Sir Thomas Allen interview
19 January 2012 – Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
I meet baritone Sir Thomas Allen a week after his installation in Durham as the Chancellor of England's third oldest university, the immediate successor of Bill Bryson, and in the footsteps of Sir Peter Ustinov and Dame Margot Fonteyn. Typical of Sir Thomas's sense of theatre and dedication to service: "I intend to enjoy every second of this appointment." He will promote the university throughout the world, as well as hand out degrees in the splendid surroundings of Durham Cathedral, the greatest example of Norman architecture in the whole of Europe.
This year Thomas Allen celebrates the fortieth anniversary of his debut at the Royal Opera House, where he has now sung fifty roles. I speak to him as he prepares to sing Don Alfonso in the last of the Da Ponte-Mozart trilogy, Jonathan Miller’s direction Così fan tutte conducted by Sir Colin Davis. The Royal Opera is currently presenting the triptych.
Sir Thomas is a regular Don Alfonso throughout the world's opera houses, and has appeared in the last six presentations of this production since its first showing in 1995. But there is no going through the motions: "I try to approach it by wiping the slate clean and coming at it as though I've not done it before, and trying not to repeat myself, although inevitably I do, but you run free. It’s playtime, basically. I try to recapture childhood, and allow my imagination to go with something."
I suggest that it would be very easy for someone as experienced as him to settle easily in the part, and to rely on past experiences to carry the evening, so how does he keep the interpretation fresh? Sir Thomas offered one small example: “I took the dagger away from the baritone today – which I always do – and then realised that it was in that hand [right] and so came close to him again, and so I switched it: it was a tiny moment, a small observation, and it is these small observations – tiny pieces of the bigger jigsaw – that we must bring together."
It is this attention to details that have stood Thomas Allen out over his many years of performance. One is always under the impression that he thinks so much about the characters that he performs: every one of the parts that he sings is a creation that sticks long in the mind; even relatively small parts, such as his Peter (Hänsel und Gretel) and Herr Faninal (Der Rosenkavalier), were caught with an extra degree of integrity.
This dedicated approach was inculcated into practice in a way which, he says, is unique to the method in which British singers are trained: "So long as you do your work well and you study well, which is what Covent Garden is all about, and is how I started with James Lockhart at the Royal College of Music, then everyone will benefit. Occasionally, I can hear things sung now and I think 'no, that's not quite right'. I can't stand being slapdash about anything, and that is because I was brought up in this place, where it was drilled into you to be right, right from the start. People like Karl Böhm appreciated that. In Paris, when I made my debut in La bohème, I kept on singing during rehearsals and, after about two weeks with not much guidance the conductor there took me to one side and said 'Thomas, you don't make mistakes. You're always there, with me', and that was it! That's what marks British-trained singers out: their discipline, and it is greatly appreciated."
In Così fan tutte it would be very easy to play Don Alfonso as a cynical, world-weary misogynist, whose only purpose is to exact some sort of revenge against couples in love because of, one presumes, some experience in his own life. However, for Thomas Allen, the character is much more subtle, and perhaps more humane, which is certainly what he wants to bring to the part: "I stopped at the end of today's rehearsal to discuss with the men after they realise that the bet is gone and the women have succumbed, why they carry on. Well, they see it through because the agreement is to see the day through, which causes the agony to be that much greater with them already knowledgeable of the infidelity and not being able to inform the girls."
These realisations are what make Così "a truly great work ... it is more intricate than it was a year and a half ago. Ideas and realisations spring to mind. There is a reason as to why Alfonso behaves in the way that he does, and, clearly, one imagines it comes from some experience in his past that was less than pleasant, and since, of the five of them that are there, and he says it early on – that he will let Despina be in on the plot little by little – there is a bitterness in that with what Despina must realise. You can play it in a totally misogynistic way, but it does not allow for those sorts of teasing moments. So, what we've tried to do this time round is to look at those moments of skittishness and playfulness between all of them, but it is when Alfonso is not being observed that the snarl comes in. Just that bit of women-weariness."
So, even when Alfonso is away from the stage, he dominates proceedings, and as such, any successful Così must have this feeling of Alfonso being omnipresent: "He is a deus ex machina, he is the means by which one learns about certain aspects of the human condition. It's so multilayered: it can be treated superficially, and it entertains nicely enough, but then more deeply, it can be taken more seriously – Peer Gynt with an onion – and it gets more intense as the layers are taken away. Alfonso serves that purpose, but God knows what happens at the end as he seems to just have blown them all asunder."
Although, Sir Thomas is keen not to over-analyse Alfonso's condition beyond what librettist Lorenzo da Ponte – "who deserves even more recognition for his genius" – has written and adapted: "it is the most extraordinary piece – beautiful music and arias – but there is so much more: you can't say that it is pre-Freudian, as that does not make sense as the concept of psychoanalysis was instinctive to Da Ponte, and yet there is unstructured Freudian complex within it, and it is an innate understanding on the part of Da Ponte in particular."
One final word about Così and the motivation of Alfonso brought the suggestion that what he seeks to do to this quartet of lovers is to open their eyes and show them that life is not an idyllic oil painting: "It is all about that, and it seems to be that he shows women are like that, but that men are like that, too. Perhaps it should be 'così fan tutti'. There are so many diversions to explore, and I would love to get the right cast together and start from afresh, and deal with the various issues involved, so that in those huge recitatives in Act Two, when the two 'wrong' lovers are together, we could find out how they make that work, when the decisions are made: such as when Fiordiligi says that she wants to go for a walk in the garden, and she could have chosen the right man, but she chooses Ferrando, the darker individual. That in itself is a terrible, realistic moment of betrayal, but we just play it as comedy, of them going off.”
