Sir Thomas Allen - Britain's Favourite Baritone

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BBC Music Magazine (January 1997)

Thomas Allen: An Unstoppable Urge

He’s always loved dressing up. He’s always been bitten by the acting bug. After 25 years on the operatic stage, singer Thomas Allen needs a new challenge, he tells Michael Billington

Can singers act? David Hare doesn’t think so. Last year on BBC radio and in November’s BBC Music Magazine he pooh-poohed the notion that anything that happens on the operatic stage can hold a candle to the work done in straight theatre by a Gambon or McKellen. I would counter Hare’s absurd proposition in two short, simple words: Thomas Allen. For this great British baritone – currently celebrating the 25th anniversary of his debut at Covent Garden where he will shortly have clocked up 41 roles in 38 operas – is a fine actor: he has a capacity to explore character and to colour language that’s a match for anything you’ll find on the London stage today.

Meeting Thomas Allen for the first time you instantly notice his warmth, intelligence and passion for his craft: also his strong Durham accent and dominant physical presence. But he’s also deeply curious about the way actors work. He’d just been to see John Gabriel Borkman at the National and was intrigued by Paul Scofield’s ability to produce his own eerie music by elongating vowel-sounds. The day after we met I also got an urgent call to ring him at home. ‘I just wanted to say,’ was the Allen postscript, ‘that the acting bug has really got into my blood. It’s a worm that’s eating away at me. I’d love to work with one of the great classical companies or do something related to my own background. I’m a great admirer of Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door and there are a couple of songs from that I often sing. It would be difficult to organise since my life is planned two years ahead but I know it’s an unstoppable urge that won’t go away.’ So if Adrian Noble or Trevor Nunn (who famously cast Willard White as Othello) are looking for a new Macbeth or Malvolio (or how about a Geordie Bottom?), they know who to ring.

Allen’s own working-class, Seaham Harbour background – his family, on his mother’s side, were all miners and his dad was a collector for a hire-purchase firm – was not certainly not theatrical. ‘As a kid,’ says Allen. ‘I was terribly timid. The only time I went onstage was carrying a rifle in The Devil’s Disciple. We had some good actors at school but I wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t something you did in the North-East: it was considered sissy. I was in the church choir and I got my nose flattened several times just for doing that. But I enjoyed dressing up in whatever costume I could get my hands on, even re-shaping my father’s trilbies to become a cowboy or Robinson Crusoe. Acting, I suppose, is an extension of play, but I get annoyed when other singers make no attempt to enter into character. I’ve never struck anyone, but I do remember, when I was with Welsh National Opera in Cardiff, throwing a mezzo-soprano off stage – in the context of the opera I hasten to add – because what she was doing was so unthought-out and destructive to the developing scene. But the wonderful thing about our opera-theatre right now is that there are so many fine actors around. Look at John Tomlinson. He’s got an amazing feeling for the spirituality of a character: it comes out of his bloody great voice, but also his own enormous humanity.’

Allen’s progress towards opera was slightly circuitous. As he says, you don’t start out by singing arias round the family piano: not in his family anyway. Even at the Royal College of Music he saw himself specialising in oratorio and Lieder: his hero was Fischer-Dieskau and he still recalls the thrill of hearing his idol sing Mandryka in Strauss’s Arabella at Covent Garden. It was only in Allen’s final year that Denis Arundell persuaded him to change course.

‘I was inveigled into the opera school because they were short of a baritone. I was also working with James Lockhart who suggested I audition for Welsh National Opera. It was a tremendous training. I was on contract at £34 a week – this was in the late Sixties – and in one week alone I remember singing The Magic Flute, The Barber, Bohème, Fledermaus and Boccanegra and doing a Saturday concert in Manchester. In 1971 I was offered a contract at the Royal Opera House and it started all over again, beginning with Donald in Billy Budd. The value of that long apprenticeship was that, when I eventually made my debut at the Met with Papageno, I felt secure. An awful lot of people don’t have that background today and it often shows. I feel grateful that I had a chance to learn my craft singing in places like the Haverfordwest Secondary Modern School or the Sunderland Empire.’

What makes Allen special, however, is not just his strong theatrical presence or the beauty of his timbre: it also has to do with his ability to excavate language to illuminate character, whether in aria or recitative. You see it perfectly in his Don Giovanni: the role he has sung most frequently (well over a hundred times) both at home and abroad. But where does this ability to colour a phrase actually come from?

‘I grew up,’ he says, ‘at a time when language was important. I had good training at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne and with the great baritone Sesto Bruscantini. He’s one of the surviving masters who can teach you the use of the Italian language in the Florentine manner. He taught me about the open and closed vowel and the double consonant which determine the colour of what one wants to say on stage. It’s amazing, for instance, what you can do with the ‘o’ sound. When Giovanni tries to tempt Zerlina into his summer house and says ‘soli saremo’ (‘we will be alone’) you can make it hugely erotic by using a closed vowel and drawing the sound in. Consonants are also crucial. In a later scene Giovanni says to Zerlina, ‘Si, ben mio, son tutto amore’ (‘Yes, my darling, I adore you’). You can hit the double ‘t’ to make it more seductive or you can give it a Spanish quality like a double ‘d’ almost as if it were an impediment which leaves the sound hanging in the air. You can’t sing at La Scala unless you know what that’s about.’

