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‘I’m handsome. I’m energetic’ Nick Curtis
Bryn Terfel is raring to make his opera return, he tells
As the world-famous bass-baritone returns to the stage this summer, he tells Nick Curtis about falling in love second time around, why opera isn’t elitist and making merry as Falstaff. Portraits by Henry Bourne
Everything about the world-renowned bass-baritone Bryn Terfel is big: his voice, his burly 6ft 4in frame, his reputation and – following the birth of his fifth child, Alffi, last year – his family. Yet the 55-year-old’s first UK opera appearance after lockdown will be in one of our smaller, newer houses – as Verdi’s Falstaff at Grange Park Opera in Surrey in June.
‘As you can see, it’s tiny,’ he booms, gesturing at the rotunda, its 700-seat auditorium modelled on La Scala, which impresario Wasfi Kani erected in the grounds of a crumbling country house at blinding speed in 2017. We’re in his bare dressing room during a period of lockdown relaxation, windows and doors open, Terfel dominating the small space in jeans, tweed jacket and boots.
‘It’s an absolute joy to perform here, and to hear the best operas in the world in such an intimate environment in the middle of the woods is just amazing,’ he says. ‘I love the camaraderie, to see people in the breaks having their dinner… and it’s so close to London.’
Earlier in his career, he explains, he missed out on performing at country house seasons like Glyndebourne, initially because he was engaged at Salzburg for eight years, then later because he kept summers clear for holidays with his first wife, Lesley Jones, and their three sons, now adults. He and Jones divorced in 2013, and in 2019 he married Hannah Stone, former official harpist to Prince Charles, and 22 years Terfel’s junior. The couple had a daughter, Lily, now three, who started nursery near the family home in Penarth just as Alffi was born, in the pandemic summer of last year.
So this summer he is happy to stay in Wales. And Verdi’s lone comic outing, Falstaff, which Terfel first sang at Sydney Opera House in 1999, is ‘undoubtedly my favourite opera to perform. It’s a role where you always want to find something new. The opera puts a smile on my face and vocally I think I am singing it really well.’ Even the long process of transforming him into Shakespeare’s portly, bewhiskered knight is pleasant. ‘You’re in the make-up chair for an hour, giggling at yourself being disguised.’
Still, it’s quite a coup for Kani to get Terfel, when other houses are struggling to secure talent. Since finding fame in Mozart operas in the 1990s he has become a world-famous interpreter of Strauss and Wagner, and a prolific recording artist. Also taking musical theatre roles in Sweeney Todd and Fiddler on the Roof, he bridges the gap between high- and middle-brow music. He’s the one British opera singer most Brits could name.
But as GPO’S patron Joanna Lumley once told me. ‘There’s no room for manoeuvre with Wasfi. She has a real energy, like a force
‘After a pandemic people will want to thrive and be in a theatre’
of nature, so people say yes to her.’ Kani was one of the quicker impresarios – alongside Peter Gelb at the Met in New York– to offer an online programme of performances during lockdown. And she and Terfel go way back.
He first met her at HMP Wandsworth in 2009 where her company Pimlico Opera was performing West Side Story with inmates. ‘I thought, this woman is just astounding,’ he says. Kani, a talented violinist who was born in London’s East End in 1956 (she confidently claims to be the only impresario to have grown up with an outdoor loo) founded Grange Park in 1998 in the grounds of a Hampshire country house.
Maybe she and Terfel, the son of a farmer from Pant Glas in Caernarfonshire, whose trajectory into the upper ranks of opera began in 1989 after winning the Lieder Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, felt a certain kinship. Either way, after their first meeting she inveigled him into fundraising performances and concerts, and in 2015 he played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at Grange Park to great popular acclaim.
The following year, Kani fell out with the Grange’s owners, over a new lease that included rent for the first time, and found herself with a fully planned programme but no theatre. By chance, writer and former University Challenge presenter Bamber Gascoigne had inherited the dilapidated 15thcentury West Horsley Place in Surrey from his aunt, the Duchess of Roxburghe, two years before, when he was already 80 years old, and had been wondering what on earth to do with it.
