Sir Thomas Allen a Knight at the Opera

By Ashby, Martin | Musical Opinion, May/June 2012 | Go to article overview

Sir Thomas Allen a Knight at the Opera

Ashby, Martin, Musical Opinion

A celebration of the career of one of this country's finest singers, honoured by The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden earli er this year to commemorate his fortieth season with the company.

There may be other noted singers from the North-East of England, but none is better-known internationally, nor so quietly proud of his Northumbrian roots, as Sir Thomas Allen. He was born six miles south of Sunderland in Seaham Harbour, County Durham, in 1944, a small town possessing, in the church of St Mary the Virgin, one of the 20 oldest surviving churches in Britain.

It was from there, in the early 1960s, as a pupil at Robert Richardson Grammar School in Ryhope, that Thomas Allen's musical gifts were first recognised and encouraged by the school's physics master Dennis Weatherly, causing the headmaster to arrange for the youth to sing for Professor Arthur Hutchings at Durham University's Music Department. This led directly to Arthur Hutchings putting Thomas Allen forward for an audition at London's Royal College of Music. Whilst at Grammar School, Thomas was playing golf to county standard, and had already begun playing the organ in church at the same time as entering singing competitions. He abandoned his initial ambition to be a doctor and won a place at the Royal College of Music in 1964.

Thomas Allen was a student at the Royal Col lege of Music from 1964 to 1968, where he took singing and the piano before winning the Queen's Prize. During this period, he spent time with the Scottish conductor and pianist, James Lockhart, who tutored him in Italian and encouraged him to set his sights on opera. As a fellowstudent, Roger Vignoles, recalled: 'By the end, he was the college star. He sang much more oratorio and song than opera but when there was a visit from the Queen Mother and the opera school needed an Escamillo for a presentation of the last act of Carmen, someone asked Tom. And he sang and acted everyone else off the stage.' In 1969, Thomas made his operatic debut with the Welsh National Opera in La Traviata - James Lockhart had just been appointed music director of the company - a debut that created a strong impression, with Thomas described a few years later by the late John Steane as 'surely the best British lyric baritone singing in opera since the war' before continuing 'and why [is he] not more often used by the record companies?

Steane's plea did not go unanswered, for within a short while Thomas Allen had established a widely ranging recorded repertoire, almost from the beginning - Wagner in Boito's Mefistofele, in Orffs Carmina Burana with André Previ ? and the London Symphony Orchestra and in Sir Colin Davis's second recording of Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ. Following his successes at Welsh National Opera, and his acclaimed appearances elsewhere, Thomas Allen was ready to make his debut at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, which he did in 1971 as Donald in Billy Budd, and in January of this year he celebrated his 40 years as a principal at Covent Garden by returning once more to the role of Don Alfonso. He had sang this role in the first staging of the current production in 1995, repeating it in 1998 at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and in 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2010 at the Opera House. In this issue of Musical Opinion, Margaret Davies writes approvingly: 'with one shining exception - Sir Thomas Allen - approaching his 300th assumption of the role of the scheming Don Alfonso' in her notice of the revival, demonstrating that Sir Thomas (he was knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 1999) has lost none of his superb vocal powers, his dramatic stage presence and what Jonathan Miller - as quoted left - described as his 'electrical potential' when appearing on stage, Miller continuing: 'he is an outstandingly accomplished stage presence whether he is singing or not. He brings a subtlety and finesse that is almost unprecedented. I've often tried to persuade him to take non-speaking parts and think he'd be wonderful in Chekhov' When the time comes for Sir Thomas eventually to retire from singing publicly, one may hope for Dr Miller's suggestions to be realised. …

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