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Off his back, back on stage
Opera star Bryn Terfel rebounds
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Bryn Terfel is a powerful presence on stage: In the title role of the Metropolitan Opera's current production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," he kills one man with a sword, beats another senseless, runs from a vengeful crowd and is finally pulled, bellowing, into the underworld.
It's hard to believe of a man who, six months ago, lay paralyzed by back pain. "I couldn't move, I couldn't stand; all I could do was lie on my back," said Terfel (pronounced "Tare-vell").
During a February performance of Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffman" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the burly bass-baritone felt a knife of pain in his back.
The pain was all too familiar: Six years ago, during a rehearsal for "Don Giovanni" at the Met, Terfel suffered a herniated disc. One of the soft discs of cartilage that cushion the vertebrae in the spine ruptured, placing pressure on his sciatic nerves and shooting pain down his back and legs.
Terfel had surgery in 1994 to relieve the pressure. He recuperated quickly, and was back on stage within weeks. But this past February, the pain came back -- "with 'back' being the operative word," said Terfel wryly.
Terfel limped off stage and, over the next few days, tried to help his back heal. He lay in bed. He lay on the floor. He went to a physical therapist, and a chiropractor. He even tried an epidural with steroids.
"By the second day after that performance, I couldn't walk -- I couldn't even get to my front door," said Terfel. He withdrew from his last four performances and flew home to Wales, pumped full of narcotics to survive eight hours in an airplane seat.
Once home, he went to bed -- for seven weeks. "It was a horrible time. I had a 6-year-old and 2-year-old that were wanting to play -- and here I was, stretched across my bedroom, in pain."
"It was the worst thing that's ever happened to me in my very short time on this planet," said Terfel, 34.
For the second time in six years, Terfel had back surgery -- on the same disc that had ruptured in 1994. "It was a lot worse the second time," he said, "because they were digging into the same spot again -- it was exactly the same spot."
Recovering was worse, too. Terfel had needed only about five weeks to rebound from his first surgery; the second time, he needed more than five months of bed rest in the middle of a fully committed international performance schedule.
Terfel was forced to cancel several engagements where he was the marquee star, among them a March appearance in Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" at the Royal Opera in Covent Garden, London, and an April concert performance and recording of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" in New York.
"I remember when I rang the Opera House in Covent Garden to say, 'I'm having terrible back problems,'" recalled Terfel. "They tried everything to help get me there. They said, 'You can sing from a chair.' But the thing was, I couldn't even sit."
The news did not sit well with some fans, especially those who'd bought $125 tickets and had planned cross-country and trans-Atlantic flights to see him perform. Some muttered about "diva" behavior, while in opera chat rooms (yes, there are opera chat rooms) there were several snide references to "Bryn the Cancel."
"I hated canceling," Terfel said with a wince. "Obviously, when you cancel, people miss the artist they've been counting on -- sometimes counting on years in advance. Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing I could have done about it. I was going through hell."
Now, Bryn Terfel's back -- and Terfel's back is better, although he says it will always be prone to strain and injury.
Like 85 percent of those with back problems, Terfel doesn't know their cause. "I think my back problems may have been due to playing rugby at a very young age," said Terfel, who played with enough vigor as a lad that he broke his nose seven times. "Or it may have been working on the farm, helping with harvesting and manual work." (Terfel, who grew up on a sheep farm, has said that sheep "are heavier than they look.")
Terfel believes he further strained his back onstage: Opera singing can be back-breaking work. Performers often spend long hours standing, in day-long rehearsals and four-hour performances -- many done in heavy costumes.
And several of the world's premiere opera houses have raked stages -- they slope, sometimes sharply, toward the front, giving the entire audience a clear sight line. Performing an opera on a raked stage is like standing at work all morning on a steep hillside. "It puts awful strain on your legs and back," said Terfel.
Terfel now does daily exercises to keep his back strong. "I'm back to everything I usually do," he said. "I even play a bit of golf."
Has his surgery affected his game? "It hasn't, unfortunately; I'm just as bad."
What's his handicap? Terfel grins. "My back."
Avoiding another operation
Terfel jokes about taking every precaution to break the "six-year cycle" -- he doesn't want another herniated disk in 2006. "I've learned that very simple movements can trigger off back problems," he said. "Things like lifting luggage, or, when you're reversing your car, how you twist around to see where you're going. I'm very careful when I lift things."
That includes lifting his children, son Tomos, now 6, and Morgan, 2. "They're big boys now," said Terfel. "But they're getting older, so they don't need to be molly-coddled as much, and lifted up and down so."
Terfel is fortunate: Neither his voice nor his career suffered in the half-year away from the opera stages. He has a performance schedule fully booked through 2002 -- excluding a three-month break at the end of this year: His wife, Lesley, is expecting their third child in January.
"I missed out on seeing my two boys being born, because of my profession," said Terfel, with clear regret. "I was rehearsing 'Don Giovanni' in Salzburg when the first one was born, and I was in New York rehearsing 'Figaro' when the second was born."
The recent months of pain, rest and recovery made him realize "how much one takes for granted." Now healed, Terfel says he is "almost absurdly grateful" to wake every morning without pain, to be able to rough-house with his children, and to stride the roads and leas of his beloved Wales.
"This time," he promised, "I'll be home for the baby. This time, I'll be home."
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