The bass-baritone talks about his Wagner experiences in Cardiff and New York – and shares his love of White Christmas…
You’ve recently played Wotan in Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Met. How was it?
This appearance as Wotan came after my time doing Die Meistersinger at Welsh National Opera (WNO). That production involved a hard three years of dedication – learning, coaching, language – everything. In fact, Meistersinger was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had on the operatic stage, so Rheingold had big shoes to fill. When I got to New York, I saw the importance of this for the Met and their general manager Peter Gelb – it was a new production taking over from a very well-established Otto Schenk production, so the pressure for that company was pretty high.
We also kept the last-night HD performance to 49 countries at the back of our minds, particularly as there was a cinema at Bayreuth that took it! While on stage, I was thinking about the fact that we were in Prestatyn and Llandudno live in cinemas, too – people didn’t have to fly to New York. Peter Gelb has done something that everybody can be really really envious of. And I really pulled out the stops for that performance.
You mentioned that Die Meistersinger was an incredible experience…
The five performances in Cardiff were amazing – everyone wanted to achieve something. To have a cast where half of them spoke Welsh, for me to be at an opera house where I could speak my mother toungue was extraordinary. It gave a completely different feel to the cast and company and I think it came over in the actual performances in Wales. We wanted to achieve something for Welsh National Opera and for John Fisher [its outgoing chief executive] who thought of such an extraordinary vehicle for that company. If there’s a way to a bid farewell to an opera company, I guess Meistersinger is a fine swansong.
Wales, then, is clearly very important to you musically?
I carry with me an ambassadorial hat for music, so I try to give Wales what it deserves. It was very supportive of me through my college days, gradually nurturing me in different ways, from WNO to concerts. Wales was where I first performed Handel's Messiah, Mendelssohn's Elijah, JS Bach's Mass in B minor; I’ll never forget those experiences. I know where I began and I know I’m still striving to bring something into Wales.
Your Welshness is, of course, reflected in your Christmas album…
I was never interested in doing a Christmas album, if I’m honest. It was something that went far and above me. But Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Loewe were at the beginning of my recording career, so I was guided by what Universal and Deutsche Grammophon had in mind. It was, though, important for me to have 10 of these songs recorded in Welsh and that the album itself was a 2-CD package. The green light came from Hamburg and everything fell into place in July, which was a weird and wonderful time to record Christmas repertoire!
You were persuaded, too, to sing ‘alongside’ Bing Crosby in White Christmas?
Well, Universal gave me ten songs on a second CD, so the least I could do was to be open to the suggestion of doing this! I never thought they’d get copyright or the proper permissions to go ahead. It was very interesting recording with Bing’s voice in my head, trying to get it to a certain level of a duet together. I didn’t want perfection, I didn’t want every syllable or consonant together, but who hasn’t song along with White Christmas? Every Christmas concert that I’ve ever done has White Christmas in it. It’s an incredible song.
There aren’t many of you who are able to sing Wotan one day and sing with Bing the next.
Well, this mixing of genres has been done a lot over the ages – bass-baritone George London did it magnificently. He was able to sing Scarpia and Wotan, and Boris Godunov in the home of Russian opera, and yet he recorded wonderful discs of spirituals. His Of Gods and Demons disc is amazing.
You also think of Samuel Ramey. Of course, I want to record opera, but at the moment recording companies are not open to that suggestion, either because it’s not the right time to bring them out, or because they’re too expensive. I want to record now what I’m singing – Wagner: Meistersinger, Der Fliegende Hollander, The Ring. It would be my dream come true.
Interview by Oliver Condy
Bryn Terfel: Carols and Christmas Songs is out now on Decca (477 8768)
Audio clip: White Christmas