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Bryn Terfel stands tall on opera's stage

LENOX -- Bryn Terfel, posing for a photographer, said, "I feel like Tarzan."

The Welsh bass-baritone, now 39, has stood at the peak of his profession almost since he entered it, after finishing his studies at London's Guildhall School of Music 17 years ago. He has appeared on most of the major operatic stages; made dozens of recordings of music from Handel through show tunes; appeared regularly on television; and brought new listeners into the concert hall because of the appeal of his voice and his exuberant personality. Earlier this week he returned to Tanglewood, after an absence of six years, to sing first a recital and then, tomorrow night, scenes from Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" with Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

At 6-foot-3, Terfel is larger than life, but so natural and warm-hearted that he's not intimidating; his lilting voice in conversation is as natural and communicative as his singing. "If they ever make an opera out of `Harry Potter,' " he says, "I'm Hagrid, without a doubt."

Q. So what is the famous affinity of Welsh people for music and singing all about?

A. It's an important tradition in the cultural life of the country. People's work depends on mining, on quarrying, on slate, on agriculture. And when they come home from work they want to play in brass bands or sing in choruses. Religion has something to do with it - the Methodists have a good catalog of hymns. Another element is the Welsh language itself. The interest isn't just in classical music; it goes across all the styles. Think of Tom Jones or Shirley Bassey.

Q. And yourself?

A. I come from a farming family that was also churchgoing, not for heavily religious reasons but for social ones - the farms in Snowdonia are scattered. There is a talent and a tradition for singing in my family; my father has a tremendous voice, but he didn't make the choice to pursue that possibility because he wanted to carry on the wonderful farming tradition of his father and grandfathers. Recently there was a documentary about my life, and I went to see my father sell some cows in a farmers' market, and he burst into a hymn and everyone joined in - it's all there on film.

I sang all my life, but, in school, balanced sport and music as a way of covering my tracks; football was one of my passions, and it still is. I had a good basic singing voice, not a soprano, and it dropped to a bass almost overnight. I had a raw talent and, gladly, people recognized that, so I was able to go to London to study at 17, right after I left school. I was nurtured for all kinds of singing, not just opera but also Lieder and oratorio and music theater, even jazz and blues. I never thought I would be successful, but I did work hard, and things developed, slowly in the beginning, and for that I am grateful.

Q. Opera and songs have been at the core of your career, and you are singing operatic scenes and a recital at Tanglewood this week. How would you compare these different kinds of singing?

A. The difference between the categories is a question of intimacy - in recital there are just three performers, the singer, the pianist, and the piano. But you can develop a friendship with the audience; I like to talk to the people who come to have a good time and enjoy themselves. Some people do not like the informality; but after a recital in Los Angeles the other night, we had a record signing and many people told me they had never been to a classical concert before. I'm not like Paul McCartney - I can't turn up and sing ``Yesterday'' and everyone will have a good time. I have to work on my program to get a good mix of styles and composers, and with some things that people will recognize. It all works because I am relaxed and having fun myself.

Opera now has enormous visual possibilities because of technology. Gone are the days when you could just come to the end of the stage and sing your aria. With today's directors you have to throw yourself into the character and the drama - and be ready for just about anything. I just finished a run of Gounod's ``Faust'' at Covent Garden in London last week, and one scene, the Walpurgisnacht, was in drag - for the first and last time in my career I was wearing a dress onstage.

Q. You have sung many of the roles opera fans have wanted to hear you sing and see you perform. Wotan in Wagner's ``Ring'' cycle comes next season in London. You are singing scenes from ``Die Meistersinger'' at Tanglewood. Are you sneaking up on the role of Wagner's poet/cobbler Hans Sachs?

A. Yes I am. It's like training for the Olympics; you have to learn how to pace yourself. I jumped at the chance to do these scenes at Tanglewood because some of the music I've never sung before, and it will bring me insight in how it is going to be. This role is dangerous and full of murky waters, so I can tell you that I will be waiting till the right circumstances come along before I decide to perform it. I have a lot of Wagner in my schedule next year, but I don't want to give up parts like Mozart's Figaro and Verdi's Falstaff.

Q. Where would you like to be 10 years from now?

A. I definitely want to be at home in Wales more, and with my family. My children are 10, 5, and 3 now. My wife, Lesley, is the saint in the family who holds everything together during my constant traveling - being away from loved ones is the hardest part of a career like mine. I like to think that my children are well-adjusted and they know that their dad will always come home. I've never brought them to see and hear me in a concert or an opera, except for ``Sweeney Todd.'' That is something they reacted to - and they memorized the whole piece.

Over time I would like to slow down on the opera and concentrate more on concerts; within a few years I will have performed most of the operatic roles that interest me. The Welsh National Opera has a wonderful new theater in Cardiff, and I would like to be part of the development of the company, perhaps in a behind-the-scenes way. And who knows, I might show up directing an opera one day. I would like to find ways to give something back to my profession.

And I am still looking for somebody to write an opera for me. When I was doing ``Sweeney Todd,'' I talked with Stephen Sondheim, who is interested in developing something based on ``The Mabinogion,'' medieval stories from Wales. Now how exciting would that be? 

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