As fans of A Prairie Home Companion are well aware, Garrison Keillor likes to take his show on the road. In the late afternoon of December 6, 1997, the rising Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel was Keillor's guest on a live broadcast from Town Hall in midtown Manhattan, just hours before performing the title role in Mendelssohn's Elijah with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. My editor at the Leisure & Arts page of The Wall Street Journal thought this day in Bryn's life would make good copy, and I tagged along. But for some reason, the resulting manuscript wound up forgotten in an electronic file, not to resurface until a few weeks ago when I started work on a current profile for The New York Times. From writerly superstition, I gave the long-lost material no more than a quick glance at the time. But when the Times story was safely to bed, I looked again. And apart from distressingly similar descriptions of Wagner's Wotan ("one-eyed, two-faced" in one case, "two-faced, one-eyed" in the other), the unpublished piece told a story I thought might still please and interest Bryn's myriad admirers. So here it is, as originally submitted.
Few maps show the village in North Wales where Bryn Terfel was born thirty-two years ago. There's a church and a shop and four or five houses, and out in the countryside the sheep farm of his parents, who bear the great Welsh name of Jones. His mother and father have been singing in rival choruses all his life. In singing competitions and the national eisteddfod, recognition of their boy's gifts in the vocal line came early. Back then, he stepped up to the plate with classical songs and cerdd dant , native Welsh lyrics performed to the accompaniment of a harp. (He also did a dead-on impression of Elvis.) Later came polishing at London's Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and today no star in the classical firmament blazes brighter. His Welsh fan club follows him to the far corners of the earth. Shortly they will be packing their bags for Sydney, Australia, where Mr. Terfel has signed on for Verdi's Falstaff, whose huge doublet he will have to stuff considerably but whose zest for life writ large mirrors his own.
How to classify him? From the first, his dark, burly bass-baritone put people in mind of Wagner. Too soon, impresarios were offering heavyweight assignments like Wotan, the gods' one-eyed, two-faced chieftain in the "Ring." Mr. Terfel (correctly but seldom pronounced "tair-vell") accepted but pulled out. The role that has become his calling card is the nimble-witted bridegroom of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," far kinder on a youthful voice. After triumphs at La Scala, the Met, the Salzburg Festival, Covent Garden, and other leading venues, Mr. Terfel's interpretation currently graces an all-star production at Lyric Opera of Chicago (through March 8).
Of course he has also recorded it by now, in parallel audio and video performances under John Eliot Gardiner (on Archiv). His fire-breathing zealot Jokanaan (John the Baptist) appears in two competing recordings of Richard Strauss's "Salome" (London and Deutsche Grammophon). His albums of operatic monologues (including some commanding Wagner excerpts), Schubert, Handel, and Rodgers & Hammerstein (all on Deutsche Grammophon) stand out no less for poetic imagination than for sheer vocal glory. Mr. Terfel goes in for highly italicized effects - - the power-drive crescendo, the croon like a moonbeam - - but what in other singers registers as affected registers in him as real. He sings. You believe.
Maybe one reason listeners lose themselves in Mr. Terfel's singing is that he can lose himself in the singing of others. One Thursday night in early December, at the first of four performances of Mendelssohn's "Elijah" with the New York Philharmonic and the Westminster Symphonic Choir under Kurt Masur, he nearly missed his cue. "He that shall endure to the end," the choristers intoned, "shall be saved." Eyes closed, still caught up in the mood, Mr. Terfel heard a chord; thought, "That's me"; and rose, receiving his next haunted line straight from the unconscious: "Night falleth round me, o Lord!" "The strapping Mr. Terfel," the New York Times reported, "familiar in lighthearted roles at the Metropolitan Opera, threw himself into [his] grueling part with a vividly uninhibited yet keenly modulated theatrical sensibility. Showing fierce passion and vocal power, he seemed every inch the tormented and bullying prophet of the work's biblical text."
Nice lines for one's scrapbook, and tidings of great joy for all hands at Deutsche Grammophon, technically Mr. Terfel's "exclusive label." Exclusivity being a rather elastic concept in this business, they would no doubt have been even more thrilled if Mr. Terfel's brand-new recording of "Elijah" were not on the rival London label, but never mind. The day of the review, the DG gang was in the green room, paper in hand, dancing attendance on their star minutes before his debut on "A Prairie Home Companion." The live two-hour broadcast would begin at six. Most guests stick around until signoff, doing cameos in Mr. Keillor's skits, but Mr. Terfel had an eight-o'clock curtain to make for another "Elijah" at Lincoln Center, so his bit would be confined to the first half hour.
The DG crowd wanted to know: had Mr. Terfel seen the review? No. Should they read it to him? No. "I know what I did. I don't need a critic to tell me."
Killing time before a show said to reach two and a half million, Mr. Terfel exuded no jitters or sense of occasion. If others were incredulous - - and abject with gratitude - - that he would do the show less than two hours before a big concert, Mr. Terfel didn't see the big deal. "It's a matter of enjoying singing," he explained. And what would he normally be doing two hours before a gig? Nothing. He wouldn't be warming up? No, he doesn't warm up. Unless unwell, he never does. Doesn't need to.
Who Garrison Keillor might be, Mr. Terfel had no idea, but Mr. Keillor had seen Mr. Terfel on "CBS Sunday Morning" and let his staff know: "I Want Him!" But where, Mr. Terfel wanted to know, was Frank McCourt, another of Mr. Keillor's guests for the evening? He couldn't wait to shake the hand of "Angela's Ashes." "You have a wonderful book!" Mr. Terfel beamed the instant Mr. McCourt appeared. "You have a wonderful voice!" returned the bantam Irish New Yorker, a touch bashful. Celt to Celt.
Whereupon Mr. Keillor loomed into view, thick spectacles floating on a level with Mr. Terfel's bright gaze. Mr. Keillor, too, came bearing the Times, sending up the critic's ecstasies with his deadpan Lake Woebegone twang. Why, Mr. Keillor wanted to know, are bass-baritones so easy-going when tenors are so neurotic? "I wake up with my voice," Mr. Terfel told him. "A tenor has to work up to it." Onstage, when Mr. Keillor touched on his guest's heritage, Mr. Terfel told him this: "To be born Welsh isn't to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth but with poetry in your veins and music in your heart."
At one point, he had been thinking of singing the radio audience a couple of hits from his Rodgers & Hammerstein album. Then the plan was for some Handel arias, to "support" his latest CD. In the end, he dispatched Flanders & Swann's boisterous "The Gasman Cometh" in high music-hall style. No amplification in the hall, he had stipulated, mikes only for the broadcast: "I play with the dynamics." Yes indeed, and he embellished the line about a glazier's merry song with a lusty, mock-baroque flourish that would done him proud in "The Trumpet Shall Sound." For an encore, it was a Welsh folksong, quietly brimming with homesickness. As usual, he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Then, as Mr. Keillor had it, they had to let the gentleman go off to work. (PHC runs like clockwork.)
A grand time was had by all. Awaiting his cue in the wings, Mr. Terfel had been charmed to discover that Mr. Keillor is a singer, too: "Hush, Little Baby, Don't You Bawl (Papa's Gonna Take You To A Show At Town Hall" was his number, the homespun old lullaby zanily adapted to the glitz of the Big Apple. Back in the wings after his own songs twenty minutes later, awaiting a limousine caught in preholiday gridlock, Mr. Terfel was thinking ahead. "Next time," he apprised the show's elated producer, "Garrison and I will do 'The Hippopotamus' together, or 'You Say Tomato, I Say Tomahto.' He can write new words."