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At the stately home that hosts his North Wales music festival, living legend Bryn Terfel talks about his album, Wotan – and retirement…
Looking like the lord of the manor, Bryn Terfel stands at the window of 18th century Faenol Hall near Caenarfon and gazes at the manicured lawns leading down to the lake. In the distance, a team is assembling a shell-shaped stage in the natural amphitheatre of the parkland. “They’re getting on well,” he says with satisfaction.
This is not Bryn’s ancestral home – that’s a few miles away in the foothills of Snowdonia – but once a year it becomes his in name. The Bryn Terfel Faenol Festival (popularly known as Brynfest), held every August Bank Holiday weekend, has become one of Wales’s greatest music festivals.
This year for the first time it has expanded from three nights to four. Bryn has big plans for the future, including an Edinburgh-style fringe: “Next year we’re going to have chamber concerts, recitals and jazz, and get all the local galleries and theatres involved.”
He is especially proud to have opened up the estate to local, Welsh-speaking people after centuries of English rule. “Faenol used to belong to the family that owned all the slate mines around here. They weren’t kind to their workers,” he says wryly. “It’s said these thick walls were built to keep the pheasants in and the peasants out!”
Now over 20,000 people converge on the estate each year to hear international stars who come to sing for Bryn. It’s his way of giving something back to North Wales, which misses out on the musical riches that Cardiff enjoys.
“It’s important for me to get artists of this calibre into the area,” he says. “And if it weren’t for me they wouldn’t be here, so it’s a feather in my cap.”
It has been a fantastic 12 months for the world’s favourite young bass-baritone (he’s still in his thirties – just). He refers to it as a ‘horrendous’ year, but that’s only because the intense pressure of preparing for and singing the role of Wotan at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, kept him at full stretch for months.
“Nobody can understand what it’s like to do that role until they’ve done it themselves. Just open the score to the second scene of the second act and see how long it takes you to learn six pages.”
Bryn had been earmarked as the perfect Wotan almost as soon as he won the Lieder Prize in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989 – at six foot three, and with that commanding voice, he cuts the necessary imposing figure. But he waited until he felt ready to sing the role – and it was worth waiting for. Using every ounce of his considerable power, he manages to portray the anger, tenderness and godlike strength of Wotan, vocally and physically. As the critics all agreed, no one has done it better.
Bryn, whose name means “Little Hill” in Welsh, says simply: “I arrived at the peak of that mountain.”
But it took its toll. “I’ve never been so emotional as I was coming off the stage after the first night of Die Walküre,” he says. ‘” bumped into [BBC1 newsreader] Huw Edwards and when he spoke to me in Welsh I just broke down. It was the intense emotion of reaching the end of the piece that’s considered the most difficult in the world for any bass-baritone.”
For Bryn, who was born and raised on a farm in Snowdonia, the lure of his homeland is too strong to resist. He may be Deutsche Grammophon’s best-selling vocalist and first choice at the Met’s glittering new-season gala, but far from leading the life of a megastar, he prefers to rush back to the comfortable home within sight of the mountains, where his wife and three boys live untroubled by paparazzi.
“Some singers educate their kids at home and take them to rehearsals,” he says, “but we’ve chosen to do things differently. This term, my eldest boy starts at the same Welsh-language comprehensive that my wife and I attended.”
The children had never been inside an opera house until they asked to come and see Sweeney Todd. Bryn had been playing the music at home, and the boys loved it so much that they’d learnt the complicated Sondheim lyrics off by heart.
“So I flew them over to Chicago,” he recalls. “But they’ve never asked to come to anything again. My 11-year-old came to Das Rheingold and said it was the most boring thing he’d ever seen.”
Was Bryn dismayed at this lack of interest? “Not at all. I said: ‘Good on you!’”
He brushes aside reports that he’s about to take a sabbatical from opera. “People often say things like ‘he’s going to retire. I can’t retire – I need to keep a certain standard of living. But it’s a question of picking and choosing the right thing for me. I need to be with my kids more at the moment, so performing in Britain is becoming more important for me, whereas going to America for six months is not on my wish list.”
Bryn is probably the most recognisable bass-baritone in the world, partly because his fame is not confined to the opera stage. His numerous recordings have introduced him to a much wider public. The latest, Simple Gifts, a sequel to the huge-selling Bryn (550,000 copies in the UK alone), is another selection of classical, pop and hymn tunes that shows off the versatility of his glorious voice.
He’s joined by countryman Aled Jones, guitarist John Williams and superb English baritone Simon Keenlyside. The audacity of Bryn and Simon’s duet of the opening of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater, originally written for soprano and alto, has to be heard to be believed. The effect is thrilling – Bryn’s chocolatey bass-baritone weaves in and out of Simon’s caramel baritone and, as their voices climb together, the orchestra swoons behind them. Pergolesi probably would have loved it.
Bryn lavishes his prodigious voice on some unlikely repertoire. He’s just recorded Ça ira – a pop opera about the French Revolution by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters – in which he sings the Ringmaster, the Troublemaker and the King of France. How would he describe the music?
“Lots of different styles, with elements of Pink Floyd. I was a big fan of the band – I remember going to the Live in Pompeii movie.”
Is there any music he would refuse to sing? “Songs by Elvis Presley. And Frank Sinatra. Because nobody can better them.”
He’s in the process of joining his favourite club, Sunningdale – but only if he can get through the rigorous entry tests. “I would rather sing Scarpia at the Met a thousand times before hitting a ball on the first tee at Sunningdale with members of the committee. I had more nerves there than on the first night of Walküre!”
Surely Sunningdale’s members will see him striding across its exclusive greens soon. They know a star when they see one.