New beginnings for Bryn Terfel

17:00, Apr 30 2013
Bryn Terfel
EMOTIONAL RESCUE: Welsh bass baritone Bryn Terfel in one of his acclaimed performances as Sir John Falstaff in Verdi’s Falstaff. ‘‘Singing is a constant battle with emotion. You give everything on stage.’’

Who would dare to ask one of the most famous opera stars in the world about his failed marriage? No need. He brings it up almost immediately himself. Bryn Terfel, known as one of the world's great bass baritones, was, a couple of months ago, the subject of British tabloid delight under the headline: "£8m divorce of UK's top opera star Bryn Terfel revealed as love rival is "glassed" in nightclub".

Briefly, the story described an incident at a nightclub where Terfel's wife of 25 years had gone with a new man described by the paper as "an unemployed, football-mad father of one almost half her age".

Terfel has regularly referred to his wife in interviews as his "childhood sweetheart." In this interview, he talks softly, a bit sadly, a bit pre-emptively, and he calls her "my wonderful ex-wife".

"You bite the bullet. I won't be the first or the last one," he says of the long marriage now ended.

Terfel is to star in a New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's gala concert, singing career highlights, in Wellington on May 3. The first half will be all Wagner - he's recently been called "the new Wagnerian king at Covent Garden".

"In the second I relax a little with a couple of naughty, bad characters." They include Mefistofele and Mack the Knife.


But, before he gets on to that, the bass baritone - described, on a 2009 visit, by The Dominion Post critic Lindis Taylor, as having a voice "as multi-coloured as the biblical dreamcoat" - raises his new personal status.

He raises it in response to a comment on the handful of times he has already sung in New Zealand. "I like a return. It's more exciting in a way. I've done, like, four recitals in New Zealand and this is an orchestral concert. About time, really.

"It's a kind of look back at what has happened in my life, a new chapter, a new beginning in a career you throw yourself into whole-heartedly to the detriment of your family life. Sadly, me and my wife have separated.

"This is a big something new after 30 years. Without my wonderful ex-wife I wouldn't be where I am today, without my parents and the support of a country like Wales. You need certain elements to be able to give so much to a career."

Unprompted, Terfel, who has always talked in interviews about the importance of his family of three boys, goes on to question the reaction to him abandoning his role in Wagner's Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House in 2007 to stay with his six-year-old, who had a damaged finger. It was a long time ago but there was an operatic furore and Terfel, talking in his Melbourne hotel room, still smarts.

"I was very heavily criticised by those on the critical side. Come on," he says. He was the one who made the decision "and I was the one not getting paid. Frankly I was shocked by what some people said, and I was easily replaced by Sir John Tomlinson."

Tomlinson, says Terfel, occupied "in the performance and Wagner world" an elevated position that he could not have aspired to. "If I had to make the decision again I would make it."

Terfel has been called things like "a smiling superstar with a voice like god" and a vocal genius, and blessed with a whole host of other laudatory descriptions. How does he take that?

"I don't want to fall into that trap," he says. "This is the profession that for some reason someone dropped a bucketful of voice talent in my direction. I had to work hard and be dedicated." There has, though, he says "always been an element of laziness in me, leaving things till the last minute" but a last minute always fully under control. "I am a good learner."

Terfel, a farmer's son, says he grew up in a house filled with music.

"Wales gave us a platform to flourish. It was most probably my decision to go to the Guildhall School of Music that was the most important decision I had made, but also an element of not knowing what I'd do with my life."

His 18-year-old son, studying business, is now at that same decisive age, he adds. His other sons are 14 and 12. Nothing has changed in his contact with them.

"The vagabond existence of a father flitting in and out of their lives is the same. I have to make a living."

The wonderful thing, he says, is being offered great jobs in interesting places like Abu Dhabi, St Petersburg, Melbourne and Sydney "and of course your beautiful country. Something is still pulsating. Opera companies are always asking what you would like to do, a carrot. You do fall into the trap of saying yes again."

He did take a year off a while ago to do concerts and try things. "In an economic sense opera came back." La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden embraced him. "My career is on a good crescendo again."

Off-stage this year he's doing "a kind of quasi-religious disc with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I did a Christmas concert with them five years ago which was magnificent."

His operatic appointments this year include singing Falstaff in San Francisco. "San Francisco is lucky where golf and wine is concerned." The best golf course in the world, though, he says, is the Royal Melbourne, "an astonishing golf course. As Falstaff says, ‘a good walk spoiled'.

"I consider golf relieves me of Wagner's world being in my head. Some people like to sit down with a book. With me, on a golf course, I forget about things in life. Also it's a social game for an opera singer. Many an opera singer plays golf. I hear Kiri hits a golf ball, Placido Domingo . . .

"Singing is a constant battle with emotion. You give everything on stage." Life can have perfectly terrible things going on but on stage "you pick yourself up and dust yourself down. Like a surgeon or a doctor has to."

He muses again on the importance of his boys and returns to his marital split: "Of course, I can't wash over it. It was a difficult amount of time. I think my wife and I know exactly where we stand. Thirty years, islands become a distance and lives of children a priority."

Terfel has talked in the past about musicals. Would he consider starring in one?

"Maybe Camelot. Why not? It would be interesting, eight shows a week, a bit of a nightmare, sorts out the men from the boys. If the operatic world dried up and I did want a year in London it could be something to think about."

Long ago in his life he didn't think he'd ever live anywhere but Cardiff.

"It was the beginning of my career, in Cardiff, working with the Welsh National Opera. It was where me and my wife bought a house, and I with the Welsh Opera. But what did we know. The cat was among the pigeons, and my career today is another shift in gear.

"Any golfers you know?"


Bryn Terfel: A Gala Evening with the NZSO, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, Friday, 6.30pm and ASB Theatre, Auckland, Saturday, 7.30pm.

The Dominion Post