Sir Thomas Allen, CBE FRAM FRCM
Sir Thomas Allen is one of the most renowned lyric baritones of his generation. Known for his commanding stage presence as well as outstanding vocal and acting prowess on the operatic stage, he has mesmerised audiences from across the world for over forty years since his operatic debut in 1969.
Born in Seaham Harbour, Durham on 10th September 1944, Allen's road to opera was not so straightforward. Growing up in a mining community in the north of England, a career in the arts was not highly looked upon; acting seemed out of the question and singing only fared slightly better amongst his peers. Encouraged by his father who also enjoyed music, he took up playing the organ in his early teens and sang in the local church choir as a chorister. His singing talents were observed early on by his physics master (and fellow baritone) at Ryhope Grammar School, Denis Weatherley, who became the young baritone's first tutor, giving lessons during lunch breaks. Allen had initially intended to pursue a career in medicine but was encouraged to follow his love for music and an eighteen-year-old Allen was recommended to see Arthur Hutchings, then Professor of Music at Durham University who then arranged an interview at the Royal College of Music. After being offered a place, he studied there for four years from 1964 to 1968, studying with Hervey Alan (singing) and Harold Darke (organ). Whilst there, he won the prestigious Queen's Prize which brought him to the attention of James Lockhart, then newly appointed musical director of Welsh National Opera. Lockhart noticed the young baritone's talents and invited him to join the company after his graduation.
Upon graduating from the RCM, he spent a summer as part of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera chorus then started his professional operatic career by accepting Lockhart's offer. His operatic debut was Marquis d'Obigny in Verdi's La traviata on 4th February 1969. The WNO proved to be a training ground in developing his skills in characterisation - offering him the opportunity to try his hand at many baritone parts, many of which would become some of his most acclaimed roles such as Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Mozart's Count Almaviva, Guglielmo, Papageno, Strauss II's Falke, Verdi's Posa and Germont as well as Britten's Billy Budd.
In December 1971, he made his Covent Garden debut singing the role of Donald in Billy Budd and joined the company the following year, swiftly being appointed as Principal Baritone soon afterward. In 1973, he made his solo Glyndebourne debut as Papageno and returned as Mozart's Figaro (1974), Guglielmo (1975) and in his role debut in his signature role, Don Giovanni in Sir Peter Hall's 1977 acclaimed production. He was noted as the first British baritone in opera history to play Pelléas in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande in 1978 at Covent Garden, a role for which he was greatly praised. He became a freelance singer in 1979; making his Metropolitan Opera debut as Papageno in 1981, his Salzburg Festival debut as Monteverdi's Ulisse in 1985 and sang Faust in the first British production of Busoni's Doktor Faust with the ENO in 1986. He has toured overseas with the Royal Opera several times, singing the roles of Papageno and Ned Keene on their tour to Japan and South Korea in 1979 and Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva in Japan in 1992.
A large extent of his repertoire has been recorded on both video and sound recordings and he has worked with many of the world's famous conductors, including Sir Neville Marriner, Simon Rattle, Sir Charles Mackerras, Riccardo Muti, Sir Georg Solti, André Previn and Bernard Haitink. Not one to limit himself to a certain genre, Sir Thomas has recorded several recordings of lieder (Brahms, Wolf, Schumann, Schubert), choral works (such as Fauré's Requiem and Orff's Carmina Burana), Victorian and Edwardian songs, musicals and operetta, as well as songs from his native north of England.
In recent years, Allen has played an innumerable number of roles, exemplifying his huge range of repertoire; ranging from Sweeney Todd in the 2003 ROH production of Sondheim's famous musical, Mozart's Don Alfonso, Wagner's Sixtus Beckmesser, Janacek's Forester to Strauss II's von Eisenstein and Lehár's Count Danilo. In September 2008, he sang the title role in Woody Allen's acclaimed LA Opera production of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. He has also taken up his hand at directing, making his directorial debut at the Royal College of Music with a production of Britten's Albert Herring in 2002. He has since directed highly acclaimed productions of Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte at the Sage (for the Samling Foundation of which he is patron), Il barbiere di Siviglia with Scottish Opera in 2007 as well as Le nozze di Figaro with Arizona Opera in 2006. Recently, he has directed a successful production of Le nozze di Figaro at Scottish Opera which premiered at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow on 29th October 2010. He is also a frequent recitalist in the United Kingdom, Europe, America, Australia and occasionally in Asia.
Sir Thomas Allen is a supporter and patron of many non-profit music-related foundations, choirs and charities, such as Music in Hospitals, the Samling Foundation, the Oxford Lieder Festival, the Kathleen Ferrier Awards as well as being President of British Youth Opera. He has also been the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and academic posts, including an MA from the University of Newcastle, D.Mus. from Durham University and University of Birmingham, Fellowships from the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music while also being Prince Consort Professor of Opera for the latter. He was also a Hambro Visiting Professor of Opera Studies at the University of Oxford in 2000-01 and is an honorary fellow of Jesus College, Oxford.
He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1989 and Knight Bachelor in 1999 for services to opera.
In October 2011, he was appointed the 12th Chancellor of Durham University, taking up his post from outgoing Chancellor Bill Bryson on 1st January 2012. He officially took the oath of office on 26th June 2012.
On 27th January 2012, he celebrated 40 years at Covent Garden after the opening night performance of a revival of Jonathan Miller's production of Cosi fan tutte. Also in 2012, he sang Don Alfonso with the Bayerische Staatsoper on their tour to Hong Kong in February and made his debut at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre as Faninal in April. In late 2013, he directed Don Giovanni at Scottish Opera and in January 2014 made his debut with Canadian Opera as Don Alfonso. On 7th January 2014, it was officially announced that he is to be awarded the Queen's Medal for Music for 2013.
© Britain's Favourite Baritone
Allen, Thomas, Foreign Parts: A Singer's Journal (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993)
Loppert, Max, "People: 117 - Thomas Allen" in Opera, July 1978 (London, 1978)
Wroe, Nicholas, "Cutting it at the opera" (The Guardian, 6th December 2003)