Honesty at it’s finest: Stephen Costello interviews Sir Thomas Allen

Author: Stephen Costello

Extract from Stephen Costello’s blog, 5 November 2014

I am honored to have Sir Thomas Allen as my first interview guest. I first met Sir Thomas in 2009 in Spoleto, Italy, where we sang Gianni Schicchi together. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to call him a dear friend. I see no better way to start a blog for young artists than to interview this legendary baritone, who paved the way for so many other singers and continues to do so today.

Many young singers listen to your recordings and learn from the music you have created over the years. I certainly have learned a lot from you! Which singers inspired you, and what was it about those singers that attracted you?
I didn’t hear a lot of great singers until I was perhaps 15. Before that we had the recordings of Kathleen Ferrier and Joan Hammond and not much more. Of course now everyone is slowly realizing how great a singer Ferrier was. When things started getting serious for me, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was the outstanding influence, and in many areas remains so to this day.

I know that practicing can be very difficult. It can be hard to focus, and sometimes discouraging. What was your approach to remaining disciplined? How did you focus when practicing your technique?
I’m a Virgo, born in September, and I gather that people under that star sign are perfectionists… some would say anally retentive. (I couldn’t comment!) Being instinctively quite well ordered and tidy has helped me accomplish a lot more over 50 years than I could otherwise have done. The hard part is preparing my voice each day. It has always bored me, so I never bother, which has sometimes been to my cost – but not all that often, luckily.

You have become a legendary artist. You have won incredible awards, been knighted by the Queen of England, made numerous recordings, and worked with incredible musicians. Was there ever a doubt in your mind that you would make it in this career? If so, how did you deal with it?
At the beginning I had no idea where I could go or what the profession entailed. As a student I walked into a college of music where everyone seemed to have all the confidence in the world and so much more voice and talent than me. Slowly as the terms went by I started to have some kind of impact and whereas at one time I was surrounded by my peers and so many other striving musicians, I turned round one day and realized I had survived and was on my own. I’ve never really believed in myself, though, and still struggle (I’m being far too honest with you here!).

We all have to learn to recognize for ourselves what is and isn’t possible for our own voices, with the gift we’ve been given.

What is your opinion on teachers? Should young singers have one teacher? Change every so often? Do you feel there is a danger in getting too many opinions about your voice and career?
When I was a student there was a terrible fashion for dropping one’s own teacher in favor of another teacher whose students had come upon success. As you can see, nothing has changed! I stayed with the same teacher through college mainly because he did me no harm whereas others seemed to be badly taught. Understanding of the voice has certainly improved but it’s important that a singer develop the capacity for self-analysis – we all have to learn to recognize for ourselves what is and isn’t possible for our own voices, with the gift we’ve been given. Singers still change ships midstream looking for the philosophers’ stone when all the time it’s inside oneself. It’s worth getting a really good accompanist or coach you can trust.

You have been directing more lately. From your vantage point as a director, what is it you look for from a singer? How should a young singer study and prepare a role before they arrive to start staging?
Directing is a fascinating area of work for me because it allows me to be a creator rather than the blank canvas that anyone is happy to slap paint upon. The best time in many ways is the work I do with my designer in searching and hoping to arrive at some satisfactory answers. Singers come in a variety of packages but the ones I like take risks and are inventive. I like those who are brave and will take a gamble. That way, new roads are found.

When I’m singing a new role or song myself, I don’t have all the answers when I arrive on that first anxious day. I study harder for roles and more particularly songs now, than I have ever done. I’m performing Winterreise around the place at the moment. Every day it takes up my time and I’ve discovered so much from just spending more time with it than ever before. Of course the pictures in my head, the gallery as it were, is richer now than once it was and I shall continue to add to it.

Could you maybe share a story of an embarrassing – and possibly funny – moment that you had as a singer that might make a younger singer feel relieved to know that “shit happens” to everybody – even to the most distinguished artists?
As for embarrassment, I was asked to sing in Durham Cathedral at a service to honor the munitions workers of the area who felt they hadn’t been recognized after the war. Tony Blair was in attendance. I’d offered to sing “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” which I had to learn especially for the occasion. As usual I left it to the last minute and found I was still memorizing it on the way to the service. Too late, and as I stood by the piano to sing not a single word came to me. Two thousand people in the congregation plus a Prime Minister! So I started inventing almost all of it, for two verses. The woolly acoustic of the church helped to a degree. Afterwards, a gaggle of old ladies came to me and out poured their comments. “Oh, it was lovely to hear the song and all those lovely words once more.” Basically people aren’t listening to the words. Once, as a test, instead of singing, “Billy Budd, late of the Rights o’ Man and soon to be captain of the mizzen,” I sang “Billy Budd, late of the Rights o’ Man, and soon to be captain of the Pinafore.” Not a single person noticed!

When your career gets stressful and busy, how do you relax? How did you find inner peace?
From the beginning it always astonished me that I could make a life from this job. It seemed I was incredibly fortunate, sometimes I even thought I’d wake up one day and it wouldn’t be there. So I always had things around me to keep me sane: books of course, and binoculars for bird-watching trips around the world.  Being in a city like Vienna is all the education and fascination you could want. The travel and work has been the best education in the world. And a paint box and pencils have left me with a travelogue of my life over the past 50 years!

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