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OPERA: In The Lap of the Gods

5 minute read
Martha Duffy

It may not benefit the art, but the TV age has brought a new way to become an opera star fast: get on the box. In 1986 mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli jump- started a huge international career by singing an aria on an Italian variety show. She was 19. Now Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, 29, is taking the opera world by storm. His career, which is only four years old, began when he placed second in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, an event in which both the heats and the finals are televised. Videocassettes flew around Europe, and the phone began to ring: Solti, Abbado, Sinopoli, Muti. Would Mr. Terfel (pronounced tair-vel) care to audition?

What the maestros heard was a simply gorgeous voice, well-produced, even and lively from top to bottom — what Solti called “one of the great talents of the last 10 years.” The man was a mountain, 6 ft. 3 in., broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, with a clear, open brow and merry eyes. He had easy poise and generous presence onstage. His calendar filled up fast (he now has no openings until 1998).

Wagner singers of any sort being rare treasures, impresarios tried to persuade him to take mighty roles. If he wanted to, he could be singing Wotan in the Ring cycle all over the world. But Terfel has another quality: intelligence. He aims to conserve his voice for a long career, so for now it is Figaro and Leporello and a few comparably medium-weight roles. He also loves to sing lieder and other nonoperatic works. Conductor Claudio Abbado remembers the “beautiful vocal subtlety and understanding” that he brought to their recording of Schumann’s difficult Faust.

Terfel likes to say that as a singer “you are in the lap of the gods.” He believes they gave him a perfect upbringing, in the shelter of a small North Wales village near Snowdonia. His family are farmers; his first language is Welsh. Not for nothing is Wales called “the land of song.” There, singing is not a self-conscious act but a community expression. Eisteddfods, or local song contests, flourish even in hamlets. Young Bryn won a long string of them and used the modest prize money to buy soccer shoes.

Bryn was a busy kid. “I was quite a little taxi for him,” recalls his mother Nesta Jones. (Terfel is Bryn’s middle name; another singer uses the name Bryn Jones.) What he learned at the eisteddfods was stage presence: “When I went to college I was streets ahead of others because I was used to facing the public.” At London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he was awarded a scholarship. It was then, Nesta Jones says, “that we thought he had something special.”

When Terfel emerged five years later, newly married to his childhood sweetheart and with a contract from the Welsh National Opera, he bought a house in Cardiff, thinking that he and his wife Lesley would spend their life there. But the house is already sold, and the Terfels now live in London — that is, when they are not on the road. They always travel together, joined as of four months ago by baby Tomos.

Whatever the alchemy that makes a star of a fine singer, Terfel has it. All his Metropolitan Opera performances this fall in the title role of The Marriage of Figaro and as Leporello in Don Giovanni “went clean” — theatrical slang for sold out — before the first curtain went up, and there were scuffles in the line for tickets to his New York City lieder recital last month. Onstage his presence is riveting. Both Figaro and Leporello are servants, but there is no trace of the oaf or the buffoon in Terfel’s portrayals. In both parts he can be physically threatening. In Don Giovanni he is a formidable enforcer of the Don’s will, grabbing the young husband Masetto and spinning him into vertigo. With the equally tall James Morris singing the Don, the stage becomes electric, and Franco Zeffirelli’s bland 1990 production a hair-raising drama of licentiousness and revenge.

Directors love working with Terfel. Luc Bondy, who directed him as Jochanaan in an acclaimed Salome in Salzburg two years ago, recalls, “Our first meeting was funny. He was so young and so big. I thought, ‘This big, big baby could be my son.”‘ Bondy learned that Terfel “is not a guy who is pretentious and insists on his own way.” On Terfel’s wish list are parts like Falstaff, Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress and Escamillo in Carmen. His first Wagner, probably at the Met, will be the comparatively light role of Wolfram in Tannhauser, with its lyrical ode to the evening star — cat’s cream to a baritone with Terfel’s plush tone.

His worldly ambitions are few. “I’m too big to fit into a Porsche,” he muses. He’d like a snooker table. Oh, and a house in North Wales, “so I can fly home like a bird.” The greatest satisfaction his financial success has brought him is helping his father buy the family farm. “They nurtured my talent when I didn’t even know it,” he says of his parents. “I was gently placed into this tradition.” Here is a man who just may survive the scourge of celebrity.

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