Profile; Singing his own praises

A stunning voice made him a star, but is he too fond of playing the prima donna? By Fiammetta Rocca
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Tomorrow night when Bryn Terfel, a shaggy-haired Welsh baritone, sings the part of the puritanical prophet John the Baptist in Richard Strauss's Salome at Covent Garden, it will be the last chance to hear him sing in a major opera in London until the last month of the 20th century. It is a long absence, and it will be a cause for mourning among his devotees.

Only when the Royal Opera House has completed its extensive refurbishment and returned to its proper home in Covent Garden will Terfel reappear in full make-up. Time then to examine where this 31-year-old prodigal voice is heading, and whether Terfel shows signs of bending under the strain of near-instant fame. Fellow singers who have never complained before are, for the first time, describing him as a prima donna.

Luc Bondy's new production of Salome was acclaimed when it first opened two years ago. This month's revival has, if anything, been even better received. Last Friday, Terfel's performance was enthralling, and the volume of an ecstatic reception rose each time he took his bow. Terfel is 6ft 3in, with dark bedroom eyes, an easy laugh and a rich bass baritone voice that has enthralled concert and opera audiences ever since Gramophone magazine picked him as "Best Newcomer of the Year" less than four years ago in 1993.

Today, he is Britain's best known and most bankable young opera singer, the natural heir to his fellow Welshman, the late Sir Geraint Evans. When Terfel sang at the international Eisteddfod in Cardiff last year, tickets sold out more quickly than they had a year earlier when Luciano Pavarotti had sung there.

In Salzburg and Vienna, where opera singers are treated like Hollywood stars, he is simply adored, and Terfel's debut at the Metropolitan Opera House made the front page of the New York Times, an accolade last granted to Vladimir Horowitz nearly 20 years before. The Times said Terfel's voice "possesses a momentum that makes it seem as if it will keep travelling without further effort, long after it hits the ear..."

Apart from his magnificently athletic voice, what marks Terfel out is an exuberant frankness of manner, both offstage and on. He is a scene stealer, even when his is not the starring role. As fellow baritone, the Australian Paul Whelan, said of him last week: "Bryn has longer phrases and greater breath control. He can sing quieter, louder, higher, lower, and for longer than almost anyone else." Joan Sutherland puts it more simply: "He is a great performer - a truly great performer."

Having risen like a shooting star, Terfel now faces a quieter, tougher challenge. He must transform instant fame into a lasting career of creative growth and memorable artistic performances. Commercial demands, bad advice and the cumulative pressure of too much airline travel and too many lonely hotel bedrooms take their toll on musicians all the time. All one has to do is look at the violinist Nigel Kennedy.

Terfel has two advantages. First, he is not a tenor, which means that he will never sing the testing starring roles that have made Pavarotti and Placido Domingo famous. (Nor will he quite reach their place in the firmament.) Second, his Welsh roots remain central to his life. He recently bought a cricket pavilion and ground near his birthplace in North Wales, which he is converting into a new home for his wife, Lesley, and Tomos, their young son. And he is still represented by the Cardiff-based agent, Doreen O'Neill - sister of Denis O'Neill the Welsh tenor - herself a retired singer.

"TO BE born Welsh is not to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but with music in your heart," he says. Terfel was born in the village of Pant-glas - a hamlet of about 12 houses, a church and a shop - where his parents are sheep farmers. The farms were so scattered that young people met only at church on Sundays where many of them sang in the choir.

Encouraged by his mother, Terfel took up Caerdant singing, the traditional music of Welsh poems set to the accompaniment of the harp. "It makes your diction, makes you think how you put over a poem to an audience," says Terfel. In 1983, Terfel and his young friend, John Eifion, won the Caerdant Duet at the National Eisteddfod.

He was reluctant to become a farmer ("I saw how hard my father worked"). Terfel applied instead to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama at the Barbican. Rudolf Piernay, who taught at the Guildhall and is still Terfel's singing teacher, remembers colleagues telling him about "a boy who had an amazingly mature instrument for his age and a very touching presence, a very warm and uninhibited emotionalism in his singing that everyone found quite irresistible."

