Interview: Theatre Life with Sir Bryn Terfel

The award wining classical music and opera superstar on his upcoming recital at Kennedy Center and more.

By: Nov. 13, 2023
Interview: Theatre Life with Sir Bryn Terfel
Sir Bryn Terfel. Photo by Mitch Jenkins.

Today’s subject Sir Bryn Terfel is a Grammy, Classical Brit, and Gramophone Award–winning recording artist with a discography encompassing operas of Mozart, Wagner, and Strauss, and more than 15 solo discs including Lieder, American musical theatre, Welsh songs, and sacred repertory. He is, rightfully so, considered one of the greatest bass baritones in the world. On Sunday November 19th, Sir Terfel will be performing in recital at Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall at 2:00pm for one coveted performance only. His performance is co-presented by Fortas Chamber Music Concerts and Renée Fleming Voices.

What you might not know about Sir Terfel is that he has a strong connection to musical theatre. He has performed the lead role in Sweeny Todd with the NY Philharmonic, Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at Grange Park Opera, and recorded an album of almost all show tunes with Renée Fleming entitled “Under the Stars”. If you have not heard it before, I highly urge you to.

Some of Sir Terfel’s recent performances include, Balstrode for Wiener Staatsoper and Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Holländer in Der fliegende Holländer for Grange Park Opera, Falstaff for Zürich Opera and Bayerische Staatsoper, Münich; Scarpia for Zürich Opera and Opera National de Paris; Don Pizarro in Fidelio at the Schloßberg, Graz; Don Pasquale at the Royal Opera House; and Boris Godunov for Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Royal Opera House.

He has performed on some of the most famous concert and opera stages in the world wowing audiences with his deep rich bass baritone voice.

The holiday season is fast approaching, and I know everyone’s lives ramp up around this time. Classical music can be good for the soul and Sir Bryn Terfel’s voice is one that should be heard in person if at all possible. He is one of our greatest modern day classical and beyond singers to be sure. Grab some tickets to Sir Bryn Terfel’s recital this Sunday for an audible escape from the upcoming holiday craziness and ENJOY!!!

At what age did you get interested in classical music?

Well, I think in my late teens at comprehensive school. I chose music as a subject and slowly but surely the choral and orchestral music became more evident in the lessons. Brahms “First Symphony”, Faure’s “Requiem”, and Smetana “Ma Vlast”. These pieces became some of my most favorite musical challenges as one had to delve into their musical quality and write copious amounts about them.

Growing up, who were your musical idols?

Oh gosh. In my late teens I worshiped the ground that Elvis Presley walked on. Then of course, Pink Floyd, The Police, Queen, and Dire Straits. Not what you would expect is it!!

Where did you receive your musical training?

The most serious of musical and vocal training was undoubtedly at the Guilldhall School of Music and Drama in London.

What was your first professional performing job?

My first professional Operatic performances was in Santa Fe New Mexico in a run of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. As a young developing singer, I was paid £50 by my father’s male voice choir to be a soloist in one of their concerts!! And believe me, I was delighted to receive that fee!

Can you please give us an overview of what audiences will hear at your upcoming Kennedy Center concert?

As I have a harp and piano within the recital we will hear Welsh, English, and German music that has a mixture of songs, folk tunes and operatic arias. A real trip down memory lane for me with some songs that I have sung for many many years and some, completely new.

Interview: Theatre Life with Sir Bryn Terfel
Sir Bryn Terfel and Dame Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd.
Photo by Tristram Kenton.

You performed the title role of Sweeney Todd with the NY Philharmonic and also at English National Opera. If the opportunity arose for you to perform in that show or another musical on Broadway, would you be interested? 

Yes! At the drop of a hat. That Sweeney Todd in NY with the awesome Dame Emma Thompson was truly magnificent and inspirational. I would also take another chance on Tevye in the Fiddler on The Roof. How exciting would that be!

You recorded an album of primarily showtunes with Renée Fleming called Under the Stars. Can you please talk about the experience of recording that album and how the songs were chosen?

Music Under the Stars was recorded in Swansea, South Wales. What a complete honor and joy it was to sing songs and duets with Renee Flemming.  You will see on the album that many of the orchestrations were written by a host of wonderful musicians, and we were guided by these magnificent composers, arrangers to certain repertoire that suited the soprano and bass baritone mix. I think we chose well. One of my absolute favorites was “Wheels of A Dream” from Ragtime.

Interview: Theatre Life with Sir Bryn Terfel
L-R Sir Bryn Terfel and Brindley Sherratt in the 2010 Welsh National Opera 
production of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg.
Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

For you as a singer, what would you say is the roughest and most challenging work you have ever performed?

I’m not sure about the roughest, but the most challenging was the role of Hans Sachs in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg by Wagner. By any yardstick it’s the longest role written for the bass baritone. The sense of accomplishment has never been greater, and when I sang it for the Welsh National Opera in 2010. I was in the best, healthiest voice ever. Good timing indeed.

There are a lot of people that feel classical music is too highbrow for them to enjoy. What do you say to those naysayers of classical music, and do you think almost any piece of classical music can be accessible to a general audience?

I can honestly say that you have to go with that gut feeling. Maybe classical music is not for everyone and yet, given time, it might develop into something quite extraordinary. You might hear it on the radio, you might hear it on a Hollywood blockbuster soundtrack, you might hear it on a video game. I would say give it time. Maybe the opera house is somewhere one could challenge oneself to at least one visit per year. choose carefully and you actually might enjoy it. I certainly do think opera can be accessible anywhere, and I am a son of a sheep farmer from North Wales!!

What does the rest of 2023 and into 2024 hold in store for you?

Ohh, not long to go now. I will sing in Brazil for the first time in São Paolo and then return to Argentina and the amazing Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. I will then return to Sweeney Todd at the Zurich Opera House. And of course, it is brilliant to be returning to New York and Washington DC after the pandemic.

Special thanks to Kennedy Center's Public Relations Coordiantor- Classical Paige Wearmouth for her assistance in coordianting this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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