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Bryn Terfel, opera's good sportsman

He's a sports fan, a dad and a committed singer — an everyday guy who happens to be a star. He will perform in recital this week.

November 21, 2010|By Kevin Berger, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Singer Bryn Terfel.
Singer Bryn Terfel. (Benjamin Ealovega, Deutsche…)

Reporting from New York — — On a cool autumn afternoon, Bryn Terfel was sitting in the plaza outside the Metropolitan Opera House, talking golf. He was wearing black running pants and a jersey emblazoned with the logo of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team.

One of opera's marquee stars is a huge sports fan — and bears a remarkable resemblance to the late Rams great Merlin Olsen. Terfel is 6-foot-4 and has the demeanor of a genial country pastor. With a slice of regret in his voice, Terfel was lamenting that he couldn't attend the Ryder Cup golf tournament, which had concluded two days before in his beloved homeland, Wales. He had to sing the lead role of Wotan in the Met's new production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle.

Yet Terfel got up every morning at 6 in his hotel to watch the tournament on TV. He was thrilled the European team had won, though felt bad for American golfer Hunter Mahan, who lost the deciding match.

Along his own course in classical music, Terfel, 45, has been one of most lavishly praised singers in the past 25 years. Critics have poured superlatives on his roles as Falstaff and Figaro and on his numerous recordings, ranging from Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" to Welsh folk songs. (His show tune albums have taken a few punches.)

"Bryn is a force of nature," said pianist Malcolm Martineau, who will accompany Terfel on Monday in a recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall, centered on the stirring songs of Schumann.

His deep baritone can hold you in its dark clutches like pealing thunder and then release you with the gentleness of a butterfly in flight.

Where does that incredible voice come from? As Terfel offered, all of his artistic paths lead back to Wales, where he grew up in the rural, mountainous north, the son of a sheep farmer. "Undoubtedly I wouldn't be where I am without the grounding that this wonderful small country gave me as a performing artist," he said.

Wales is called the "land of song" for good reason. Music is woven so deeply into Welsh culture that children gravitate to singing as naturally as to soccer. And singing in Wales is fostered in a cultural environment as competitive as sports.

From the time Terfel was old enough to kick a ball, he was singing in community choirs and competing in his local "eisteddfod." The Welsh tradition, dating to medieval times, pits singers, poets and musicians against one another in performance contests. The competitive eisteddfods paved Terfel's way to important singing contests in music school and college, which he won, and which launched his professional career.

"I had a certain comfort being on stage and being adjudicated for what you'd just done," he said. "In eisteddfods, there was definitely a regimen. You had to know your pieces well, you had to know the poetry well, you had to sing in tune really well. I actually started as somebody who recites poetry."

Like Dylan Thomas? "No, gosh no," he said with a laugh. "Simple Welsh poetry. But funny you say Dylan Thomas. I was at the White Horse Tavern last night, the pub where he drank himself to an untimely death."

Terfel was enjoying the look homeward.

"There's an art form in Wales called cerdd dant, which is singing poetry to a given harp tune," he said. "There was a man in the next village who was one of Wales' foremost writers of the tunes. He coached me from a very early age. I sometimes kick myself to think why I'm here now."

There's a melodic quality to Terfel's speaking voice. Because Welsh is his first language, he articulates each word in English as if he had to consciously draw out the music and meaning of each syllable. You can hear the distinction on his new album, "Carols & Christmas Songs." Terfel sings popular holiday tunes in, respectively, English and Welsh. Both versions are felicitous, the Welsh more so.

Immaculate diction, Terfel said, was the key to his singing. And achieving it was no easy feat. This year he faced his biggest vocal challenge when he took on the role of Hans Sachs in Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" for the Welsh National Opera.

Finding the perfect vocal pitch for each of Wagner's precise German syllables "was a ball and chain for four years," he said. "You're on an airplane thinking, 'Is it der? Dee? Dus? My score is covered with wine, blood, grass stains. It's been thrown across the music room. But it's all a part of learning a piece of new music." And when he finally got it right? "It was a monumental joy," he said.

Because we were sitting outside, and no doubt because Terfel's face, in Norse god regalia, was posted on billboards and buses around the city, many people recognized him and smiled as they walked by.

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