Sir Bryn Terfel opens his heart for Harrogate with the news that he prefers the title ‘farmer’s son’ to global opera star

With a career that has seen him perform at all of the world’s greatest opera houses and concert halls, Sir Bryn Terfel is one of the most well-respected and in-demand voices. What’s On caught up with the Grammy, Classical Brit and Gramophone award-winning artist as he headlines Harrogate International Festivals this July with a rare and intimate recital

Wales is renowned for its singers, do you have a theory why it produces such talent?

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Undoubtedly the Eisteddfod plays an important part in the nurturing of talent in Wales from the local competitions and to the yearly highlight of the National Eisteddfod every August. I certainly would not be where I am had it not been for the immense support of such an iconic historical platform. From a personal perspective I think also the Welsh language has an immense bearing on the development of a voice before its training comes to the foreground. I have always felt comfortable in many languages due to my strong beginnings in the folk doing tradition and the eventual crossing into the old Victorian repertoire that your grandparents adored. A circle of training had already been completed before I even stepped into the guiding hand of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

You’ve sang all over the world, is there a moment in your career that really stands out – and why?

Yes, without a doubt. My debut at La Scala in Milan in the Marriage of Figaro, conducted by Riccardo Muti. The first time I sang in front of my school in North Wales was nothing compared to being on that stage in Milan. And I tell you something - that is quite a statement. Although I knew I was pretty good at singing I did in fact detest singing in front of the school. But it stood me in good stead to be there in Milan facing the most knowledgeable audience that I had ever encountered in their iconic opera house in their famous production with their incredible maestro. I have never ever felt such nerves in my entire life. Shaking like a leaf, dry-mouthed and humbled beyond belief. But, I got through it and ended up doing all the performances, even the ones of the second cast. A truly memorable experience shared by my parents. Mind you, I felt the same when I sang Falstaff there, Leporello there and Flying Dutchman there.

You have just had a baby with Hannah Stone – congratulations. Does being a new dad impact on your approach to work? Do you think your children will embrace classical music growing up with an opera star and harpist, or become rock rebels?

Why thank you. Certainly Lili Alaw (Alaw meaning melody in Welsh) is already sleeping to the Wagner warbling and harp playing repertoire in the background to her heart’s content. Music should be in every child's life from birth in every shape and form. My children have always loved all styles of music and have I am sure little Lili will be no different.

If you could pick one ‘inheritance track’ that you’d like to pass on to your children, what would it be and why?

That one is quite an easy answer, I recorded a song for the Air Ambulance in Wales, Anfonaf Angel/ I'll send an angel. I adore that song. The melody, the words, the message. It can be played at weddings and funerals, sung in concerts and competitions. Be kind; when in need help others; protect and guide them. Not a bad message to connect and share with your children.

All eyes are on a global opera star at Harrogate Festivals, can you tell us a little about the programme you’re planning? What can audiences expect?

My programme is a trip down memory lane. Some songs are the first I ever learnt as a classical singer. One my grandmother chose, some from my first singing teacher, some from my second singing teacher. Some are the first cycle of songs I ever learnt. This gives a palate of colours and repertoire that is indeed endless. From Welsh to French to English to Italian. The scope of one’s repertoire is sometimes truly life changing. Always hard work and dedication. Some are tunes that I adore, some are poems that strike a chord. Some are there because I adore singing them. But, I do disagree with the global opera star. A tad too much I'd say. I would much rather have the farmer’s son from North Wales any day.

How important are arts charities and festivals do you think – especially in this climate of austerity and public sector cuts?

I have just recently sung in a festival in Dresden - a festival that brings orchestras and performers from all over the world. At a guess, I would say it has a budget in the millions. One of many in Germany. I take my hat off to them. Of course we have our Proms and Edinburgh festival, which are our national treasure, but do we give enough support to the rest? I would say a tremendously loud Wagnerian yes to having festivals and I would say that the Government and local authorities should make a point of having such a vibrant festival life in the UK. Even more so now and to the future. As for charities, the same yes. I have a foundation myself and I am tremendously honoured and humbled when people want to part with their hard-earned cash to help fund such a concept of helping young professionals open their journey. In the future I plan to become much more active in this quest. Watch this space.

  • Harrogate Festival runs throughout the month of July, featuring poet Ian McMillan, jazz icon Tim Garland, the Alex Mendham Orchestra, Oz Clarke, the European Union Chamber Orchestra, outdoor theatre troupe Oddsocks, the BBC3 Radio 3 New Generation Artists, and much more. Visit harrogateinternationalfestivals.com for the full programme.
  • Sir Bryn Terfel, Royal Hall, Harrogate, Saturday, July 29, 7.30pm. Box Office: 01423-562 303