He offered Kani a plot of land on the 380acre estate, and the new theatre was built with incredible swiftness and £10 million of private money. Terfel sang at the opening concert. Gascoigne auctioned off some of his aunt’s possessions and rented the house out to the makers of The Crown to help fund the huge repair bill. He has now placed the house in a charitable trust with a view to opening it to the public as a venue for the performing arts and the teaching of crafts. He still manages the estate and is a visible presence. ‘Bamber Gascoigne is someone I watched on the television with my grandmother for years, so to actually meet him…’ he says. ‘What he inherited and what’s been built in the corner of his country estate… the story should be a Hollywood blockbuster really.’
Falstaff, a connoisseurs’ opera written when Verdi was nearly 80, is a striking choice with which to reopen GPO. Did he and Kani not consider something less elitist to lure nervous post-pandemic audiences back, not to mention attract new ones? ‘No, we didn’t arrive at that,’ he says. ‘And pfft, I don’t think of opera as being something so elitist: if you do your homework you can get a ticket in the amphitheatre of the Royal Opera House for less than 20 quid.’ He expects audiences to flood back, desperate for live entertainment, when they can. ‘After a pandemic people will want to thrive and be in a theatre.’
His own lockdown started earlier than most. ‘In January last year I broke my ankle in three places,’ he says. ‘I slipped, beautifully, on a pavement in Bilbao, and got a triple fracture on the morning of a performance [of The Flying Dutchman].’ He missed that show, the last in the run, and an operation to instal a plate and nine screws in his ankle also put paid to a planned production of Bluebeard’s Castle for Welsh National Opera. His two-month recuperation segued neatly into the first lockdown.
Another Flying Dutchman in New York, and Sweeney Todd in Zurich this January, were among a year’s worth of bookings he had to cancel. He did fit in a Fidelio in Austria, a visit to Munich and a November concert at the Barbican, when restrictions allowed. Otherwise it’s mostly been online recitals – for Grange Park and the Met, for two Welsh care homes run by a friend, and for the creators of the Oxford vaccine, among others – with his wife accompanying him on the harp, from the hastily upgraded music room in their garden.
How was working together? ‘Absolutely phenomenal. We are already thinking about what more we can do together. She is incredibly driven about how much she has to practise – the calluses on the fingers have to be kept ready – which is not easy with a toddler and a young baby.’
Alffi’s arrival earlier in the year was ‘so astonishing, so moving, the hospital being so careful, bringing the father into the room at exactly the planned moment, because my wife had a caesarean’. Due to pandemic restrictions he missed out on a lot of scans and meetings with midwives in the last months of the pregnancy. ‘I had to be in the car park with Lily. It was fine, of course. You adhere to the rules.’
The baby has uprooted the house in more than the usual ways. Terfel doesn’t normally watch what he eats but the household has gone dairy-free as Alffi is allergic to it. (I’m slightly astonished that Terfel claims not to follow any particular exercise or diet regime. He swims to offset pain from two surgeries for back problems caused, he thinks, by performing on raked stages, and has just bought a treadmill to exercise his mended ankle. And he and his voice team monitor his vocal cords since he had a polyp removed a few years ago.)
I ask him if he’s approaching fatherhood differently second time around. ‘Only in the sense that I was building a career in the beginning,’ he says. ‘There was lots of travel and being away: the missing of funerals, and weddings and births – and goals and tries.’ Lockdown has meant he spent lots of time with his younger children, and he remains close to his older sons Tomos, Morgan and Deio Sion, now aged 26, 21 and 19, and on good terms with his ex. ‘I couldn’t have done what I did in my career without everybody who was involved, my ex-wife, my parentsin-law, everyone.’
Lesley Jones had been his childhood
sweetheart – they married while he was studying at the Guildhall in London – so I wonder if he thought he’d ever marry again after they split. ‘Of course, yeah, why not?’ he grins, as if the idea he’d stay single is preposterous. ‘I’m handsome. And energetic.’ He met Stone when he invited her to appear on a Christmas programme for TV channel S4C in Swansea. ‘I saw Hannah being made up and thought, she is very beautiful, but she was just divorced and I was just divorced, so I thought, no, she won’t [want a new relationship]. Later I was in the middle of a take of a beautiful carol and saw something out of the corner of my eye. There she was in the door frame, making silly faces. I forgot my words, forgot my music, had to do the take again. So I took that as a sign.’ Did he ever worry about the age difference? ‘Absolutely not.’
