Bryn Terfel: Bass-baritone and gentle Welsh giant

The Welsh singer's music festival spans the worlds of opera and pop. Westlife and Shirley Bassey attract new audiences for the more serious stuff, he tells Alice Jones
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The Independent Culture

Bryn Terfel, the bass-baritone and gentle Welsh giant, is a rare beast in the rarefied world of opera. He juggles critical acclaim from purists for his stage performances (most recently in The Flying Dutchman for the Welsh National Opera and last year as Wotan, alongside Placido Domingo, in the Royal Opera House's Die Walküre) with a healthy relationship with the record-buying, Classic-FM-listening public for his albums, which range from arias to Welsh songs to musicals.

So the eclecticism of the seventh Faenol Festival - or, to give it its popular nickname, Brynfest - comes as no surprise. This August Bank Holiday, Terfel will again descend on a usually peaceful corner of North Wales with an extravaganza that this year inclues the opera singers Angela Gheorghiu and Rolando Villazon, the sequinned Welsh doyenne of showbiz Shirley Bassey and the Irish pop balladeers Westlife.

It was presumably with Terfel's widespread appeal, and unofficial status as the voice of Wales, in mind that IMG Arts and Entertainment approached the singer seven years ago with the idea of producing a music festival in North Wales. Terfel duly scouted around for venues, suggesting first the site of a Welsh-language school, Nant Gwrtheyrn, and the mansion at Parc Glynllifon (a kind of Celtic Knebworth), before settling for the Faenol estate, nestled between Caernarfon and Bangor, some 15 minutes away from his birthplace in Pantglas, and not far from his current home.

For the past three years, Terfel has managed the festival himself and has pulled in big acts including Jose Carreras, Andrea Bocelli and Elaine Paige. "I have to do a couple of deals. You know, 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours'", he explains in his sing-song voice. His personal highlight came in 2004 when he paired the pianists Jamie Cullum and Jools Holland on stage.

Over the years the event has expanded from three to four days and has grown in scope. "I could easily fill a stage with a male-voice choir and Welsh opera singers", he muses, "but it's very international now. I was thinking 'North Wales, Welsh audience - end of story' but it's gone in a completely different direction."

It is the opera gala which is closest to Terfel's heart and, he sighs, "the most difficult sell". This year stars Gheorghiu, the dazzling Romanian soprano, with whom Terfel will sing in Tosca this summer at the Royal Opera House and Villazon, the young Mexican tenor, currently appearing as Lensky in Eugene Onegin.

Terfel's dream is a "firecracker" of an opera night which will "stand alone without the big name to sell it". At a time when three slots in the top ten pop-album charts are taken by the bellowing purveyors of cross-over "popera" - Russell Watson's The Voice, Bocelli's Amore and Vittorio Grigolo's In the Hands of Love - the decision to put pure classical opera singers on the bill is a brave one.

"If Russell Watson is top of the classical charts, then good for him," says Terfel. "I think it's mostly to do with the duets programme he's just done [the BBC's Just the Two of Us, which Watson won, with Sian Reeves] but the guy works hard. He knows that he'll never sing an aria on an opera stage - I'm sure he does, otherwise he'd be doing it, as would Katherine Jenkins, as would Andrea Bocelli. Andrea loves opera - he'd love to sing opera every day of his life - but he knows that the crossover albums are what sell for him.

"I'm guilty of that bandwagon too - I've got an open-air festival in the middle of North Wales which tries to bring different audiences into a field", says Terfel. Yet, for him, Faenol is a great selling-opportunity for opera. "I hope I can give somebody a taste of what it would be like to go and listen to these voices perform live in an opera house with no electronic enhancement. I think it's worked. People have followed me into opera houses all over the world which they never thought they'd go to." With his customary uncompromising attitude to performance (more than once he has refused to go on stage when he has felt his voice was not up to scratch), he concludes: "What I would love would be for the opera night to stand alone without me having to sing."

That said, Terfel knows which side his bread is buttered, and promises to "do a few Welsh songs". He has also invited Bassey. "I've always had two on the top of my list - Shirley and Tom [Jones]," he says. "Tom's a difficult catch - he tours all year round and he loves his holidays in August. But I'm sure he'll turn round one day and say, 'I'd like to do Bryn's festival. He's always pestering me about it.' "

The final day of the festival, Dragon's Fire, or Tan y Ddraig, will be devoted to Welsh-language rock and pop acts, some new, others reformed groups from the Seventies and Eighties. Terfel has a patriotic pride in his mother tongue. Noticing that we share our surname (his full name is Bryn Terfel Jones), he chides me gently for not being able to speak Welsh, and advises me on where I might find a two-week intensive language course.

"It's the most important night for me because I'm giving the Welsh pop scene a stage," he says. "It's a little bit of payback - what goes around comes around." Half a million tourists flock to Caernarfon Castle every year, "but they tend to jump off the bus, into the castle and back on the bus", missing out on the rest that the area has to offer. A sell-out festival could result in as many as 40,000 visitors, along with the locals. "I took my boys to school this morning and people were asking me, 'What time shall we arrive? We've got tickets to Westlife'. I said, 'Come early, have a picnic and enjoy the whole day'. There's not many times when you have Westlife on your doorstep." In its seventh year, Brynfest is a "well-oiled machine. People know what to bring - their picnics, their coats, their thermals..."

When the issue of the famous Welsh weather rears its head, Terfel is typically lyrical on the subject. "They know they're not going to get the bright sunshine of Spain. We catch all the weather of North Wales." With a Dylan Thomas-esque flourish, he explains, "It's close to the Menai Straits and to the Snowdon mountain range - a beautiful wooded location with its own microclimate."

"To see 12,000 people in front of you first of all is very exciting," concludes Terfel. "But to see 12,000 people listening to the music and enjoying it with their bottles of champagne and tables and candles - it's like a beautiful set for La Traviata."

Faenol Festival, Caernarfon, (01492 872000; www.brynfest.com) 25-28 August

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