Sunday 26 May 2013

Bryn Terfel as the Flying Dutchman

My watercolour of Bryn Terfel as The Flying Dutchman.

When Bryn Terfel was performing The Flying Dutchman in La Scala in Milan, I flew down from Amsterdam to chat about an exciting new commission for the Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection – a painting of Bryn! We quickly agreed that a watercolour of him in performance would be a more creative approach than just a conventional portrait. The leading role of the Dutchman in Wagner’s opera Der Fliegende Holländer had already become another of Bryn Terfel’s acclaimed interpretations, so the choice was obvious.

This painting is inspired by fragments of the Dutchman’s role that Bryn sang to me in our portrait “sitting” (actually standing) in a Milan apartment. He chose parts of the famous monologue “Die Frist ist um” (“The term is up…once more”) when the Dutch captain is pleading with the angel in heaven and wrestling with his fate. The mariner is condemned to roam the seas, allowed to go ashore after every seven years. But if he can find someone who will be faithful to him unto death, he will be released from his curse. Since then, I’ve been playing this opera continuously in my studio (and every other recording Bryn has made!). My paintings are always driven by the music and I delved deep into the intense emotions of the plot, from depression to disappointment, ecstasy and tragedy. It gets quite exhausting!

Rejecting idiosyncratic images from various opera productions, I put together my own impressions of Bryn as the Dutchman, with a seaman’s hands, tanned complexion, long hair and leather long-coat and with a somewhat ambiguous expression, somewhere between desperation and a glimpse of hope. The background and brushwork suggest not only the stormy atmosphere, but the emotional drama of the surging music. Bryn’s phenomenally expressive voice and his dramatic stage presence made the creation of this painting a very intense experience.  

Here are some of Bryn's own comments about the painting: "Just opened the painting on my laptop and I love it. You soooo got the character, my ear, my eyes and what's impressive I think is the hands. What is also really great is that I see my dad in this painting. Really uncanny. I think it will look fabulous next to Dame K and José!! Many thanks, man. Bryn".

I share some Celtic roots with Bryn (my mother used to sing to us in Welsh) and I’ve wanted to paint him for years. I’m so thrilled that my watercolour (84 x 56cm) of this great bass-baritone, to be unveiled on June 7th, will now have a rightful place in this unique collection. Commissioned by Jayne Cadbury and funded by The George Cadbury Trust, this commission brings the Symphony Hall Collection to a total of twenty-eight of my paintings of great musicians who have performed there.

Monday 13 May 2013

How do you paint in Welsh?

H'm, how do you paint in Welsh?

When I was very small, my mother used to sing to us in Welsh. I can still hear the tones of her gentle lilting soprano:

Holl amrantau'r sêr ddywedant / All the stars' twinkles say
Ar hyd y nos / All through the night ……

The many alternative versions of this popular lullaby include:

Sleep my child and peace attend thee / All through the night.

The fact that music touches me so deeply must surely be linked to these earliest lullabies. No wonder my eyes are already misting up, as I recollect those memories of over seventy-five years ago. Then further:

Old age is night when affliction comes,
But to beautify man in his late days,
We'll put our weak light together,
All through the night.

Not the greatest of lyrics (!), but that doesn't bother sleepy infants.

Would my Mom ever have believed that, in my old age, the great Welshman Bryn Terfel would be singing these very words to me in his mellifluous bass-baritone? Sitting in his temporary apartment in Milan, I’m telling him about my Welsh family connections and we both launch into the lullaby we remember from our earliest years. The Welsh seem to have a natural gift for song, encouraged long ago by chapel hymn-singing, the coal-miners’ choirs and the Eisteddfod tradition (a Welsh festival and competition of music and poetry, possibly originating with the ancient Celtic bards of the twelfth century). The BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition now carries enormous prestige and Bryn Terfel was one of the prize-winners in 1989. I don’t sing, but there must be Celtic blood in both sides of my family. The music is definitely in there, somewhere deep down.


                                              Bryn Terfel. (copyright Norman Perryman)

No wonder that when Bryn sings in Welsh, the music combined with the intrinsic musicality of the language itself (a variety of velvety greens) really touches me. 

H’m – so how do you paint in Welsh? I’ve been commissioned by Symphony Hall Birmingham to make a watercolour of Bryn Terfel, to add to their collection of twenty-seven of my paintings of the great musicians who have performed in this great Hall.

When Bryn was in Milan recently to sing the "Dutchman" in Wagner's Der Vliegende Holländer at La Scala, I flew down from Amsterdam to make sketches of him. Naturally, with his legendary humour, he greeted me with “Ha - the flying Dutchman!”  He sang and posed for me; we had a great session, agreed on a creative approach and now I’m hard at work on the painting in my studio, trying to paint in German. (That’s a clue!). Can't reveal any more yet, but give me a few weeks and I’ll show you the result.