Bryn Terfel, the internationally renowned Welsh bass-baritone, arrived in South Africa on Thursday for a short but intensive tour, visiting Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban. Paul Boekkooi had some questions ready for this inspiring vocal artist.
Being a singer born and bred in Wales, can you tell us what it is that makes Welsh voices such a rare breed?
By the way, while working as a student in a record shop, among the best-selling popular classical titles there were recordings of Welsh (mostly massed) choirs. They say that if you scratch a Welshman he’ll sing for you. From an early age, there are plenty of opportunities to sing in school, chapel, youth, male voice and mixed choirs, rugby matches.
It’s just a natural thing to do. I think the Welsh language also helps, there’s a natural lilt to the language. I find that the many vowels in the Welsh language make it easier for me to sing in foreign languages.
The bass-baritone is arguably the most versatile of all voice types and the one with the widest range. Did you fit naturally in this voice category after your voice broke as a teenager, or was it a deliberate choice?
Unlike most male singers I didn’t have a long period of not being able to sing at all once my voice broke. One day I was a boy soprano and the next day a bass baritone. You don’t have a choice of what voice you are, you have to let nature take its course and let the voice settle where it’s comfortable.
You are most likely best known for your vocal and dramatic portrayal of the title role in Verdi’s Falstaff. Apart from all the challenges, isn’t this also one of a handful of roles one can sing up to an old age?
When I first decided to sing Falstaff a lot of people in the opera world thought I was too young to take it on, as at the time it was looked upon as an old man’s role, mainly sung by singers drawing towards the end of their career.
It is such a great character to get your teeth into and as the padding, wig and make-up are fitted you can slowly become Sir John whatever your true age. As you get older you obviously don’t need as much help with the padding etc…!
I remember one reviewer, writing about one of your earliest German lieder recordings, who stated that he could hear that you’d become a great Wotan in Wagner’s Ring one day. This is already history. Was he a prophet or did you eye this role for a long time before feeling ripe enough to add it to your repertory?
I think most singers look towards the Wagnerian roles as being a pinnacle in the operatic repertoire. One has to learn to walk before one can run and that’s why I think it’s essential to have a good grounding in Mozart roles, all of which are little gems, before exploring the vastness of roles such as Hans Sachs and Wotan. For the first 10 years of my career I concentrated on the Mozart roles, then dipped my toe into the realm of Wagner by singing Donner followed by Wolfram before contemplating Hans Sachs and Wotan.
Do you have an equal fondness for singing opera roles in contrast with the more intimate song recital?
There are some singers who are just content to sing opera but I’ve always enjoyed singing song, be it German, French or traditional, and delving into the British song repertoire gives me immense pleasure.
In opera one can hide behind the costume but in a recital it’s just you and your trusty accompanist trying to express the poetry and music in a way that will give pleasure to an audience.
You performed Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust at the ROH. What specific vocal and dramatic challenges do these “bad boys” in various operas hold for you?
Yes, I finished the run of performances of Faust last week. I really enjoy being a “baddie” or a villain. Dramatically one has to try not to “overdo” it, it’s like a comedian when he tries too hard to be funny; the jokes can be lost on the audience. Vocally, one has to be careful, when trying to express the evilness in your voice, that the tone and colour don’t become too harsh.
As a cross-over artist who seldom loses face in the process: What attracts you to the more informal, perhaps also less intellectual, repertory? And isn’t it so that most folk-related or traditional works can be elevated to a legitimate art form?
I’ve never pigeon-holed music into categories. I’ve always thought that if you really enjoy singing a song, whether it is Roxanne or Wotan’s farewell, the audience will see your enthusiasm and enjoy it and hopefully go away and explore a genre of music that previously their ears had been closed to. The songs of my homeland Wales are the most important things I have ever sung and will ever sing, so I always include at least one in a recital so that audiences can hear them probably for the first time and hopefully enjoy their beauty.