Sir Thomas Allen, noted baritone and Chancellor of Durham University, is in town rehearsing Don Alfonso in the COC’s new production of CosÌ fan tutte. Yesterday evening, between rehearsals, he was kind enough to spend half an hour answering some questions. We talked about his career, about his role as Chancellor of Durham University and about the new production of Così. I’ve detailed some of the highlights below as well as embedding the full interview as a four part audio file at the end.
Why choose opera as a career? – “It chooses you”. Sir Thomas talked about how one sometimes encounters a voice; singing or speaking, that has a certain quality, a certain distinctiveness, that’s instantly recognisable and of how someone had seen that in him as a boy.
Early career – At Glyndebourne and then Covent Garden singing roles like Figaro in Barber of Seville and Papageno then a big breakthrough with Billy Budd; a role he sang for 20 years.
Key roles – Pelléas. Onegin. Valentin in Faust where he first got to sing with opera superstars (Freni, Ghiaurov etc). And then Don Giovanni, a role he sang over 300 times, where he was “in touch with his inner devils”.
Roles he didn’t sing – Very selective about Verdi roles. He wanted a varied career and not to be stuck in one place. He regretted not having sung Falstaff or Boccanegra. I asked him about Posa which he had sung often. His respect for Don Carlo(s) was very clear… “a noble piece”, “greatness in it”. He clearly wasn’t much interested in traditional productions of warhorses “Nubian slave girls sand dancing in front of pyramids”.
His tastes in opera – Curiously they seem to mirror mine remarkably closely. Mozart and earlier and a marked respect for some of the 20th century repertory; notably Britten and Janáček.
What’s next? – Well he’s got bookings at major houses around the world for the next three or four years so no sign of retiring. He’s “still getting a kick from it”. He’s also directing. There’s been a Don Giovanni, a Così in Boston and a Don Pasquale in Chicago.
We moved onto Durham and the Chancellor role – He likes the role because he can be “as busy (or not) as you like”. He’s working with the Institute of Advanced Studies on a multi-disciplinary project about “light”. His contribution is a series of public workshops on Schubert’s Winterreise. The public explication of the piece gives him a chance to explore it in a different, deeper way.
What does he like about Durham? – It’s a “wonderful place” and “it’s taken me home”. Northeasterners are a “tight knit proud people” and now, as Chancellor, “he’s one of the kings”. He’s obviously very proud of the place (aren’t we all) and sees it as a dynamic place with an incredible amount happening and a vibrant music scene which is pretty remarkable for an institution that doesn’t teach performance as such. he’s also glad to be able to promote the city and the region generally as one of England’s unknown gems (and Amen to that).
We talked about Così and particularly about working with a young quartet of lovers – He mentioned that he’d worked with all of them as students or young artists and how great it was to work with them now as professional peers even if, he feared, they might look at him “through Natural History Museum eyes as a sort of dinosaur”. He also talked about working with Tracy Dahl for the first time describing her as “hewn from the same tree”.
I asked about working with Atom Egoyan – He said he was not as hooked on the 35mm frame as some film directors and that he really understood the psychology of Così. In this production the emphasis was on the “School for lovers” subtitle with Don Alfonso as a sort teacher and guide and the chorus commenting on the action. Sounds like it could be very interesting.
As we were leaving the building he also mentioned his love for the St. Lawrence market. Clearly a man of taste.
The full interview is below. It’s an iPhone recording so quality is so-so but there’s quite a bit more than in the highlights above. It also has me talking far too much.
Huge thanks to Sir Thomas for agreeing to do this and to Jennifer Pugsley of the COC for helping make it happen.