Sensitivity to language is at the heart of Allen’s art. But he also loves delving deep into character. He credits Peter Hall’s 1977 production with unlocking the Don Giovanni that lay inside him. Since then his performance has undergone various tonal shifts depending on time and place. Allen’s Munich Don Giovanni ends up a dishevelled Ben Gunn figure: his Houston version brings out the Prince Charming aspect of the character. His performance in Johannes Schaaf’s Covent Garden production is a colder, darker, steelier figure: a singing Marquis de Sade.

‘The psychological climate,’ says Allen, ‘has changed a lot in the last twenty years and that influences how you present the character. I think we’re much more aware of our potential for sexual cruelty and Schaaf encourages one to dig deep in to the darker side of one’s nature. I remember [the opera critic] Rodney Milnes asking how any woman could possibly find this creature attractive. All I can say that, judging by the letters I received, a lot of them obviously did. Productions may vary hugely but you’ve always got to be aware of the degradation Giovanni goes through in the course of the piece. I don’t think I could play him these days as an Errol Flynn swashbuckler.’

It was, however, Allen’s Beckmesser in Graham Vick’s 1993 Covent Garden Meistersinger (to be revived this year) that really showed his gift for character-work. In the revised edition of his singer’s journal, Foreign Parts, Allen reveals how he used memory and observation – basic Stanislavski techniques – to get to the heart of the character. He called on recollections of the clerk to the council in Seaham Harbour ‘peering, like Mr Mole, over the half-spectacles of the informed man.’ He also, as always, formed a vivid mental picture of the character: ‘his hands are stained from the ink of the quill pen and bear none of the calluses of the other guild members.’ This was a petty-bureaucrat Beckmesser straight out of Gogol or Dickens. Intriguingly, Andrew Porter suggested that Allen might also make a fine Hans Sachs: an idea he himself rejects.

‘Never in the world. The temptation is great but it’s not for me. I’d love to sit there and console Eva, but it’s a monster of a role and it wouldn’t sit easily with my voice. I have a soft-grained voice and I think when it came to the end and “Heilige deutsche Kunst” might be something less than “Heilige”. Beckmesser is where I belong. Although I’ve done my Wolfram in Tannhäuser and my Veronica Lake-lookalike as Melot in Tristan, I’ve got a problem with Wagner in that I’m aware how seductive the man is and how difficult it is, once you get into the sound-system, to escape. Years ago Colin Davis suggested that I might like to learn Siegmund but I felt it would have been a cul-de-sac for me. I find Wagner astonishing and I remember coming into rehearsals for Meistersinger thinking how on earth does any human being start with a pile of manuscript-paper and create something like this. But if I go to a Wagner opera – which I rarely do – I’m in such a trance that I think, if I sang it, I’d want to swim wholly in its waters and that might not be wise.’

Which shows how level-headed Allen is. He knows exactly what is right for his voice and temperament. He also has a canny ability to avoid heavily conceptual productions: he cites as an example of what he abhors a Frankfurt Aida where Rosalind Plowright spent most of the evening on her knees with a scrubbing-brush and pail of water. Amongst British directors, he rates Hall, Hytner and Vick highly for their understanding of singers. But the director whom he describes most vividly is Giorgio Strehler for whom he sang Don Giovanni at La Scala.

‘We worked in a manner I’ve never worked in before or since. I went straight from the airport to the theatre and was being put into a costume before I’d had time to unpack. Then I went down to meet the great man. Strehler told me I was far too Nordic, could never sing Don Giovanni and destroyed me and the whole cast. Then we worked for a month – from ten in the morning till 11.30 at night with short breaks for meals. Strehler would sit in the stalls with his cronies with a microphone in his hand shouting obscenities at all of us. Even in the music-rehearsals I found him crawling on his hands and knees around the dimly lit stage. The final straw was that, on the first night, we came to take our calls and found the whole audience was looking at Prince Charles in one of the boxes!’

Opera, of course, is only one part of Allen’s musical life. He has an ever-expanding recital programme: promises of lots more Schubert, Liszt and Hugo Wolf to come and a plan to track down all the Housman poems set to music. And, outside music, Allen is a keen amateur painter (acrylics and watercolours) and dedicated golfer: he also plans to follow up his highly readable singer’s journal with a book about his memories of growing up in a mining community. Roots are vital to Thomas Allen: so much so that he can still understand, even if he doesn’t endorse, the attitude of Grimethorpe miners who are seeking National Lottery money to rejuvenate the area and were appalled to see funds going instead to an opera house. ‘I remember that attitude,’ he says, ‘and it’s a part of me I will never get rid of.’

There’s still a touch of Northern bluffness about Allen: at one point, he staggers me by affecting not to take his career too seriously. But the real Allen, I suspect, is the conscious, dedicated artist who unites a love of words and music and who, after over a quarter of a century on the operatic stage, is increasingly intrigued by the mystery of theatre. As a lyric baritone, he has exploded the Hare theory that singers can’t act. If he takes to the straight stage, I suspect he may also expose the vocal thinness of some of our cherished thespians. At the age of 52, Thomas Allen still has new worlds to conquer.