There is one memory of Bryn Terfel that is particularly difficult to shift. At the end of a Wigmore Hall recital a few years back, having just sung a programme of deeply serious classical songs, he came back for an encore and invited the audience to join him in the rollicking old Flanders and Swann song, “The Hippopotamus” (“Mud, mud, glorious mud”). The temple of the arts suddenly found itself host to a raucous communal singsong.
The man is a natural. While the marketing executives of the classical music industry struggle to lure reluctant artists across that invisible border into popular territory, the giant Terfel straddles the two worlds with confident ease. Perhaps it helps that he has always stayed so true to his roots. Even when he is flying off to play the opening night of the season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in September – a big honour in the opera world – he will probably be longing to get his feet back on home ground in his native Wales.
For the past six weeks or so that is where he has been. The production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that opens next Saturday will be the first in the history of Welsh National Opera, but that is not what has attracted international attention. From New York to Monte Carlo, opera-house administrators will be flying in to see Terfel, the reigning Wagnerian bass-baritone, sing his first Hans Sachs.
As he comes out of an all-day rehearsal, Terfel looks exhausted. He sinks his large frame down into a well-plumped black leather sofa in the lounge bar at the Wales Millennium Centre. His body has arrived, but his mind seems to be elsewhere. Thoughts about Hans Sachs and the day’s work are still swamping his brain: “I’ve been jotting down words to describe him,” he says pensively, pointing to a sheet of paper covered in notes, as if trying to pin down something tangible from a swirling mass of ideas. “Humility, humanity, wisdom, self-pity, jealousy. Yes, I do think he’s a jealous character.”
Although Terfel was surely born to sing Wagner, his appearances in Wagner’s operas have been frustratingly few and far between. There was Wolfram in Tannhäuser in New York in 1997 and he has sung Der fliegende Holländer in Cardiff, London and Munich. The first two operas in the Ring – Das Rheingold and Die Walküre – were added in 2004/5, but he caused consternation in the opera world when he cancelled his first complete Ring cycle at Covent Garden to spend time with one of his sons, who had broken a finger. His first Die Meistersinger is a big event. And not only in Cardiff.
In response to his obvious tiredness I ask if he agrees with some previous singers of the role that Hans Sachs is the most exhausting Wagnerian part of all. Terfel thinks for a moment and shakes his head. He says that at the moment the Walküre Wotan still seems the more taxing because of its range and declamatory style, whereas Hans Sachs is falling nicely into place.
“I am completely engrossed in it,” he says. “I’ve been working on the role for the past seven months. Before that I’d already sung the monologues and performed quite a hefty scene at the Tanglewood Music Festival [outside Boston]. I’ve had marvellous people working with me, like John Fisher of WNO, and I’ve taken the role to my singing teacher, Rudolf Piernay. I try to keep to the way I have learnt the music, but when you go into the first day of rehearsal everything gets forgotten. It is surprising how heavy the orchestra is when Hans Sachs is singing his [cobbler’s] song. I hadn’t expected that and will have to absorb it into my pacing of the role.”
He produces another piece of paper. This is a schematic plan of all the characters in Die Meistersinger, showing Hans Sachs in the centre with the others radiating out in different groups. “It helps you appreciate how the cobbler Sachs can be seen as a central point of sanity surrounded by deluded people,” he says. “Other people take their problems to him, but Wagner has painted this portrait so wonderfully that he is also able to portray Sachs as being mischievous or angry. “The role fits me in every way at this point in my life. I am the right age for Sachs. See – I have grey in my beard.” I point out that there is no grey in his hair. “Maybe not,” he says quickly, “but I hope there will be in my wig, because you need to look middle-aged. Sachs is at that stage where he could still have married Eva, if only Walther hadn’t turned up. Eva would have had a glorious life with him. Pogner [her father] would have been very happy and she would have had some great shoes! But now he has become second choice. That is why I think Sachs has a jealous side, too.”
From his sheaf of notes he produces another paper. This is a fascinating essay suggesting a parallel between the master-poets of Wales and Wagner’s guild of mastersingers in 16th-century Nuremberg. Suddenly a new connection between Wales – the home of the Eisteddfod – and the singing competition in Die Meistersinger comes to mind. Terfel explains how the poetic tradition in Wales stretches back to the sixth-century poets such as the “prince of bards” Aneirin. The “Talwrn y Beirdd” today, literally a “cockpit” of poets, he says is akin to a Welsh mastersingers’ contest.
Terfel is not the first Welsh singer to make his mark in Wagner. Sir Geraint Evans sang the role of Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger widely and recorded it with Herbert von Karajan. “That must have been a huge honour for him,” says Terfel. “I walk in the stage door here every day past the bust of Sir Geraint. Everybody talks about how he opened the way for other British singers and he was instrumental in getting me to sing for Sir Georg Solti, which made the next steps up the ladder for me so much faster.”
Other celebrated Welsh opera singers have included Dame Margaret Price, incomparably beautiful as Wagner’s Isolde on disc, and Dame Gwyneth Jones, the most exciting Brünnhilde of her generation. “I take pure enjoyment in putting on the famous Bayreuth DVD recording of the Ring because of Gwyneth Jones,” says Terfel. “You really couldn’t cast it better and thanks to [Welsh tenor] Dennis O’Neill, who has a wonderful school, the next generation of Welsh singers promises to be just as strong. You should have heard the [Welsh National Opera] chorus just now as they sang ‘Wach’ auf’. It brought tears to my eyes.”
Always the Welsh patriot at heart, Terfel was one of the early supporters of the Wales Millennium Centre and is honouring it with his first Hans Sachs. He had remarked earlier about how Sir Geraint Evans had the clout to take his own productions of choice with him to other international opera-houses. Perhaps those visiting administrators might be thinking of importing Terfel in Richard Jones’s Welsh National Opera production of Die Meistersinger? “That could be my Sir Geraint moment,” is all Terfel will say.
Where will his career go from here? That long-awaited complete Ring cycle is scheduled for a second try, this time at the Metropolitan Opera. Otherwise he is cagey about what the future holds. People have not forgotten a BBC television interview in which he suggested he would retire within three years. That was in 2008, so there is not much time left. Terfel’s Wagner performances have always been rare events. Let us hope that this first Die Meistersinger will not also be his last.
‘Die Meistersinger’ is at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, from June 19, then touring. www.wno.org.uk