The Mormons’ adherence to chastity and clean-cut family values has been mocked in a hit musical. But the leading opera singer Bryn Terfel has called for greater tolerance towards the faith after revealing how a musical journey to Salt Lake City resulted in a spiritual awakening.
The second-fasted growing religion in American, Mormonism continues to attract hostility over its opposition to gay marriage and suspicion over some of the faith’s beliefs. The Book of Mormon musical mocked the do-gooding naivety of its young missionary protagonists.
But Terfel, the Welsh bass-baritone famed for his commanding performances at the world’s leading opera houses, told The Independent that he had been “embraced” by members of the faith after recording a new album with the 360-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The singer, raised in a Methodist family said the experience, which followed a separation from his wife of 30 years, led him to question the faith he was born into.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints then sent a pair of missionaries to visit Terfel, who welcomed them into his home in Wales.
“I was going through a divorce and I was questioning my own spirituality before I went to Salt Lake City,” Terfel, 47, said. “To be embraced by those people in such a manner and to be loved not only as a musician but as a human being is quite an eye-opener.”
Terfel, who broke through with his portrayal of Figaro and Falstaff but in recent years won acclaim for his performances as Wotan in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, rejects the mocking portrayal of Mormons.
“They’re good people and they welcomed me with open arms. The polygamy stories are very much a thing of the past. If you’re not moved in a spiritual way when that choir sings the hymn, God Be With You Till We Meet Again, there’s something wrong.”
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, called “America’s choir” by President Reagan, was founded 166 years ago by Pioneers, migrating from the Midwest to Salt Lake Valley. Many of the original Pioneers included Mormons hailing from Wales.
Terfel’s album, Homeward Bound, released this month, features classical, spiritual, Welsh and American folk songs recorded with the Choir.
The church sensed a high-profile conversion. Terfel said: “They came to my house in north Wales. They knew that I’d been to Salt Lake City and I welcomed them into my house. They are sent out to different parts of the world on their journey. I gave them a glass of water.”
Terfel added: “I questioned my religion, do I read the Bible? No. Do I go to Church? No. The only thing that hasn’t happened between us is me being baptised as a Mormon?”
Could Terfel follow in the footsteps of John Parry, an early Welsh convert who became the Tabernacle Choir’s first conductor in 1849 ? “I know how my parents brought me up which was in the Methodist tradition. The Mormon connection is musical and I can’t wait to sing with them again at their Christmas concert.”
Terfel would like to bring the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Britain to sing with him at the Royal Albert Hall. “They sing in stadiums to 20,000 people but they haven’t travelled across the Atlantic for many years now. Maybe there’s a security reason because the highest people in the religion sing in the choir.”
Terfel has seen The Book of Mormon, the controversial musical written by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker but he did not find it offensive. “Even the Mormons in Salt Lake City have embraced it as something positive. The music in it is fantastic.”
A farmer’s son from Caernarfonshire, Terfel made his operatic debut in 1990 but his repertoire extends to duets with Sir Tom Jones and Dame Shirley Bassey.
The singer revealed a little-known secret of the Royal Opera House – the most expensive seats aren’t necessarily the best. “If you’re not afraid of heights, the best seat, aurally and visually, is up in the amphitheatre. You can see everything in the house and the sound is mixed beautifully by the time it reaches there. Yes, opera is exclusive buy why pay £300 when you sit there for £40?”
A keen viewer of televised talent shows, Terfel is set to become the Simon Cowell of classical. “I’ve signed a contract for my own record label, Snowdonia, and that will give me the chance to find three new artists and help them record an album,” he said. “It could be classical, jazz, a male voice choir, anything. We’ll be working with Universal Music. My head is full of ideas. I can’t wait to find somebody who has never made a recording so I’ll have to keep my finger on the pulse.”
Homeward Bound is released on Monday 9 September