A Celebrity at the Helm? – Bryn Terfel and Der fliegende Holländer [The Royal Opera’s The Flying Dutchman, 23 February-10 March 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

As Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman comes to port in a new production at Covent Garden, Mansel Stimpson talks to the man in the title role, Bryn Terfel…

Bryn Terfel. ©Clive Barda/DG

When setting out once again to do an interview at Covent Garden, it struck me that my latest interviewee, Bryn Terfel, was the one who most obviously could claim to be a celebrity. Having a great voice, a magnificent stage presence and fame in the world of opera all contribute to this thought. Yet to be recognised by millions who are not necessarily opera lovers, and for the press to treat him accordingly, suggests something more than all that. Of course, we know how in recent times the term ‘celebrity’ has been cheapened by the media promoting figures of little or no talent, but it seems that Bryn is an example of a truly talented artist who had attained celebrity on his own terms.

Here is a man whose engagements have included the opening of Welsh Millennium Centre and appearing in Last Night of the Proms and whose recordings embrace not just classical composers but Welsh song and the work of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe – and this without suggesting that this was down to a record company insisting on crossover material that the singer was being pushed into accepting. I would argue that this breadth of appeal, the fact that Bryn can be promoted on the front of a record cover simply as ‘Bryn’, marks the extent to which he is known and admired as a singer justify the use of ‘celebrity’ to describe his standing.

But, when you talk to this unassuming and dedicated man who expresses himself with ease, he will have none of it. “Celebrity within this profession? I don’t think there is such a thing. If it exists at all for me, then it lies in the fact that I can pick and choose what I want to do. I feel very privileged to be in a position where I was able to say that for one year I’d be doing no opera but just concerts. I could afford to do that knowing that I’d be coming back to opera. But, given the state of the recording industry today, things are very different there. I am considered to be a Deutsche Grammophon exclusive artist but I have no studio recordings of opera set up in the next six years although I would dearly love to record The Ring, Meistersinger and Fliegende Holländer. The company perceives what the public wants to buy and we have to put on our entrepreneurial hats as well. If my Bryn album sold over 800,000 copies and my Schubert only 6,000, which one are you going to try and repeat? But I hope that I’ve balanced both in the right way and I did my English songs because I wanted to present them as a testament to the man who gave that wonderful repertoire to me, my singing teacher at the Guildhall School of Music, Arthur Reckless. Where the opera world is at the moment in this context I can’t say, but my hope is that somebody might write a cheque for Deutsche Grammophon to record all the Wagner operas again. There must be a time when they’ll want to do it, so I’m waiting, perhaps for Mr Thielemann to decide upon recording them himself.”

Bryn Terfel. ©Jason Bell/DG

It might be thought that current attitudes which encourage the recording of quasi-classical favourites by young artists, people often promoted like pop stars and given an image of glamour, would encourage Bryn to be critical, but not so. “At the moment the record industry does favour those personalities and singers like Katherine Jenkins and others who are called opera singers even when much of their material is not really operatic. But there’s a niche for them too, I think, and they bring people into the theatres. Compared to me bringing 2,000 people into Carnegie Hall, there are people who can bring 12,000 into the Manchester Arena or the Birmingham Arena and I think there’s a place for everything.”

That Bryn enjoys the world that he now inhabits is self-evident and it’s striking that when talking about his career he readily side-tracks to mention other artists. Thus, in describing his own work, he says that “I have fun in my rehearsals and directors sometimes chastise me for that, but once the overture begins you buckle down to actually do with colleagues what you hope will be great work.” However, that reference to colleagues immediately leads to “I can’t beat the fact that I’ve seen people like Luciano Pavarotti from the side of the stage singing ‘E lucevan le stelle’ and being encored for it, and that I heard Renée Fleming singing her first ‘Porgi amor’ with phrases that go on forever: her breath control is untouchable. Yet another unforgettable occasion was Cecilia Bartoli’s first Susanna at the Metropolitan Opera in Jonathan Miller’s wonderful production.”

This enthusiasm for the work of others is not confined to past memories. The current repertoire at Covent Garden as Bryn prepares for his second appearance in the title role of Der fliegende Holländer (the first was with Welsh National Opera in 2006) earns a special mention from him, as does his co-star. “In Anja Kampe I’m hearing a Senta that is just such a beautiful voice and she’s a singer I’d never even met or heard sing before. So I was thinking ‘Where has this girl been hiding?’ In addition, one of the joys of being in an opera house is that you can pop into other things, a dress rehearsal of the ballet The Seven Deadly Sins or a quarter-of-an-hour of Leo Nucci who, approaching 67, is singing his wonderful Rigoletto with such legato as though he were still 26. Sitting there and listening to him, my chin hit the floor, and you say to yourself, ‘wow, what a profession to be in’.”

If that is the present, we touch also on the past, discussing how Bryn’s response to music was initially coloured by those national elements that explain why Wales is known as the land of song. “Undoubtedly that influenced me: it’s the first step in one’s ladder, Singing is synonymous with the country and there’s something very social about it. It’s not just the choirs and the bands but something that goes right across the board. The Eisteddfod is a splendid occasion and key to all that. I myself would sing seriously from the age of twelve onwards and when, around thirteen years old, the voice-change came, it broke immediately into a very-light bass-baritone. I made good use of that for the rest of my five years in school. I had a keen interest in sports, too, but music was always on the back burner. Then in 1984 I came to London to the Guildhall but even so it was very tentative. I was wondering how I, a farmer’s son from Snowdonia, could possibly expect to break through and join the ranks of people like Sir Geraint Evans, Stuart Burrows and Gwyneth Jones, the singers I became aware of once opera came to the fore during my time at the Guildhall. It was then, ahead of the Cardiff Singer of the World in 1989, when I was second to Dmitri Hvorostovsky and won the Lieder prize, that I was invited to record Masetto under Arnold Östman in Sweden with the wonderful Barbara Bonney. All that gave me a certain energy to carry on with what I was doing – and that was useful because I’m a home-bird really, somebody who welcomes any chance to go back to Wales.”

