Once a popular musician or writer has been around the block a few times, he acquires the tag “national treasure.” It’s the kind of pat on the head that usually spells creative death. Not for Thomas Allen.
The 67-year-old baritone, who is celebrating both 40 years of singing at the Royal Opera House in London and his appointment last October as chancellor of Durham University, is as fired up as he has ever been.
“It’s because I’m curious about so much,” he says when I meet him at Covent Garden. “If you’ve got curiosity, it has an effect on every aspect of your life. I delve into bird life, painting, building boats, other things too, and it spills over into what I do as an artist. You need curiosity to live a full life.”
The burly Allen, a former rugby player from a mining family who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999, has a voice with a melodious lilt born of his roots in the northeast of England. He’s straight out of rehearsal when we meet, and looks relaxed in casual clothes. His latest role, one of his favorites, is as the manipulative Don Alfonso in Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.”
Where is his curiosity leading him with Alfonso? “This is maybe the 17th or 18th revival I’ve been in, and I’m still learning about the role,” Allen says. “Why is he so cynical? Why does he keep his accomplice Despina in the dark? I feel I have to create a back story. There’s surely something to do with his feeling toward women, and Despina in particular. A lot of antipathy.”
So the role is still changing? “Maybe in the past I played Alfonso as a stock character with lots of humor. Now I see aspects of the text that are barbed. I’m not trying to avoid them, or make him seem like a nice guy.”
Allen is as celebrated for the detail and humor of his acting as for his dark, silken voice. He can do a double take, or time a gesture, with the precision of a vaudevillian. Did he learn that, or is it a given instinct?
“A bit of both,” he says. “As a teenager, I don’t think I ever had to be told how to perform, I just knew it. Then I learned proper stagecraft, how to behave on an opera stage. And I go to the pictures a lot, and the theater, and I watch people. I accumulate experience from all those things.”
When Allen gave a speech in 2002 to the Royal Philharmonic Society, criticizing the dumbing down of classical-music recordings, he said he had got more attention than in all his (then) 30 years of singing.
Has anything changed since then? “No. It all still stands. I refuse to give in to this fake popularization and low-brow quality, and people claiming to be opera singers when they’ve never sung in an opera. It’s a deceit. Those singers could never do the real thing, here in the Royal Opera, where the non-bastardized version takes place.”
He says this genially, as if aware that life’s too short for being grumpy. He moves on to some of his happier memories.
“Opera is an odd medium, and there’s a lot to poke fun at,” says Allen. “I’ve had numerous experiences when a fellow performer was less-than-credible physically. Someone like Pavarotti, for example. I remember I was in “La Boheme” and we were all annoyed because he hadn’t turned up to any rehearsals. Then, on stage, he opened his mouth, and there was something about the power of his voice that transcended everything else. Being so close to it on stage, it had an amazing impact. I used to watch him, and sit and stare and admire. Then I had to try and remember to sing afterward. It was a tough act to follow.”
Has Allen faced much pressure to keep trim himself? “I was given the role of Adam in Penderecki’s “Paradise Lost.” Though I thought I was pretty fit and trim, the director Sam Wanamaker said I had to lose weight. I had to be a symbol of perfect humanity.” he looks down. “I wonder what he’d say if he saw me now?”
A career of 40 years at the world’s top opera houses must have helped build a tidy nest egg. Does he spend it on luxuries? “I’m too conservative, too careful. I was never used to money, didn’t grow up with it, and I’ve always found it difficult to get used to having any around. Though I’ve bought the odd picture over the years. I love Stanley Spencer, David Hockney, Peter Blake.” Were they bought as an investment? “No, never. I just bought what appealed to me.”
What has been the greatest change he has seen in his long career? “The old Royal Opera, before the restoration in 1999, had wonderful memories for me,” Allen says. “It also had filthy showers, terrible dressing rooms, and was tatty and unkempt. You can’t compare it with what we have now, a fully functional 21st-century theater.”
Though it’s time to go, Allen still finds time to tell me about his plans for a cross-fertilization of arts and sciences that he wants to set rolling in Durham, his hometown.
Maybe it’s a pipe dream. Maybe he has the energy to pull it off. Whatever the result, it’s another manifestation of the restless curiosity -- to see more, to find out more -- that drives him.
“Cosi fan tutte” opens at the Royal Opera, London, on Jan. 27. Information: http:// www.roh.org.uk
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)