40 years at Covent Garden for Sir Thomas

Author: Clemency Burton-Hill

Sir Thomas Allen reflects on his long association with the Royal Opera House.

‘Forty years? I can’t take it in,’ chuckles baritone Sir Thomas Allen at home in London, where he is rehearsing the revival of Così fan Tutte that will mark four decades since his debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. ‘I don’t know what that number means, I can’t fathom it! It bit like the American debt, once it gets past several trillion you lose sight of the numbers…’

Joking aside, perhaps the achievement is all the more unfathomable for Allen given that, as a young singer from County Durham, he had rather more modest expectations. ‘I never dreamed I’d go there in the first place so the fact I did took me completely by surprise. People often say to young singers: are you looking forward to the day you’ll make your debut at Covent Garden? And I used to laugh at that – it felt far beyond my reach. Light years away, if ever.’

So what was it like, I wonder, to walk onto that storied stage for the first time in 1972? ‘It was phenomenal,’ he remembers. ‘Just to see the lights, the sheer beauty of it. I think I let out a gasp, my jaw dropped.’ I ask if his jaw still drops – metaphorically or otherwise – when he returns to Floral Street? ‘Oh, it’s still magic,’ he confesses. ‘Going through the stage door, going on the stage at Covent Garden, it is an extraordinary thing to do; to step through those doors to work and to perform at that level.’

Looking back over such a remarkable period of history, both personally and in terms of the House itself, it must be tempting to indulge in the odd sentimental recollection, but Allen is trying to remain clear-eyed as he approaches the anniversary. ‘I’m trying not to be drawn into nostalgia,’ he says. ‘But not always succeeding, because of course, you remember all the ghosts – the filth and the dirt of old dressing rooms, which really were terrible at the time! And the painted cloths stored down below – oh, they were dens of dirt and decay! For someone starting now, it’s very bright, polished, you can still smell the fresh paint. When I started, it was something of a mess. But it was historic, and that was all part of its history, its glamour, its charm.’ He adds: ‘Besides, you can put down those old Visconti cloths, the old Don Carloses and Toscas and they may look old fashioned but my god, they were classics of their day.’

When Allen first started at Covent Garden, he encountered something that, he regrets, doesn’t exist in the same way now: a genuine company. ‘There used to be a team – Sutherland, Vickers, Ward, MacIntyre, Evans; a whole host who’d been there for many years,’ he recalls. ‘They were a real interesting group of folk. Hardened professionals. I sat at their knees and listened to their stories and I learned.’ As assiduous a student as he was, however, Allen also admits to feeling occasionally dazzled by the roster of superstars who passed through that hallowed Stage Door; to the point where he says – extraordinarily, for such a giant talent – he began to suffer from a ‘distinct lack of self-belief’.

‘It was enormously exciting and impressive but it was also one of the problems, that you were surrounded by such great singers the entire time. Alfredo Kraus, Tito Gobbi, Lucia Popp… They all came and went through the place and you saw the greatest singers of that decade, of several decades.’ Allen remembers a particular production of Gounod’s Faust in 1977, a revival that, along with a 1979 Billy Budd, catapulted him into success; but which posed a psychological challenge at the time. ‘I remember talking to myself in a quiet place before the performance,’ he confides, ‘and saying: right, you’re going to go out there tonight and you’ll either sink or swim. You either go up the ladder, you stay still, or you go down – what are you going to do?’ He hesitates, then adds, with characteristic modesty. ‘I think I went up the ladder.’

Go up the ladder he did; and he has stayed up ever since. From those early Budds and Fausts, to a 1988 Don Giovanni which put him on the map ‘in a very big way’ and a 1993 Meistersinger which he knew was ‘most unusual and special’, Allen has sung more than 50 roles in Royal Opera House productions, alongside an equally impressive career at other major houses (thirty years at The Met, for example, and counting). Does he ever get restless, I wonder? ‘I don’t know if it’s a mindset, but I think a large part of my brain is still quite childish,’ he admits. ‘So the whole business of ‘playing’ is something I enjoy. I mean, it’s playing with knobs on, it’s much more sophisticated than it was as a child, but my imagination still runs wild and it’s… well, it’s life-enhancing.’ He reflects on this a moment. ‘Perhaps tedium will set in at some point down the line, but when it comes to it, I basically enjoy the process of trying to explore new avenues; of physicalising a character; of changing the emphasis of a bit of text. Even if it’s of the tiniest order, undetectable almost, it helps keep it alive for me – and hopefully then for the people watching.’

It is this abiding passion and commitment to keeping the form alive that Allen believes must be energetically reinforced in opera – which he fondly describes as ‘this strange medium where people stop and shout musically at each other for a great length of time.’ He appreciates that opera faces an uphill struggle if it is to continue winning public subsidies and new audiences, but he is generally optimistic. ‘It can appear to be something that one ‘just does’; but think about it,’ he remarks, ‘a human being steps on to a stage, in a city, facing nigh on four thousand people, and with a human voice, a natural voice, communicates with you. We mustn’t lose that extraordinary discovery that we made all those eons ago. Because if you do catch on to it, if it does get its fingers inside your veins, opera can be all-embracing. It can really take hold of you.’

For the man who describes Covent Garden as his ‘artistic home’, it is clear that, over the decades, Allen has invested considerable emotional energy into the people as well as the place. ‘There have always been great artists there; not only on stage performing, but those who dress the stage; everyone,’ he tells me. ‘I’ve got to know a lot of people in a lot of different departments, starting with the first man who was at the stage door, Stan, and then Joe.’ One suspects that most opera stars would not bother to learn the names of the Stage Door staff, but it is testament to Allen’s great humility; his utter lack of pretentiousness, that he does not take for granted the many less visible people that make a majestic house like Covent Garden function. ‘I’m very respectful of the place,’ he says. ‘It’s an enormous institution and you learn. You learn that you’re only a part of it. For a relatively short period of time. And it moves on and has a much longer history after you’ve gone. For the moment though I feel a real sense of belonging.’ Something in that marvellous voice of his catches, and I wonder if Sir Thomas Allen still can’t quite believe he ever got to Covent Garden in the first place. ‘It’s like coming home.’

Cosi Fan Tutte, ROH

Filmed interview with Sir Thomas Allen

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