Looking back over the years that followed, Bryn now touches on many points. He praises the guidance given to him by Geraint Evans, criticises himself over his approach as a young singer starting out with Welsh National Opera (“I hadn’t learnt how to cope with being in an opera house”) and confirms that Wagner had his attention early on. “After the Cardiff Singer of the World, people would want to hear me audition. I remember an occasion in Vienna at the Staatsoper where as usual I sang both ‘Non più andrai’ and the ‘Flieder’ monologue from Meistersinger. That was in order to show a sense of Mozart and of languages and to sing Wagner from a lyrical lieder-singer’s perspective. In fact they offered me Hans Sachs, and later but still at a very early age Sir Georg Solti did so too, but in each case I had the sense to say that I wasn’t then ready. (Soon) I open my Meistersinger score to start learning it for a new production at the Welsh National Opera. With Mozart you have a social life: you can go out with colleagues, to restaurants, to the movies. But when you are performing Wagner that social life disappears: you go home, lock the door and drink a bottle of red wine because you have to be much more careful to preserve your stamina.”

Bryn Terfel as The Dutchman for the Royal Opera, 2009. ©Clive Barda

That’s our cue to talk about Der fliegende Holländer. “Coming back to a Wagner opera is always very interesting for me, and in this instance it means that I won’t be making the same mistakes which I did first time around for the Welsh National Opera. Dutchman was a great vehicle for them, and not just for me but for the chorus and orchestra. We had David Pountney as director so it should have been fabulous, but unfortunately the set designer took it into outer space which to me made little visual sense. But that didn’t change what has to be present in your singing performance whenever you do Wagner. I’ve always maintained that in his works one quick movement on the stage can hamper your breathing technique for the next thirty bars. Very interestingly I was given the scores of George London, a singer I put on a pedestal. They came from his widow and he was meticulous regarding every breath-mark and every position of the voice where he had problems. Looking at these scores, including Dutchman, I found that his problems were exactly my problems, but what a singer he was! His Mandryka in Arabella under Solti was the best I’ve ever heard.”

When it came to turning up at Covent Garden to rehearse this new Dutchman, Bryn did not know what to expect as regards the staging by Tim Albery but his trust was in the man. “His production of From the House of the Dead for Welsh National Opera was tremendous, and I felt from his approach then that he would lend himself to everything that the Dutchman is. The music is all about smelling the sea and the character’s sense of damnation and desire of salvation through the love of a woman if he can ever find one faithful unto death. It’s all there in the score, and we are performing it straight through without an interval, so like Strauss’s Salome it should be very intense. There are things in this profession on which you can’t put a price. One of them is being able to sing in a venue like the Wigmore Hall with its amazing acoustic, a brilliant accompanist and people who are smiling and enjoying what they are hearing. But equally exciting is the moment when you walk into any opera house on the first day of rehearsals and you have that nervousness and that tinge of excitement as you wonder what you’re facing, what singers you have and what the director will do.” When it comes to Dutchman, Bryn will give nothing away about the production save to admit to his reaction on entering the room and finding a horrendous rake: “Oh my God, my back’s going to be really worked hard here.”

It occurs to me that the character of the Dutchman, a legendary figure who sails the seas in a ship with a phantom crew and who is allowed to land in search of redemption every seven years, is more of an elemental figure than a truly human one. Does this make him harder to play? “There’s a wonderful stillness in the Dutchman and this ghostly element as well. But within this production we might bring into his movements a little more of the human. With this character you tend to set yourself on a track in which the movements are very slow, but that can help you because the duet with Senta is one of the most difficult things to sing vocally and technically. There and also in the duet with Senta’s father you have music in which the voices come together musically, but what the characters are singing and thinking is as strikingly distinct as with the individuals in a Mozart sextet.

“The work is really the start of Wagner’s progression. So in addition to the succinctness which may appeal to those less enamoured of Wagner, you already have pointers to the future: musical themes for the characters – for the Dutchman, for Senta – and that sense of an on-going journey throughout which means that Dutchman never has arias that can be applauded. I love bringing people to opera, so most of my friends have already been to see Wagner, but this time just because it’s shorter and so intense I’m going to bring some new people in. Hopefully it will hit them emotionally like a very hard stone right between the eyes, or, given the recent weather, should I say like a snowball?”

That is Bryn’s final word, brought out with a laugh, but I return in this last paragraph to the way in which he tends to turn aside any claim to celebrity and how he plays down his wonderful stage presence (“I have a six-foot-three rugby-forward frame and in presenting yourself you can learn the tricks of the trade”). I locate his special standing in the fact that far from being an elite artist dealing in an elite art-form this great singer is in effect one of the people who sings for all of the people. He may not see it like that, but, even so, I feel no compulsion to change my view of this remarkable man.

  • Six performances – from Monday 23 February at 8 p.m. until Tuesday 10 March
  • The performance on Sunday 1 March is at 7.30 p.m., and the one on Saturday 7 March begins at 12.30
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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