At the Guildhall School, Terfel was encouraged to concentrate on song- singing, leaving opera until later, but if that was frustrating for him then, the rewards of all that work are still visible today. To many, he is quite as powerful a recitalist as an opera singer.

"Song is a much more condensed form," says his accompanist Malcolm Martineau, "and therefore you need to make little operas within two or three minutes. [Bryn] has an amazing imagination and he can bring to life a whole new world in every song." In 1989, the year he left the Guildhall, Terfel won the school's Gold Medal Award and later the Lieder prize at the Cardiff "Singer of the World" competition.

His break came shortly after he was flown to Berlin to replace a sick baritone in Giuseppe Sinopoli's recording of Salome . Nicholas Payne, opera director of the Royal Opera House, recalls seeing Terfel in his debut as Guglielmo in Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte with the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff. "I was immediately struck by him," he says. Within a year, Terfel was singing opposite Joan Sutherland and Jose Carreras. He married his childhood sweetheart, took a flat in London and launched his international career. Today, Payne regards him as unrivalled in the roles of Jokanaan in Salome and the grizzled Captain Balstrode in Peter Grimes.

Terfel has always been well advised. From Sir Geraint Evans it was "Buy a new suit, boyo." Sir Geraint went on to urge Terfel to sing Figaro in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. It has become one of his finest roles.

Typically, he will launch himself in a new opera cautiously in a small house, Santa Fe in New Mexico, for example, or Chicago, before proceeding to Covent Garden or the Met in New York. "He is very, very well advised," says Keith Cooper, who is director of corporate affairs at Covent Garden.

He will also take a small role in a new production so he can watch it evolve. No example better illustrates this prudent approach than Don Giovanni, in which he made his Covent Garden debut in 1992 in the modest part of Masetto before graduating to Leporello. His portrayal of Don Giovanni's servant, one of opera's greatest anti-establishment roles, at Salzburg last summer is becoming the stuff of legend. By October, though, Terfel had moved on, to record Don Giovanni, singing the part of the Don himself, with Sir Georg Solti conducting. "That sort of talent," Solti says of Terfel, "not too many have it. A few maybe. Two, three, four people. Not more." (The CD will be launched in October of this year.)

Already his diary is fully booked until 1999. Next month, he will make his debut, as Figaro, at La Scala, followed by Papageno in Mozart's Magic Flute at the Met in December. Where he ought to go from there is the subject of anxious speculation. Terfel's fans have always believed that he will become a great Wagnerian, especially in the part of Wotan in The Ring. He starts with characteristic discretion by singing the lyrical role of Wolfram von Eschenbach in Tannhauser, which he will take to the Met in October. His new role in 1998 will be Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca, which he will launch at the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. And, late in 1999, when he returns to Covent Garden, it will be to star in Graham Vick's new production of Verdi's late masterpiece, Falstaff.

But as Terfel's fame grows, he will find the demands of stardom itself beginning to outweigh the creative demands of being a singer. He clearly enjoys his fame, and responds best to rapturous audiences; indeed his recordings are rarely as powerful as his live performances. A boisterous, exuberant and extrovert performer, Terfel will have to be increasingly watchful that his fame does not turn him into an exhibitionist. Already, there are small worrying signs. One of his operatic colleagues has even warned that he risked becoming like the shark-pickling artist Damien Hirst, who is now more famous for being famous than for his art.

Furthermore, according to one opera house administrator, the Met - one of the best financed opera houses in the world - has been quite taken aback by Terfel's financial demands recently. Although unwilling to divulge any figures, this official says only that the Met's general manager, Joseph Volpe, quietly asked a director at Covent Garden to warn Terfel "not to be greedy" - which suggests Terfel will be asking for at least $15,000 a performance, or not much less than Pavarotti and Domingo.

Terfel's fans will dismiss the criticism as carping. They know that if they miss his final Salome tomorrow evening, they can always hear their Welsh hero singing Lieder later this month in Geneva and then Oslo, or opera in Vienna.

And they will follow him there if they can. Or anywhere else in the world, for that matter.

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