EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH:
SIR THOMAS ALLEN
Sir Thomas Allen was born in Seaham Harbour in 1944, and can thank his physics master, Denis Weatherley, for his keen observation skills. A baritone himself, Weatherley heard a voice in the making and became his first tutor, training him during lunch breaks. Many opera singers will say they were either advised to do something else, or were educated in another field. Allen was no different, and wanted to be a doctor but instead accepted a place at the Royal College of Music in 1964.
Shifting from oratorio and lieder to opera in 1969, he made his debut in “La Traviata” with the Welsh National Opera. As far as breakthroughs, Sir Thomas himself remembers a “Barber of Seville” that rang a few bells, followed by a pretty decent Papageno in “Magic Flute” but that it was “Billy Budd” with WNO [Welsh National Opera] that was the real alarm call, after which things went ever so slightly crazy.
COSI FAN TUTTE
It’s now 40 years since he made his debut at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and now he can be seen in Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” from 27th of January. An opera which, let’s face it, is an opera about swingers. Unknowingly from the girls’ side, sure, but not quite so from the men’s point of view – and it’s all brought on by Sir Thomas’s character, Don Alfonso.
So I want to ask him why he thinks Don Alfonso bothers to engage in the whole game – whether it’s perverse voyeurism or narcissism, or past experience maybe?
- I believe Don Alfonso behaves as he does and holds the views he has as a result of a personal bad experience in the past, probably with Despina as she, ultimately, is arguably the worst hit victim of his scheme. He seems to me a convinced misogynist to the end. The only respite one sees is before the first act trio, “Soave sia il vento”, when as well as deceiving the girls he shows a brief concern for his men friends. Actually, my first Don Alfonso was in the current production at the Royal Opera House, which has stayed largely the same over a number of years. In performing the piece within the period of its creation attitudes were of course different and relationships might well have survived such a turbulent test, whereas now we call it a day and move on.
Having done the role of Guglielmo in the past - how was the transition for you from playing the young lover to the cunning Don?
- I had a long gap after Guglielmo before Don Alfonso cropped up, so it was not a problem as I'd put the other to bed. Furthermore, like so many baritones, I quite enjoyed singing and playing Guglielmo but found the role less satisfying emotionally than some of the others in the opera.
VOICE MAINTENANCE & LEARNING
- Care of the voice is one of those things that bother us all. I only know I've not been able to cheer a football match for many a long year. I do believe we are able to perform more regularly than is often planned for us… 3 or 4 times a week... as long as there's a chance for proper rest. I found out by hard experience that there are changes in physiology every 5 -10 years or so, and that change needs to be accommodated by careful guidance with teacher or coach. I sang Mozart from early days myself, but I don't resort to telling young singers, “Go to Mozart. He'll see you well”, because Mozart is too difficult to perform well. For me he provides all the discipline I relish as a singer.
Considering Sir Thomas has been in such a variety of productions of certain operas, where the music obviously stays the same but each director has a different vision, I wonder how difficult he finds it to enter a new production and how likely is he to voice his disagreement with a director's interpretation if he doesn’t see their vision.
- There are a number of operas I've performed in a variety of productions and after each one I've done my best to wipe the slate clean. As many times as I sang Don Giovanni with each new start, I always felt entirely inadequate… maybe I was!
How do you learn new rep and how long does it take you?
- New works seem to take longer these days… I suspect a little voice inside me is saying, “Do you really need to be doing this to yourself?” I have always been a quick learner, actually. For instance, I had to learn “Die Fledermaus” in three days on one occasion [due to] pressure of work with other operas clashing.
BRITAIN’S GOT TALENT?
If it’s one thing I’ve noticed amongst proper musicians, it’s a common pet-hate for shows like "Britain's Got Talent", "X-factor" and various other talent shows that dominate TV screens the world over. I want to know Sir Thomas’s view on this, and how can we better make more people interested in real art and/or make it more available.
- I've tried to make a point of not watching… talent shows such as you mention. The truth is, like a lot of people in my business, I've been spoiled by some extraordinary talents and I don't enjoy the adulation lashed out on mediocrity. That sounds harsh, and a public would no doubt consider I was being high handed and snooty, but how do you possibly start to explain to the public – without the experience we've enjoyed – the difference between a Katherine Jenkins and Christine Rice or Elena Garanca who are young women who do sing “Carmen”?
What about further ambitions, within opera and otherwise?
- I'm not aware of further ambitions other than to acquit myself well with what remains to be done and to be a memorable Chancellor at Durham. Chancellorship of Durham is the most amazing honour for me, and I'm determined to enjoy every minute of it.
You can catch Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso in “Cosi fan tutte” at the Royal Opera House between the 27th of January and 13th of February 2012.