Northern Echoes: Sir Thomas Allen
He is one of our most celebrated baritones, but Sir Thomas Allen tells Time Out why he is still a Billy Elliot at heart
Ever wondered what opera singers dream about? Sir Thomas Allen reveals that recently he dreamed that he came on stage for the second act of Rossini's 'The Turk in Italy', only to stop the show and announce: 'I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but I'm afraid I can't carry on because my mind has gone completely blank.'
Fortunately, this has never actually happened in Allen's 40-year career in opera, although he does admit to once forgetting his words to 'Keep the Home Fires Burning' in a war commemoration concert in Durham Cathedral. He covered by simply making them up. Such subterfuge, however, is unlikely to be necessary when he reprises the role of the wily Don Alfonso in the opera 'CosÏ fan tutte', part of this year's Royal Opera House Mozart trilogy (with 'Don Giovanni' and 'Le nozze di Figaro'). The House's current production was created by director Jonathan Miller in 1995 and features Allen in a sharp suit, complete with mobile phone (it was the singer's much-copied idea to have the harpsichordist play the original Nokia ringtone).
The 67-year-old baritone is relaxing at the ROH, the company he regards as home, ahead of costume fitting for 'CosÏ'. Dressed smartly in jacket and tie and speaking candidly in his north-eastern burr, Allen confesses that despite his great success here, he has never really felt at home in London. 'I feel much more comfortable when following the compass north,' he explains. 'It is where I am from, where I belong; I feel totally in harmony with what people are saying and how the place looks; it is something I look forward to more and more.'
Indeed, playwright Lee Hall cites Allen as inspiration for his film 'Billy Elliot', about the north-eastern lad who defied the local macho culture to become a ballet dancer. Arriving at the Royal College of Music in London was something of a culture shock for the young grammar-school boy from Seaham Harbour near Durham.
Opera, however, was still a world away for this son of an 'archetypal northern housewife' and an amateur pianist, who worked as a credit manager for a department store in Sunderland. So where did the music bug come from? 'It wasn't inflicted on me, I just grew up with music around me - very ordinary amateur musicmaking, through my father largely and an uncle who was a tenor and sang in concerts.' It was a teacher at school that suggested he apply to the Royal College of Music, and despite initially begging his parents to let him come home, he has gone on to be knighted for his endeavours.
Having sung in so many Mozart operas, are they the most comfortable fit for his voice? 'No, not by any means, but thankfully he has paid most of the mortgage, ' he laughs. 'I have done hundreds of performances as Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva and now Don Alfonso, but my happiest vocal times have been with other German, Italian and, in particular, French music, which suits my voice best. Mozart was not writing for high-lying baritone, which is what my voice is, but for more of a bass baritone. I feel happiest where the voice is higher - such as Rossini's “Barber of Seville”. But having said that, I couldn't have done without Mozart. Spiritually, culturally, aesthetically - it has given me everything that I have needed.'
And it would seem that despite his long career at the top, the boy from County Durham still can't believe his luck, as an anecdote reveals. 'I had the sad business of clearing out the house of a cousin who had died recently, and I came across photos that she had collected of myself at different stages of my life. And one of them was of me onstage in “La bohème” with Pavarotti, Kiri Te Kanawa and Richard van Allen. And I looked at it,' he says, shaking his head in disbelief. 'Me and Pavarotti! Of course there have been others - Jon Vickers, Alfredo Kraus, Lucia Popp, Mirella Freni… the great singers of the postwar period have been through here, but Pavarotti was somehow undoubtedly different. I remember sitting back, as in that photo, and just watching this fella open his mouth and make that sound. It was just extraordinary; that's the privilege, that's where I was blessed.'
Sir Thomas Allen sings in 'CosÏ fan tutte' at the Royal Opera House, Fri Jan 27-Feb 13 2012. www.roh.org.uk.