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Unmistakably Welsh, internationally outstanding. That’s the way Cardiff’s new Wales Millennium Centre for the Arts describes itself and it’s a label that can equally apply to Bryn Terfel, the much loved Welsh bass-baritone who is coming home to champion the WMC. The creation of a state-of-the-art, brand new arts centre for Wales is a cause that’s very close to Bryn’s heart.
“Our generation will never see an opening like this again in Wales,” he beams enthusiatically. “It’s a huge deal for me, personally.”
Fulfilling this Welsh dream in the old port area of Cardiff hasn’t been easy. It all began in 1998 when the concept for an all-inclusive arts centre for Wales rose from the ashes of the doomed Cardiff Bay Opera House – a project whose application for Millennium lottery funding was rejected in 1995 after political machinations and claims of elitism.
But, less than three years after the foundations were laid in February 2002, and £104 million later, the Wales Millennium Centre is on target in every way for what Bryn describes as the "event of a lifetime".
But isn’t this an opera house by another name?
Bryn is adamant that it’s not. “It’ll be a much-needed permanent home to Welsh National Opera, that’s true,” he says. “But what’s important is that it’s not being typecast as an opera house. There are many arts that come out of Wales and the WMC is embracing them all – dance, musicals, theatre. It will also be an important place for education and nurturing young talent.”
Bryn’s been closely involved with the WMC from the beginning. It’s a stunning-looking building made up of glimmering planes of oxidised steel and multi-coloured slate, sourced from Welsh quarries. January 2003 saw the first slab transported from Blenau Ffestiniog in north Wales by pony and trap, gravity train, steam engine, helicopter and finally lifeboat across Cardiff Bay before Bryn himself ceremonially laid that first piece at the northernmost point of the building.
Carved on it are the words of a 15th-century Welsh poet, Guto’r Glyn: “We shall have slates, warm slabs, as a crust on the timber of my house.”
“Slate is such a fundamental part of Wales, especially where I come from in the north,” says Bryn. “Everyone had the chance to sponsor a piece of slate – I bought one for each of my three boys. It’s a way of feeling a sense of ownership and connection with the building.”
Outside, two monumental inscriptions, in Welsh and English, run along the front elevation. Both created by Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis, each has its own message; the Welsh words a link to the country’s industrial tradition and the English a sense of looking outwards.
They read "Creu wir fel gwir o ffwrnais a wen" (Creating truth like glass from inspiration’s furnace) and "In these stones horizons sing". What’s particularly stunning is that the letters of the inscriptions are windows that flood the inside of the building with light during the day and illuminate the surrounding area at night.
It’s not just outward beauty though – inside are the performance and rehearsal spaces, the jewel of which is an 1,800-seat theatre for opera and orchestral concerts.
Bryn feels a sense of personal pride in the place. “I can stand at the end of the stage and throw a table tennis ball to the back of the stalls – there are 12 rows. It’s so well designed, for the audience, for the orchestra and backstage, too.
“It sounds boastful but I really think it’s more unique than any other theatre that’s been built. The audience will be able to hear and see absolutely everything that’s going on. I can’t wait to perform here!”
The theatre is where the opening weekend of concerts is taking place, sponsored by HSBC, for which Bryn is creative director.
“Judith Isherwood, the chief executive, asked me if I’d like to take part.” Bryn sounds incredulous. “Would I like to take part? Of course I would! It’s the most wonderful self-indulgence for me.”
Bryn is performing in a piece written specially for the opening weekend by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, alongside young harpist Catrin Finch and a host of other stars. Another highlight is the ceremonial opening of the centre with a key that’s been travelling around the world, passing through the hands of leading arts figures in London, New York, Toronto and Sydney.
“It’s a kind of gimmick, I suppose, and they’ll probably be selling keyrings with mini keys on them outside on the opening night. But you can bet I’ll be first in line to buy one, for me and my family! Because this opening really means so much to my generation. We’ll be part of something that won’t ever be seen here again.”
Born in Pant Glas, North Wales in November 1965, Bryn cut his musical teeth singing at the eistedfodds that are held all around Wales. His early successes saw him through to London to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and he shot to fame in 1989 at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. That was the year of the famous Battle of the Baritones when Bryn was narrowly beaten into second place by the smouldering Siberian Dmitri Horostovsky.
But Bryn is now the undisputed king of opera and song – his warm personality and tremendous ability to communicate the heart of the music has seen to that, not forgetting, of course, that glorious, powerful bass-baritone voice. The WMC means that he will be performing in his home country more regularly.
“I feel very guilty that I’ve only performed twice with Welsh National Opera, but I’m certainly going back now there is this world class, international structure in place.”
Bryn’s keeping his promise and will sing the title role in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman with WNO in 2006. Bryn is one in a long line of Welsh opera stars, from Geraint Evans to Gwynneth Jones to Dennis O’Neill.
What’s the secret of producing so many world-class musicians?
“Music is part of life in Wales. Everyone sings – it’s part of the country’s heritage. Working-class people, like miners and farmers, all join choirs and it’s part of the language, passed from generation to generation. From early childhood, music is just another way of communicating. And now we have the WMC – the most important thing that’s ever happened to arts in Wales!” he smiles.
“I’m so proud to be part of this, personally, professionally, for Wales. I can’t wait for the opening night. I just can’t wait!”