Singing has always come naturally to Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who started winning local competitions at the age of 12. Internationally, he came to the fore by winning the Lieder Prize in the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, when Dmitri Hvorstovsky won the grand prize. At 36, Terfel has reached the zenith of his profession and is now a bonafide superstar commanding the same high fees as Bartoli and Fleming. Natural and popular on the opera stage, Terfel is also in great demand on the concert stage and has seamlessly crossed over to show tunes. His exclusive label Deutsche Grammophon has just released his recital disc of Wagner arias. Coincidentally, the Royal Opera House's recent announcement that Terfel will sing the role of Wotan in their 2005 Ring Cycle has created much excitement and anticipation. Not everything is perfect, however. Terfel suffers from chronic back pain and sciatica, and has had surgery twice. With the birth of his third son, he recently scaled back his schedule last year to spend more time with his family. La Scena Musicale spoke with Bryn Terfel two days after his recent Carnegie Hall recital (March 3, 2002).
LSM: Tell me about your early training.
There are so many elements in the equation. It was imperative when I started my training to have a teacher who would really look after whatever talent I had as a youngster. At London's Guildhall School of Music (at age 18) I was given an 86-year-old gentleman who had taught all his life and really knew the ins and outs of young voices. That was crucial: my development wasn't too quick. After three or four years, I changed singing teachers because everything began to fall into place. I relied a lot on natural talent. I was given the gift of how to breathe and how to sing and how to enjoy being on the stage.
I went from Arthur Reckless to Rudolf Piernay. His way of teaching was always through songs and languages, through the colour of words, through dynamics. He was constantly picking on me for singing in one dynamic.
For instance, I just did a recital at Carnegie Hall on Sunday. That's the kind of singing that needs a regimental feeling: how to pace yourself, how to sing certain aspects of songs--whatever the poetry gives off. Obviously, you learn by your mistakes. I would say to any young singer, just go by your own judgement. You are the only one that really knows your voice instinctively.
What was clever within Arthur Reckless's teaching was that all the technical things were happening very naturally within my own personality. For instance, he kept me away from opera for two or three years. My repertoire was dominated by song--three or four a week. In four years that's quite a lot of repertoire. They were mostly English songs, because that's what he excelled at. When I made the move to my present teacher, German and French songs became more evident. We had masterclasses by then as well--with singers like Emma Kirkby, Benjamin Luxon and Anthony Rolfe Johnson.
LSM: How would you describe the difference in your voice between the ages of 18 and 22?
The biggest point would be knowledge. That's a wonderful thing to have. Unfortunately, you can't have it unless you've had ten years of singing.
LSM: The colour of your voice and breathing--Were they pretty well set?
I would think so, because we never had to work on those particular aspects of singing.
LSM: Were there any technical challenges, like high notes?
I wouldn't take high notes out of context. You should always think of notes within a piece of music. That's why my second teacher always worked on voice through songs. That gave you the added incentive of knowing you'd worked on songs that you were going to use in the future. Of course, you can't be confident it will always work for you, because you never know what's around the corner or how you'll feel on a certain day.
On Sunday, I felt that everything fell together as never before. It was one of those concerts where you feel everything went well. It doesn't happen very often, I tell you! It's good to strive for some sort of perfection, but you never achieve it.
LSM: Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
In certain aspects of my career, definitely.
If you have a recital to do, you have to memorize the songs. I never use music when I do recitals. It produces an instant barrier, both for yourself and the audience.
I'm a quick learner. My two teachers always asked me to learn a vast number of songs within a particular week or month. That gives you confidence. I think every singer should be able to jump in for a singer who has been sick, for instance, and learn an opera in two days. I know people who can do it.
LSM: Have you ever had to do it?
Yes. My first major recording was as John the Baptist in Strauss's Salome. Ekkehard Wlaschika had fallen ill and all the singers had recorded their tracks. I just had to jump in and learn it. Mind you, that could also have its detrimental effects. Early in my career, I tended to overload certain spaces within my calendar. I've had to cancel Wozzeck in Salzburg--a heavy blow then, but the right thing to do. I wasn't ready for Wozzeck, not only learning-wise, but as a singer.
LSM: Will you ever sing it?
Some day, yes, but these days I have so many interesting works to sing before I venture into the supposedly modern repertoire.
LSM: Back to technique. Tell me, if you were to teach, could you teach the Terfel technique?
I'd never teach. You'll never see me on a masterclass stage or teaching singers. I sometimes had very bad feelings from masterclasses. I couldn't understand why some people could come in and tell you certain things detrimental to a young singer. Sometimes they'd leave singers with a heap of worries about their technique and their singing. If I wanted to work with singers, I'd make sure I could meet them once a week, but that's not possible with my timetable.
LSM: What is the foundation of your singing?
I work on my voice through what I have to sing. Also, the singer has to know that perhaps [the music] can be difficult for the audience. For instance, I did a set of newly commissioned pieces, which was an American premiere: five songs written by Jake Heggie from San Francisco, using Vachel Lindsay's poetry. The audience only heard them once and had to make their judgment immediately, whereas I would've loved them to have a chance to study the poetry prior to the concert and to listen to the melodic density that Heggie put then into his creations.
LSM: Do you sing out of one side of the mouth?
You can pick up pointers from every kind of singer. I guess I favour the right side of the mouth. It's fantastic that classical music fans spend time talking about this. Without these people, I don't think young singers would pick up on that.
LSM: Talk about songs versus opera.