I was keen to explore a bit of Sir Thomas's past with The Royal Opera, especially highlights, of which there are many. "Having started here all those years ago, there was very much a Company here. Many of the operas could be cast from Company strength, and then it dwindled, though the secondary roles were still within the Company. I learnt from everybody who came through here, whether it was Nicolai Ghiaurov, Boris Christoff, Mirella Freni, Lucy [Lucia] Popp: it was night after night of meeting great singers, and certainly there were highlights. I think Pagliacci was the first opportunity that I had that put a mark on me, singing Silvio, and then it goes in five-year stages. There was the first Papageno, which was important to me, and I sang that quite often, and my first Count, which just happened to be conducted by Karl Böhm, which was quite a night. The major roles then came up, and Böhm wanted me wherever he went, because I could sing slowly enough! We struck it off. Covent Garden sent me to meet him in Paris, as I wasn't really tried in the part at the time, and I sang for five minutes, and he said that I was no problem at all, and he treated me like a grandson. He was incredibly on my side." And there was a revival of Faust, with Freni and Ghiaurov that had him "slightly on his toes."
Aside from singing, Sir Thomas is busy with directing. Just announced is his directorial debut for the 2012-13 season with Lyric Opera Chicago of Don Pasquale, as well as a Così in Boston and a Die Zauberflöte in Scotland. "I am aware at how demanding it can be to be putting everyone else on the stage, and it is a lot of energy that is needed. Thus far I have enjoyed it."
Thomas Allen has wider interests, and he spoke to me with passion about the place that classical music and opera seem to have lost in today's society, with a wedge that is growing ever wider, as well as a realisation as to music's benefits. "I think people are frightened of music, and this is very sad. We are living in times where you have to fight for it. There is a slow realisation that there is a correlation between maths and music, and that there are benefits that accrue from putting the two together. Music is a mathematical structure, and that is what appeals to me, whether it be the return of a certain phrase, or the construction of motifs, it has an emotional affect. The physical act of making music, too, with one's body, is a hugely beneficial exercise. There is far too little emphasis on this, and it has drifted from the mainstream, becoming a secondary or tertiary subject. It shouldn’t be. It should be a structured part of how we grow up. What I dislike is the kind of attitude of some who think that this music is not for them. True, it's not for everybody, but there is a generalisation that kicks in – that opera is for middle- or upper-class – and so a potential audience excludes itself."
There is exasperation with the way in which football and pop music dominate everyday life: "It is sad that we live in a time when you either like pop music and football or you go the other way and are cultural, and that is wrong, and is false. But there is a kind of yobbo and boyo attitude about the richness of the Premier League, and all that that represents, which I care not for. We need a lot more like Hans Keller (1919-85) who could write about a wide variety of topics. There seems to have been a wedge actively driven between these two worlds, and I don't know how it has happened. You can't help but be aware of the dominance of football in our lives. Even broadsheet newspapers produce massive supplements taken up with sport, and largely football. And how pop music dominates lives, it's all one hears about. I was never aware of my peers when I was younger being so aware of these areas. There is the new phenomenon of people living their lives vicariously through these people. Headlines in magazines that are of inane topics about so-called celebrities' lives show how far things have slipped, and how such things have become the be-all and end-all."
To help combat this, Sir Thomas is involved a lot with getting music out to a wider audience, and with helping singers new to opera. One particular encounter at a school in Halifax is worth repeating, which was relayed with passion and a touch of humility. "The children had their own ideas of what opera was (lots of shouting, for example) so I had them running around the room and singing some football song. I said that they had moved and sung, so that had just done opera! They wanted me to sing, so I sang a silly folk-song, which had no effect. I then said I would sing a song about a sailor, sung by a sailor, someone to whom something terrible had happened. He has a stutter, and someone says he is a bad man, has taken money from the French and so he is a traitor, and is to be hanged. I sang and the whole class were rapt. I had not mentioned it was an opera, or that it was by the 'difficult composer' Benjamin Britten. They just took it without prejudice, and we talked about it afterwards. I went back a few weeks later, and was welcomed. They all wanted to know more. It's not difficult, but the environment is what prevents it, a parent who says: ‘that's not for us’. I would love to think that people come here because they want to discover."
Sir Thomas is realistic: "it won't appeal to all of them, and that is fine. At Samling and The Sage Gateshead we have young people producing their own versions of Don Giovanni and Così, and whilst some may drift away, others will not, are enthused, and have gone on to study. This is all about showing children the excitement that they can derive from it." The recognition that opera is not for everyone is salient and welcome, and is certainly just like rap music not being for everyone: there is no point force-feeding people something that they do not like.
Ending on a positive note, Sir Thomas discussed what performance is like. Whilst performing can be draining, the elation one has after doing something great and good is what keeps him going: "The sensation of being drained comes through the night and the following morning, and at the end of Don Giovanni I want a couple of beers immediately! This is a big, physical commitment. Beckmesser is a wonderful role, but at the end of the second Act one has time to recover for the third, but it is physically demanding. The energy required for Giovanni drained me, but it is amazing how quickly one is ready to get up and do it all again."
Così fan tutte – Seven performances, from 27 January to 13 February 2012