Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

10 Questions for...
Sir Thomas Allen

February 10, 2011

Sir Thomas Allen
Photo: Sussie Ahlburg

There are few vocal artists working before the public today with a history comparable to that of Sir Thomas Allen. The English baritone has a career spanning over forty years and continues to win accolades for his performances around the world. He has excelled in many different corners of the repertory and is particularly well regarded for his interpretations in the works of Britten, Mozart, and as Wagner’s Sixtus Beckmesser. He will return to Los Angeles next week in the role of Prosdocimo, the Poet in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, which opens in a Christoph Loy production at L.A. Opera on Feb 19th. Allen made quite an impression here in 2008 starring in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and he joins a great cast including Nino Machiadze, Kate Lindsey, and Paolo Gavanelli for this return engagement. Sir Thomas was kind enough to break from rehearsals for Il Turco to tell us where he’s been and what’s up next in 10 Questions with Out West Arts.

1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?
Wozzeck is a role that has interested me greatly, but productions are rare and sadly it has never come my way. The mix of Berg's score, the text and nature of the piece are at the core of early 20th-century European culture, a fascinating period. Falstaff would be the other role that bugs me for not having performed it. I think I'd still consider it at this stage of my life, having turned it down on several occasions.

2. What role would you never perform, even if you could?
Any of those great bel canto roles as in Puritani or Lucia. There's absolutely nothing wrong with them or the music, and there may well have been a time I'd have been glad of the offer. But experiencing other repertoire—and I include Beckmesser in Meistersinger, Don Alfonso, Doktor Faust and Gianni Schicchi—has turned me away from the stand-and-deliver kind of repertoire which I'm happy to leave to others. And, dare I say this, it also includes a lot of the music of Verdi.....but not by any means all.

3. You’ve worked with nearly every major conductor and vocalist in the opera world over the length of your career. Is there someone you haven’t worked with yet you’d like to?
A lot of my career seems to have involved Riccardo Muti, which, it seems, rather precludes working with Claudio Abbado. That's a pity as I've enjoyed watching him and listening to the music he makes. As far as singers are concerned, I met Jonas Kaufmann some years ago and it's wonderful to watch him flourish and finally perhaps to provide Germany a replacement for the sadly missed Fritz Wunderlich. It would be lovely to work with him, I think, and to be near such a lovely sound.

4. A remarkable number of your performances over the years have been preserved on both audio and video. Is there a particular recording you are glad was saved for posterity?
I'm very fortunate to have recorded so much repertoire in opera, song and oratorio. From earlier days, I'm particularly happy to have been involved in The Marriage of Figaro with Solti, Te Kanawa, Von Stade and lovely Lucia Popp. More recently I recorded two CDs called Songs My Father Taught Me. They have a very special place in my life as they really do connect to my father who was very special to me.

5. Over the last several years you’ve added opera directing to your extensive resume. What, if anything, has directing opera taught you about performing on stage?
Two things I've learned from directing: respect for director and designer, and for the work they deliver. A huge amount of thinking goes into the creative process. It is this process I enjoy in particular. The hours spent with my designer with models, reference books and model theaters is such a different process from the one I'm most accustomed to. Really it's the business of being in a creative process as opposed to a re-creative one that really excites me. Consequently I listen now with differently attuned ears to a director expressing his or her approach to a work with an enormous amount of respect. Perhaps I'm also able to act as arbitrator when needed, with a foot in both camps.

Photo: Jason Bell/ROH

6. Which music made you want to sing opera?
No music wanted me to sing opera. The need to make a living pointed me towards opera. I had no overriding passion to do so. I was simply a singer. But having heard Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on record singing Brahms and Schubert, then to hear him as Mandryka in Arabella certainly opened up unrealized ambitions.

7. You wowed audiences on your previous visit to L.A. Opera as Gianni Schicchi in 2008 and now return as Prosdocimo in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, both comic roles. As a baritone, is it more fun being bad or being funny on the opera stage and why?
They say every clown wants to play Hamlet. I've sung Hamlet and also played the clowns. I need both in my life. But I often think that baritones and mezzo-sopranos in particular seem easily able to access the melancholy parts of their psyche. It's all there for us to tap into.

8. Your iPod is destroyed by a vengeful mezzo. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
A vengeful mezzo...not a soprano? It's more likely to be a tenor after what I've said about them over the years. Klemperer's Fidelio would be the first thought. Unbettered after all these years. Casals and the unaccompanied cello suites of Bach…essential. Anything by Sinatra or Billie Holiday that is on my machine.

9. What's your current obsession?
This is easy. All the time I spend away from home now is very frustrating. I have a workshop in my garden. Inside are my machines and tools. I'm currently involved in making a large model of a Swedish warship that sank in 1628, Vasa. The work has kept me occupied for years because of traveling commitments, but an end is in sight and I'm aching to get back to it. The rigging is my big job at the moment—a monumental task. It's in complete contrast to my main work and I'm all the better for it.

10. With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?
It would be expected I might say Don Giovanni. Too obvious. Actually, as hard as it is to admit, there's a lot of Beckmesser about me. He's a nitpicker and I can wrestle for hours over getting small details right without losing patience. That's why, I suppose, the fineness of detail in making ship models fits me so well. I'm a Virgo and though astrology wasn't taught in my school and I don't subscribe to it, there does seem to be in me this need for perfectionism in small detail....ship models.


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