The airy studio where Bryn Terfel practices is set a good few yards from the house in Penarth, Wales, that he shares with his wife and two young children. Given his thunderous bass-baritone voice, which has roared through the great roles of Mozart, Puccini, Verdi and Wagner at opera houses around the world over the past 30 years, this is probably essential to family sanity.
A few days before a holiday recital that will be streamed live by the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday from Brecon Cathedral, about 40 miles north of here, Mr. Terfel, 55, was seated at his piano in the room for a video call. Visible behind him was an antique poster advertising a Paris-Wales train route, and another for a production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” in Milan, in which he played the jovial title role.
But the opposite wall, he indicated as he turned the camera, is dominated by his achievements in America: posters for a “Sweeney Todd” opposite Emma Thompson at the New York Philharmonic; his 1996 Carnegie Hall recital debut; and, signed by its cast, Wagner’s “Ring” at the Met.
This wall of New Yorkiana was particularly poignant to see, since Mr. Terfel has not appeared in the city since that “Sweeney” in 2014. In a review in The New York Times, Charles Isherwood wrote that Mr. Terfel “may be the most richly gifted singer ever to undertake the title role.”
His recent Met history has been a dark comedy of errors. Shortly after arriving to start rehearsals for a much-anticipated new production of Puccini’s “Tosca” in 2017, he knew something was wrong with his singing, and dropped out to have a polyp removed from his vocal cords. Then, earlier this year, he fractured his ankle and couldn’t appear in another new staging, this time Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer.”
“These are things that you never expect to stop you in your tracks,” Mr. Terfel said.
The takeaway: He has not appeared at the Met since 2012, so this holiday recital is a return — even if it’s from some 3,000 miles away. He remains well-loved by the company’s audience for his rich, warm voice, his imposing characterizations — and commanding height — and his relish for the words he sings. Memories are still strong of his barreling through the title role in “The Marriage of Figaro,” sneering as Scarpia in “Tosca” and appearing as both the lecherous Don Giovanni and his manservant, Leporello, in Mozart’s opera. If his star turn as Wotan in Wagner’s “Ring” in 2010-12 felt stunted by the physical limitations on the performers in Robert Lepage’s staging, he still exerted a magnetic presence.
He spoke in the interview about his pandemic year and his plans for the Met recital. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Do you currently have Met engagements beyond this recital?
In New York I’ve performed nearly all the operas I do on a new scale, a new production. Of course it’s such a tremendous strain on your family life to be away that long. That’s something that is always difficult in this career, about signing a contract in New York. So I don’t currently have any contracts, not really. I’m just booking two years in advance, maybe.
I have certain interesting things with the Royal Opera House in London. And Welsh National Opera, too. I like Vienna and Munich, where you can rehearse two days and do three performances; a week and a half, and you’re home. And in a run of “Tosca,” you sing opposite maybe three different Toscas, each exceptional.
How did this holiday concert, which is part of the Met’s series of livestreamed recitals, come about?
In the summer, Peter Gelb [the Met’s general manager] rang me at home and offered me a chance to be a part of this series, which I’m incredibly grateful for. It’s a wonderful way to finish off your year, knowing a vaccine is being rolled out as we speak. He immediately said I should be doing a kind of Christmas program, so I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. I wanted something of the birth of Jesus, which comes in “El Nacimiento,” a Spanish carol I’m singing. There are a couple of songs by Robat Arwyn, a friend I was in school with. There’s “Silent Night,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “In the Bleak Midwinter” and the Welsh song “Ar Hyd y Nos” (“All Through the Night”).
A bard here in Wales, Mererid Hopwood, has written these short texts for me to read between the pieces. The arts is all about teams and collaboration, and I’ve tried to assemble a very strong team. My wife, Hannah Stone, will be accompanying me on the harp. It’s a perfect instrument anywhere, but in the cathedral it really feels like it’s come home. I’m so happy to be able to include some young singers, the soprano Natalya Romaniw and the tenor Trystan Llyr Griffiths. And the pianist Jeff Howard, and the folk group Calan. And everyone comes together at the end to start the Christmas spirit.
Silence, serenity and peace — that is what I’m going to try and convey. But what will be on my mind will be the frontline workers, and the losses we have all encountered in every country.
What was the process of picking Brecon Cathedral?
The Met people had this vision they wanted a castle. But in Wales, the castles are either in ruins or the rooms inside are too small. There was the idea of Cardiff Castle, but there’s a wedding there this weekend.
Have you been able to perform this year?
There have been some terrific moments. I did a new “Fidelio” in Graz; I did a “Tosca” in Munich. The arts in Germany is a whole different kettle of fish. It’s not just the federal government; it’s the city, it’s the state of Bavaria. It was important for the opera house in Munich that they brought back audiences very quickly, even if it was just 500 people. It was still bringing the arts to the people who needed nourishment in some musical form.
I’ve just recorded “Chestnuts Roasting” for a music festival here close to me. (And maybe in a couple of weeks Santa might bring something that might resemble a microphone.) I did a concert in the Barbican [in London], a 50-minute online concert that had to be devised around a set amount of musicians. I did Bach cantatas and English songs.
And I did a little concert to thank the vaccine team in Oxford, with a new carol by John Rutter. The three words at the end: “The angels sing.” And that’s the hope I think. For our profession now, to bring people back, everyone has to have that confidence. And hopefully by next summer we should have some sense of normality.
What are some of your future plans?
I had been supposed to do my first Bluebeard in Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” in June, and I hadn’t even begun with a coach or language coach. In lockdown I’ve been looking at one-act operas a little bit, with a thought what might help opera houses: Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” and “Il Tabarro”; “The Bear” by William Walton; Donizetti has many wonderful one-act operas; “Bluebeard,” of course.
And my constant friend, here on the piano, is Schubert’s “Winterreise,” which I hope to be recording for Deutsche Grammophon. I’ve never performed it; the first time I opened the score was during Covid. I was invited many times to hear Jonas Kaufmann sing it, Simon Keenlyside sing it, but I didn’t want to hear it until I did it myself.