So staying in Wales with a talented young wife and a new baby was really not too bad for this proud Welshman. He sings the praises of Penarth, and of the beauty of his now-retired parents’ farm (he and his older brother Ian, a retired PE teacher, never got the farming bug). He’s also generous in his praise for Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford’s management of the pandemic, especially his establishment of an arts and culture fund. But he’s not entirely convinced Welsh independence is a good idea, at least from a personal perspective. ‘I’d have to know what it meant, exactly, for me,’ he scowls. ‘Does that mean taxes would go incredibly high, that I would have to go and live in Switzerland or Monte Carlo? I’d rather not, I’d rather live in Wales, and I am pretty happy how we are devolved at the moment.’
He is more voluble – albeit cautiously so – about the fact that elite sportsmen have been given exemptions from travel and quarantine restrictions under the pandemic, but elite musicians and singers have not. ‘If I am to be relied upon to go to Vienna tomorrow to save a performance if somebody falls sick, I want to be able to go there, carefully but without a restriction of having to isolate for two weeks. Because I might be wanted in another city [straight after that]. And I don’t want to put fuel on the fire, but with Brexit, that’s the security that I also want for travelling artists.’
Terfel didn’t want the UK to leave the EU – ‘70 per cent of my work is European, and my dad got grants from the European Union’ – and is frustrated by the muddle of red tape that Brexit has already brought to his profession. ‘They [politicians] need to step up to the plate, sort it out and give us the correct information.’
Terfel is great company: affable, garrulous and an unselfconscious name-dropper.
‘There she was in the door frame… I forgot my words, forgot my music. I took it as a sign’
He finds it strange that people are often intimidated by opera singers. ‘We are normal people. But when I went on the David Letterman show and sang a song, it was almost like they were a little bit afraid of me.’ At Bill Clinton’s Kennedy Center Honorees ceremony in 1996, it was his turn to be overawed: he sang You’ll Never Walk Alone to Jack Lemmon, and afterwards Clint Eastwood came over for a chat about music.
‘My father was a huge fan of spaghetti westerns so I was a bit tongue-tied. And Sidney Poitier, an actor I adored – I met him in the lift. Beautiful man, carries himself so incredibly well.’ He tells me that Roger Waters of Pink Floyd sponsored his membership of Sunningdale Golf Club, that he keeps part of his wine collection at Berry Bros, and is immensely proud to be an ambassador for Rolex. Yet he remains utterly down to earth. I remember him telling a story on BBC Breakfast of coming offstage somewhere, buzzing, and being hailed by a star-struck passer-by with the words, ‘All right, Meatloaf?’ He has crossover appeal, moving effortlessly between opera and popular musicals: he would still love to sing Les Misèrables, but his schedule means he couldn’t commit to a long run.
In the future, he sees a gradual tailing off of operatic work and more concerts and recordings: he has already said he will probably never sing the pivotal role of the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Meistersinger again, because he’ll be in his late 50s or 60s by the time another staging comes around, and it’s a lot of work for a small number of performances. He used to say he’d like an opera written for him, perhaps and adaptation of Citizen Kane , but doesn’t mention it now. He’d like to revisit Britten’s Peter Grimes and is always up for Falstaff. And having gone ‘from Mozart to Strauss to Wagner’ in his career, he quite fancies trying ‘older, more fun roles’ in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale or L’elisir d’amore ,ifthe Royal Opera House were to offer them.
Then there is his eponymous foundation, which he set up a few years back, to help young singers get into the business, but hasn’t been able to devote much time to. Terfel talks about his admiration for Marcus Rashford’s school meals campaign, for the sponsorship scheme for young singers set up by Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, and for Wasfi Kani’s galvanic drive. ‘I feel guilty that I have started a foundation but not really delved into it with as much energy and integrity as somebody building an opera house like this,’ he says, gesturing again at Grange Park. ‘That is perhaps something to look into in the next decade, once – as my daughter puts it – “everyone is better”.’ Telegraph subscribers can take advantage of priority booking ahead of the general public for Grange Park Opera Festival this year. The line-up includes Falstaff, starring Terfel, and La Bohème. The priority booking window is from today until Monday 8 March. Subscribers can also join Terfel online for a live Q&A this Monday (22 February) at 6pm. For full details go to telegraph.co.uk/go/gpo