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A Voice That Carries

Welsh-born Bryn Terfel, who sings Tuesday in Irvine, began singing in church, but soon was winning contests and wowing critics and performing on international opera houses.


At 6 feet 3, the sturdily built Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel cuts a commanding figure on the international opera stage.

His singing, which earned a rare front-page review in the New York Times in 1994, has continued to turn heads since he first performed in Orange County in 1996.

But back problems and surgery for a herniated disk six weeks ago led him to cancel some recent performances and nearly kept him from making his commitment to return Tuesday for a recital at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

It was the second time his back has thrown a wrench into his fast-moving career.

"It's always been at the Metropolitan Opera," Terfel said during a recent phone interview from his parents' home in Wales. "The first was after a dress rehearsal of 'Don Giovanni.' The second, after a performance of 'Tales of Hoffmann.'

"It's a kind of omen," he laughed.

It's not an omen that Terfel, a natural singer, needs to take too seriously. After all, who would have predicted his current meteoric rise?

He was born Bryn Terfel Jones, Nov. 9, 1965 to unassuming farming parents in the agricultural town of Pantglas, North Wales.

"Although music was there, it was never forced upon me," he said.

He sang at church and in the traditional singing festivals (eisteddfodau). But because there was already another singer by the name of Bryn Jones, he decided to go as Bryn Terfel (pronounced TAIR-vell).

Encouraged by his success, he auditioned at 18 at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in distant London, where he went on to study for five years.

He needed the training.

"The voice was still naive, untrained, but there was a talent there to be nurtured," he said.

But he had a lot of catching up to do in classical music.

"All I knew was rock and pop. There was no need for me to know about any other thing."

Within three years, however, he began winning competitions.

"This kind of hits you on the forehead, like being hit by a golf ball. It justified the fact that I left my square mile, as we call it here in Wales."

He was soon making waves in a big way. He finished second (to Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky) at the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989. But he also won the lieder prize there.

He conquered the stage when he sang John the Baptist opposite Catherine Malfitano's Salome at the Salzburg Festival in 1992.

"Sparks flew between the characters," he said.

Critics and opera houses agreed, and offers began to flood in, and soon he was singing in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna and New York.

The Philharmonic Society of Orange County--which is sponsoring this recital--made sure that we got to hear him here. And Orange County got him several weeks before Los Angeles did.

His first program here mixed songs by Schubert with songs by English and Welsh composers. This time, he'll add some Schumann but retain the English repertory.

"There's a world of English music perhaps not often performed in America," he said. "They're interesting pieces. Plus, it's a language people can understand and hopefully don't have to stare at their program notes for the duration of the second half."

He'll also sing Welsh repertory, which he feels a deep attachment to. In fact, he has a CD of Welsh folk tunes, hymns and songs coming out this fall.

"That's something I have been aiming to achieve and put a feather in my cap," he said. "It's taken quite a while to be born."

It's taken a while because "it's important what kind of repertory you put in a CD of your own homeland.

"Fischer-Dieskau [who was German] had a wealth of repertory to draw on. It's different coming from a very small country like Wales, whose music is not that well known."

After Orange County, Terfel moves on to the San Francisco Opera to sing Nick Shadow (the devil) in Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress." It's a role that suits his voice.

"I'm categorized as a bass-baritone," he said. "Make of that what you will. I think it's a lazy baritone--one who doesn't sing [the high-lying role of Verdi's] Rigoletto or [the low-lying role of Mozart's] Sarastro.

"Anything between those two voices is fine."

But he doesn't just want to stick to opera. He was about to sing "Sweeney Todd" in New York, but had to cancel because of his back problem.

"I think it's a glorious piece. But I had a reason to cancel--not an excuse, a reason. My specialist had said, 'Only recitals for the next three weeks.' Opera had to take a passenger seat for a moment while I recuperate my strength.

"But I had a glorious walk today. The weather here is beautiful."


Bryn Terfel will sing a recital at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. He will be accompanied by pianist Malcolm Martineau. The recital is sponsored by the Philharmonic Society. $75. (949) 854-4646.

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at

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