x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Bryn Terfel strikes the right note

The acclaimed opera performer, who will be performing as part of Abu Dhabi Festival, is a phenomenon: not just a brilliant singer but one of the best actors in opera with impeccable critical acclaim.

Bryn Terfel has become known for his commanding voice and electric stage presence. Jo Hale / Getty Images
Bryn Terfel has become known for his commanding voice and electric stage presence. Jo Hale / Getty Images

"As the Italians say, everything can make a soup," says Bryn Terfel of his eclectic performance choices. The 47-year-old bass baritone is speaking from Milan (while, coincidentally, making some soup for lunch) and describing the song line-up for his Abu Dhabi debut tomorrow. Singing in a double billing with the Russian soprano Victoria Yastrebova, Terfel is doing a pretty good job of making the evening sound musically meaty as well as great fun.

"I'm starting with Donizetti's Udite, O Rustici because there's no better aria to open a scene on the stage. It has everything. When I performed it on the operatic stage recently, I started by coming down a Las Vegas-style staircase surrounded by 20 dancing girls. In a concert performance, you can still act it out a bit, holding a book, a contract or a bottle of bad Bordeaux."

In typically unstuffy fashion, Terfel will be joining Donizetti's aria with music by Verdi, Boito and Wagner, but also Gershwin, a Welsh folk song and the Broadway favourite The Impossible Dream. It's an approach that has served him well in a career that has gained him both worldwide critical acclaim and a loyal popular fan base.

The son of a Welsh farmer who shot to fame after winning the Lieder Prize at the 1989 BBC Singer of the World Competition, Terfel is now one of the planet's most sought-after baritones, renowned for his huge, sumptuous voice and unusually fine acting abilities.

Despite his success and commanding physical presence (he's 6ft 4in and built like a barrel), Terfel remains an approachable, friendly man, proud of his un-starry roots in north Wales, where he lives with his wife and three children. In fact, he has a modesty about his achievements that borders on diffidence, implying that success has almost taken him by surprise.

"I've never said I'm the Wagner singer that should be performing in opera houses across the world. I know how fortunate I have been. I've been guided through my career and opera houses have been clever not to book me too early. When I started, I'd have been very happy to be on contract for the Welsh National Opera for 10 years. I think it was the Cardiff Singer of the World that propelled me forward with immense speed but I was very gentle with myself, took smaller roles and cut my teeth in the profession. I was very naive then, with no concept of what was coming. But when faxes started coming in from La Scala, from the New York Met, I couldn't escape the enormity of singing on these stages."

While it's disarming, Terfel's modesty goes too far, since the singer has a commanding but lyrical voice that makes jaws drop and a persuasive, electric stage presence. He also seems to be taking major stages in his stride nowadays - we talk just days after he has stood in for an injured colleague at Milan's Scala, playing Verdi's Falstaff after only one rehearsal. While he admits the pressure of such occasions is "immense", he clearly still relishes his job.

"When I play Falstaff, I'm giggling in my chair for two hours as I'm being transformed into this fat knight. And people around me are laughing, too. It contributes to the atmosphere and the audience can feel that everyone on stage is having a good time."

As his career has progressed, Terfel has also moved on to heftier roles. Once famous as a Mozart specialist, he now describes himself as "wading in the torrential waters of Wagner". This shift is clear in his song selection for his Emirates Palace concert, where he'll sing some particularly beautiful excerpts from Wagner's Tannhäuser and Rheingold. What he describes as the composer's "endless melodies" and grand dramas have furnished Terfel with a set of pivotal starring roles for which his voice and acting are near perfect, a fact he acknowledges with pleasure: "When you sing roles like that on a good night, I assure you, you're going to feel like a god on that stage."

Even when discussing his biggest roles, however, Terfel still strikes a typically unpretentious note. Discussing his Abu Dhabi gala, he mentions an especially intense aria from Boito's Mefistofele, where Terfel has to impersonate the devil himself, not just by singing, but also by whistling.

"My father had a sheep farm with three working border collies so I'm pleased to say I got to hone my whistling talents learnt in days gone by for that one."

Bryn Terfel sings with Victoria Yastrebova and the Czech Philharmonic at 8pm on Tuesday in the Emirates Palace Auditorium

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