Stuart Jeffries 

Bryn Terfel: ‘I’d like to sing Citizen Kane’

Opera star Bryn Terfel is everywhere this summer, launching his Welsh music festival and kicking off the Proms. He talks to Stuart Jeffries
  
  

One day, Bryn Terfel's eldest son fell asleep at the opera. It was during the first act of Welsh National Opera's 2010 production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Cardiff. Only when his father came on and started singing as Hans Sachs, did he awaken. "My first line woke him up. He apparently stayed riveted for the next six hours."

It's not only relatives who are enchanted by Terfel's voice. Later that year, I saw a concert performance of the same production at the Proms. As Terfel sang Sachs's heart-rending Was Duftet Doch der Flieder, the woman next to me put her hand on my knee. She looked at me with tears streaming down her face before realising with horror that her partner was sitting on the other side.

And it's not only his voice that makes some women wobbly. My friend recalls being seduced by burly Terfel's interpretation of the womaniser Don Giovanni in the Met's 2000 production in New York, especially by something he did with an apple and Donna Elvira. "I played him as sexy in a Meat Loaf, Gérard Depardieu way," recalls Terfel.

Over lunch in London, he briefly sings for me. He puts down his fork and reprises what he sang for Sting's 60th birthday celebrations in New York last year. "Roxanne," he croons, unexpectedly, "you don't have to put on the red dress ... I sang it in the same key but an octave lower than him. It was based on the Moulin Rouge tango version." Meat Loaf? Sting? Maybe it isn't too late for the 46-year-old Welsh bass-baritone to become a rock star.

Temperamentally, though, he's suited to being a Norse god, rather than a rock one. He spent the first three months of this year singing Wotan in Robert Lepage's controversial production of Wagner's Ring cycle at the Met. The New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote: "Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history. Millions have been spent to create a gargantuan scenic machine of creakily moving planks, which overshadowed the singers, even cowed them."

He'll spend three more months later this year singing the same role in Covent Garden's less controversial production. The night before our lunch, Terfel sang at a gala dinner in Buckingham Palace before WNO's patron, Prince Charles. "As Charles himself put it, 'Mama is away for the week in Ascot,' so he had the palace to himself. He said he was suffering from Wagneritis, so 60% of the programme was Wagner." Terfel has the same malady: he's wearing a T-shirt of Wagner's Rheinmaidens, cycling underwater with snorkels peeping above waterline.

We're meeting to talk about BrynFest, opening at the Southbank Centre next week. London is receiving this gift because Faenol, the festival of mostly Welsh music and opera Terfel ran in north Wales for nine years, folded two years ago. Why? "These festivals only work if you have a rock night. So we had Westlife. But Westlife's return wasn't of interest to LL54 [the Caernarfon postcode]."

He hopes to revive Faenol, but in the meantime London will experience Terfel's skills as a festival curator. The rock night will feature Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys performing his 2011 album Hotel Shampoo. The opera night will showcase three young singers Terfel predicts will become stars. There will be songs from musicals and two concerts of unbridled Welshness, with a 500-strong male-voice choir and new Welsh music, as well as hymns and folk songs. Terfel will sing on stage most nights.

And if that isn't enough, he will also be singing Delius's Sea Drift on the first night of the Proms the following week. "I've done the last night twice, so to do the first seems right." Isn't the last night's patriotic pomp nauseating? "No! Loved it. I'd love to make it a hat-trick in the next decade."

The last time we met, Terfel was launching an album of mostly Welsh songs. Then, as now, he was keen to proselytise for his country's music and arts. He's especially proud of being a prodigy of the Eisteddfod, the Welsh arts festival that dates back to the 12th century. With the Simón Bolívar Orchestra currently in the UK showcasing Venezuela's music education programme El Sistema, I ask Terfel about parallels with the Eisteddfod. "El Sistema gives a child on the street an instrument and sees what happens. We give a child the opportunity to sing in a group and start enjoying music."

Terfel's devotion to music was first developed, he says, by his school music teachers: "They opened the door" – and he strode through it. He spent six years at London's Guildhall School of Music and now, remembering how impecunious he was, he has set up a foundation to help young musicians. "I wanted money for extra lessons, for language coaching, to see shows, buy scores, suits, shoes. I give money to these young musicians with no stipulation as to what they do with it."

Where does the money come from? "From concerts I put on, but it would be nice to have a sponsor. I'm a little bit weak in the philanthropic selling of my foundation. I could have gone round the dinner at Buckingham Palace with a banner but I didn't." Terfel's a big, but diffident man. He's also a diplomat. I ask him about the critical mauling Lepage's New York Ring cycle suffered. "Well," says Terfel, "Robert's a wonderful man – kind, generous, incredibly astute. If he was being honest with himself, he would say he shot himself in the foot with this machine because it turned out to be maybe a one-trick pony in Rheingold. I told him it's not the easiest of sets to negotiate." Lepage recognised as much. A few shows into the run, he stopped the gods entering by sliding down a slanted portion of the giant set, and had them walk on stage instead.

Lepage recently told the New York Times he was pleased that Terfel had lost 30lb, making him a younger, hunkier Wotan. What was that about? "You tell me! I don't know, because the costumes wouldn't have shown I'd lost two stone."

Lepage's multimedia ambitions remind Terfel of what Celine Dion did in her Vegas show. "Stevie Wonder came on and sang with her. Only later was he revealed as a hologram. Perhaps that's the future for opera. Maybe I'll be a hologram. I could sing it in." From Wales? "Yeah!" That would make the international opera star's life easier. "I'm away from home six months a year. I miss putting the kids to bed."

Terfel is now concentrating on the Covent Garden revival of its production of Wagner's Ring cycle, which starts in September. "I have never looked forward so much to an opera." Why? "Maybe because I was criticised for pulling out because of family reasons." He withdrew as Wotan from the same production in 2007 because his son had to have some operations on his finger. "If it happened again, I'd do the same. But I really want to do a complete Ring cycle on my home turf and follow in the footsteps of people like Norman Bailey, John Tomlinson, Donald McIntyre. I have to pinch myself that I'm in the same space as those gods."

Terfel seems a contented international opera star, but he isn't entirely. He wishes someone would write an opera of Citizen Kane with him in the title role. "But Orson Welles's family own the copyright, so they'll never give that away. And where have the Schuberts, Mozarts and Verdis gone? I've always wanted an opera written for me by someone who knows your voice, your insecurities, your capabilities."

He has no current recording plans. "I have so many other commitments. But also I don't want to overextend myself; that's why I've never been a prolific recording artist. The recording well has dried up a bit – my choice. I wish I could be prolific at something." I tell him the story about Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope who, when he was commuting to his day job, would write novels. If he finished one mid-journey, he would sometimes start another immediately. Terfel looks at me with horror. "That is something I could never do," he says. My suspicion is that Terfel is quite happy not being prolific, whatever he says. Not because he's lazy, but because that way he better controls the quality of the work he does.

He tells me he will never sing two of his most celebrated roles, Figaro and Giovanni, in a production again, though he might do concert performances. "I'm too old!" he says. But not old enough to think about retiring? As he rises to leave, Terfel doesn't seem to have heard the question – or at least doesn't want to imagine the answer. Not yet.

• BrynFest is at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, 4–7 July. The Metropolitan Opera's productions of Das Rheingold and Die Walkure are in Picturehouse cinemas on 30 June and 1 July. Terfel sings at the opening night of the proms on 13 July

 

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