He was born Bryn Terfel Jones and was brought up in a small village near Snowdonia, speaking Welsh. Even as a small child he was busy singing; he went to various eisteddfods (singing competitions) throughout Wales, his supportive mother, Nesta, chauffeuring him around. He used the money he won to buy soccer shoes. The eisteddfods taught him to face the stage calmly. "When I went to college I was streets ahead of others because I was used to facing the public," he says. He was awarded a scholarship when he applied to London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His teachers there were Arthur Reckless and Rudolf Piernay. Since there was already a professional singer named Bryn Jones, he adopted his middle name, for his stage billing.
He won two of the main prizes for Guildhall singers: the Kathleen Ferrier Scholarship in 1988 and the 1989 Gold Medal Award. Also in 1989, he won the Lieder Prize at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition and second prize all-around in that competition. This competition is broadcast Europe-wide, and he immediately began getting requests to sing from the leading conductors. Sir Georg Solti
called him "one of the great talents of the last ten years."
Although he got offers for all sorts of repertory, he weighed them with care, with a view to preserving the voice through a long career. Although he was already being offered the role of Wotan in three of Wagner
's Ring operas, he started singing such roles as Figaro, and Leporello (lighter and more lyrical roles) and Jokanaan in Strauss' Salome (a heavier, though still lyrical, one, but relatively short). He edged into Wagnerian territory in the lyrical part of Wolfram in Tannhäusser, a part known for the lovely "Song to the Evening Star." In 1992, he won the Gramophone Magazine "Young Singer of the Year" citation and the "Newcomer of the Year" award at the inaugural International Classical Music Awards in 1993.
He has added Dr. Miracle and Captain Balstrode (Britten
's Peter Grimes) to his roles, moved over from Leporello to Don Giovanni, sung Nick Shadow in Stravinsky
's The Rake's Progress, and has triumphed in Verdi
's Falstaff, which he plays with notable humanity and restraint; his Falstaff is a braggart who overrates himself, but not the buffoon some other singers make him. He also sings the evil Scarpia in Tosca.
He remains a passionate fan of football (both soccer and rugby) and enjoys opening major international matches such as the Bledisloe Cup in Australia. When the Rugby World Cup was held in Cardiff, Wales, he opened it with a memorable duet with pop singing star Shirley Bassey
of the Rugby theme song, "World In Union."
In 1999, the small Welsh island of Bardsey revived an ancient tradition (which died out in 1927) by inviting Terfel to become their honorary monarch. Even though he has conquered the world of opera -- even overcoming the dismal acoustics of the Sydney Opera House -- he remains centered on Wales, where, whenever he can, he still helps his father with the farming chores.