Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: Thomas Allen

What is striking about Sir Thomas Allen on meeting him is his passion. A few days before the opening night of his “umpteenth” Così fan tutte, he talks with great enthusiasm about the production, although his role of Don Alfonso is not a leading one. It is a key one, though: the enigmatic arch-manipulator on whom all the events of the opera turn. Allen first played the part 12 years ago, when Jonathan Miller‘s modern dress production was new.

Before that, he had inhabited the role of Guglielmo, most memorably in the marvellous Colin Davis Mozart Festival at Covent Garden in 1981, alongside Kiri te Kanawa and Agnes Baltsa. He reunites with Sir Colin for the current run of Così, the former Musical Director returning to conduct all four performances. Allen talks of Miller’s staging with great affection. “When we first did it, it was known as the Armani Così. It was, I think, the first time recitative had been delivered over a mobile phone.

Così is applicable to any setting, any age. I can’t imagine Figaro working updated to that degree you need there to be a proper class structure in place. It doesn’t have the same relevance any longer, so a period setting is more appropriate. The oncoming of the revolution also depends on the feudal system being in place. Così can take the treatment were giving it as the morals and concepts apply just as much now. That gives you a lot of liberty to play with it.”

Jonathan Miller has returned to rehearse the production and Allen comments that he couldn’t imagine handing a piece of work over to a revival director. Directing is something very much on the singer’s mind, having turned his hand to it over the last four years. Most recently, he has directed an acclaimed performance of Don Giovanni at the Sage, Gateshead, with Christopher Maltman in the role that Allen has played some 300 times himself.

Approaching the opera as a director has taught him a lot about both the work and the role. He’s a strong believer in the organic growth of a performance and the director not imposing concepts on the singers. “I had to resist the temptation to want to get up and do it for him. You have to respect the singer as someone who brings a tremendous amount to rehearsals and you can learn a lot from them, even for something you know so well.”

“Had I done more work like that when I was younger, I wouldn’t be here now I’d be pushing up the daisies.”

Just doing what he knows is not Thomas Allen’s way. Something totally new he took on three years ago was the lead in Stephen Sondheim‘s Sweeney Todd, a part which Bryn Terfel has just done at the Royal Festival Hall. Allen excelled as the demon barber, although the Royal Opera production itself was not too well-received. “It’s a wonderful part; he’s such a driven individual with great depths and dark corners. We all went through such turmoil doing it I went for a holiday to Africa to recover after playing it. It’s a very hard role to sing, very taxing, as draining as anything I’ve ever done. I don’t know how a musical singer can do that for eight shows a week. There have been three roles I’ve done that have had that effect on me Busoni’s Doktor Faust, Mandryka in Strauss’s Arabella and then Sweeney Todd. They all require you to burn yourself up all night long. Had I done more work like that when I was younger, I wouldn’t be here now I’d be pushing up the daisies.”

Thinking about the importance of words in Sondheim’s work, Allen moves on to the subject of comprehensibility and the ongoing debate about surtitles. “I’d like to think I can sing my part and everyone will understand what I’m singing but unfortunately they don’t.” He’s ambivalent about the use of surtitles, however, and especially for works already in English. “It can be enormously helpful to an audience which, after all, is who we are doing this for but the practise is still relatively new. What I’d like (as a director) is have a surtitle operator sitting alongside me in rehearsal, learning the timing of the piece. Maybe, I’ll try and do that in Scotland with Barber of Seville (he’s directing Rossini’s comedy at Scottish Opera in the autumn). It’s especially important in a comedy that the surtitle doesn’t anticipate the punchline.”

“Accessibility” is not a word that Allen has a lot of time for. A year or so ago, he got caught up in the whole “dumbing down” argument when he spoke out against certain performers who pass themselves off as classical artists and he’s still unrepentant about his attitude. He bridles at the thought that people mistake the work of glossily packaged “crossover” artists as having anything to do with the craft he has committed himself to for so many years.

…where the key to “accessibility” lies rather than in TV talent show renditions of Nessun Dorma

What he does feel passionate about is introducing children to opera and talks about how much he’s learned working in Yorkshire and the North East with youngsters. “If children are given the chance, within the education system, to work on opera and song, they don’t have the prejudices or barriers. They lap it up; they recognise quality and you’ve got them. We all make assumptions about young people but when you work with them, you find them open to what you have to offer, whether it’s Britten or Mozart.” He’s very persuasive that this is where the key to “accessibility” lies rather than in TV talent show renditions of “Nessun Dorma”.

Next year he will play his first Gianni Schicchi in Los Angeles, under the hand of his namesake, Woody Allen, who will be directing an opera for the first time. The prospect excites him, although he says he has no idea how it will turn out. “He’s an enormously clever and funny man and he certainly understands relationships. He’s also, of course, a musician albeit a jazz one. I’m really looking forward to it.”

There aren’t many more new roles that beckon. “I’m pretty content with what I’ve done, so I don’t have many ambitions left. Mind you, there’s Hansel and Gretel (the Father) and also a Faninal in Rosenkavalier to come.” Both productions will be at the Royal Opera.

In the meantime, Sir Thomas will work his magic once more on his beloved Mozart, when Così fan tutte plays at the Royal Opera House on 14, 17, 20 and 22 July.

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Interview: Thomas Allen