.
Was it what you expected?
I thought that I would be in Cardiff for the next two years on a contract with the Welsh National Opera. I bought a house in Cardiff, but things happened pretty quickly and my plan of staying was shattered.     And then it’s shocking how this ‘being in the right place at the right time’ actually works. I  sang the Speaker in the Magic Flute in Brussels, where Gerard Mortier was the Intendant, and he was about to leave to start his tenure at Salzburg, the Festival. He heard me sing the Speaker, and on the spot he offered me Leporello, and Jochanaan in Salome, and Geisterbote in Die Frau ohne Schatten with Sir George Solti. Being at the right place at the right time is wonderful, but still you have to work hard, learn your role.
Besides a wonderful voice and stage presence what other things do you have to do to build a major operatic career like yours?
You have to be a good colleague. You have to enjoy the fact that you’re in an amazing institution that could make or break your career. Those things kind of fell into my lap but I took care. I treated it with kid gloves. I wanted to go back to these places.You do the hard work and dedication before you get to opening that stage door.  It came naturally for me to be enjoying my profession. It was like being in a wonderful restaurant where the service is immaculate, the wines are tasteful and the food has a presentation. If that is what dining is all about  you’re going to go back to that restaurant. So hopefully the Intendant saw something that had a talent, but also was careful about how he carried himself. And if there were dinners after shows for the opera houses I’d be the first one there because this now is part and parcel of sponsorship for the houses.
Given the deep roots of singing in Wales, do you feel that you are part of a cultural tradition?
I know that  many singers from Wales were exactly that. From Sir Gearing Evans to Steward Burroughs to Gwyneth Jones. These are the icons of my home and I’m carrying their baton to carry on the incredible work they did for European singers worldwide. They were cultivating the land for future generations of singers to be confident enough to travel abroad to earn a living.
 I do have to ask you one more question. To your Russian pianist I say ‘Ni pucha ni pera’, and we all know ‘In bocce al lupo’, and ‘Une gran merde!’, ‘Toi Toi Toi’, etc. What do you say in Welsh before a performance?
Oh good question! It’s very boring actually, “Pob Lwc” (pronounced like the word “look” – LB)
Good Luck. It’s actually “Every luck” Pob means every and Lwc means luck.   Now I’ll go warble a couple of songs on the stage to warm up.  
Pob Lwc!
 …Pob Lwc!
Photo Brian Tarr