The Cardiff Singer of the World Competition has very strict regulations within the required repertoire. I followed those guidelines to the final full stop. You had to sing songs as well as Mozart, and in the style of your choice. It was a particularly good year . The five singers in the finals have great careers now. I think I was given the lieder prize as a second prize--it was Dmitri first and Terfel second, that's the way I looked at it--but I only sang lieder because it was stipulated.
LSM: At that time you didn't consider yourself a lieder singer?
No. My development on the operatic stage brought opportunities to sing on the concert platform. That's how my career started in Britain.
Richard Hickox was instrumental in giving young British singers a chance to sing oratorio throughout Britain. I did Messiah, Dream of Gerontius, Elijah, Bach masses, and everything.
LSM: Your career is very varied--opera, concerts, crossover, Welsh songs. Do you consider yourself a singer rather than a particular type of singer?
I do. I enjoy all aspects of singing and I'm luckily given the choice to be part of different styles of music. I've just been talking this week with the director of Sweeney Todd in Chicago. Music is there for you to learn to perform to the best of your ability. I worked with Roger Waters from Pink Floyd last year on an opera he had written and it gave me a taste of how these people work. They had already recorded the orchestral tracks, so we were singing to a video of the conductor and listening to the orchestral tracks. Roger was there with us, changing words and music as we performed. It was very interesting.
LSM: Tell me about the process of working with composers.
We were lucky in that Crédit Suisse wanted to give some money towards writing new pieces. I had a recital tour coming up, encompassing London, Vienna, and the Far East, and they wanted to be part of it. We chose Jake Heggie to write the pieces. What comes to mind immediately is the choice of the poetry. Because I'm Welsh, people thought I wanted Dylan Thomas. But I want his pieces to come later in my career. I wanted to be introduced to something different. Jake knew of Vachel Lindsay's wonderful poems about the moon.
You talk to the composer immediately about your range, which notes are your bread and butter notes, which range you can actually sing on your head. You have to be comfortable with what's written for you. Jake is very open to these kind of questions because he's written many songs for people like Frederica von Stade, and he did Dead Man Walking. He'd send me drafts of what he had written, and I had to react to them.
LSM: What are your best notes?
Mine is most definitely a D natural. I could do anything with that. Thankfully Mozart loved that key as well. I have a healthy range which gives me the flexibility to sing most of the repertoire written for the bass-baritone voice, which encompasses Mozart, Wagner, Strauss and a little bit of Verdi.
I'm not a Verdi singer. You only have to listen to people like Capucilli, Warren, Bastianini, Hvorostovsky. They're the real Verdian baritone. There is a tremendously beautiful quality to their voices that a bass-baritone will never achieve. Both voices have their qualities.
LSM: Were there singers who inspired you?
Any singers worth their salt will name Fischer-Dieskau. Every student will crave to have his knowledge of the songs of his homeland. As a student I studied many voices. George London: I loved his voice. Geraint Evans from Wales as well. But I didn't keep it only to my own bass-baritone voice. Titta Ruffo. I take my hat off to anybody who has the strength and confidence to walk on any stage in any part of the world.
LSM: You're scheduled for the role of Wotan in 2005 at the Royal Opera.
Only Rheingold and Walküre. I don't want to do the Wanderer [in Siegfried], not yet. I had Meistersinger in my calendar, but it's too early in my career to contemplate Hans Sachs. Certain things in my calendar, in my lifestyle, have changed just for me to be home with the children for a while. I have three boys now.
I have a recording of Meistersinger with Thielemann in the next couple of years--to actually learn the role of Hans Sachs and record it, and then take my time to pick and choose where to do Hans Sachs for a second time. It's a great venue, Covent Garden. There's a new production, and the eventuality of Tony Pappano taking over at Covent Garden is such an exciting prospect. I like working with Tony. He has youth and so much strength and vitality that he puts into working with music and singers. The Wagner disc is something of that ilk. I wanted to do it with Claudio [Abbado] and the Berlin Phil, and DG gave me the vehicle to do that.
LSM: What are the challenges of singing Wagner?
I hope I'll sing Wagner with the intelligence of a lieder singer. Rheingold is a great vehicle to start with. I've sung Wolfram in Tannhauser at the Met, and I've sung Donner in the Ring cycle with August Everding and Zubin Mehta in Chicago. I've done Act III of Walküre in concert form at the Edinburgh Festival. In Montreal we're going to do Wotan's Abschied, so I'm constantly putting this repertoire into my concert appearances. It's imperative to have five to six weeks of rehearsal for the Ring cycle. That's what Covent Garden has given me.
When it comes down to the bread and butter of singing on the stage, we never tell people, "This is going to be fantastic, you wait!" You always have to encounter operas with a little bit of trepidation, even though you've sung the role a hundred times. Figaro for instance: I still have this insecurity about it, which is something that is healthy. You never know what's around the corner. I just did a run of Don Giovanni at Covent Garden which was highly criticised by some writers and loved by others. That's opera--that's what's great about this profession. I'm doing Falstaff in a production which has been at the Met since 1964. People like Siepi, Pons, Paul Plishka have sung it at the Met. I'm doing this Zeffirelli production now. It's exciting. I love what I do, and I love the people that are involved in opera. You get to know the workings of the voice as well. When I did Figaro with Bartoli, I got to know the woman, Cecilia, and what's behind that technique. It's fascinating. For me she was a wonderful exponent of energy which you feed off, and it enhances your own performance.
LSM: What do you warm up to?
What I do warm up to is having my portable CD player in my dressing room and playing Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra. Why do you laugh? People walk into my dressing room at the Met and they hear, "Let's take it nice and easy," and it puts a smile on their faces.