Interview Man about the House

By Michael Henderson talks to Sir Thomas Allen, who is celebrating 40 years | The Spectator, February 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Interview Man about the House


Michael Henderson talks to Sir Thomas Allen, who is celebrating 40 years, The Spectator


They are lighting the candles at Covent Garden to honour one of the great singers of our age. Thomas Allen (as he was then) first appeared on the stage of the Royal Opera House in 1972, as Donald in Billy Budd, when Benjamin Britten was alive and his opera not nearly so highly thought of as it is today. This month he returns as a long-standing knight of the realm and, so far as our major house is concerned, a monarch to boot.

He may have been born a commoner in County Durham 68 years ago but the baritone's stellar international reputation granted him regal status many moons ago, particularly in the great Mozart roles.

For years he was the first-choice Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva at every major house in the world, and it will surprise few opera buffs that his 40th anniversary treat is the scheming Don Alfonso in Cosi fan tutte, a role he virtually owns.

If there is room on the cake, the baker can add another candle because, last autumn, Allen was appointed Chancellor of Durham University, initially for five years.

For a lad who grew up down the road in Seaham Harbour, before he took up a place at the Royal College of Music, this is a signal honour.

'It gives me an immense sense of pride, ' he says, 'but a greater sense of humility. The history and culture of the north-east has always been important to me, and now it has renewed its significance in my life.'

In many ways Allen's is a classic postwar tale, that of the grammar school boy who got on, thanks to a native talent and the far-sightedness of his teachers. Indeed, Lee Hall's ballet dancer, Billy Elliot, is supposed to be based, loosely, on the singer's young life. Those tales are less numerous than they used to be but then there are fewer grammar schools than there once were. There's a lesson there. Also, social habits have changed.

The institutions that developed where men did hard physical work - the orchestras, the brass bands, the choirs - are fewer.

How many students from Durham villages, one wonders, did the RCM enrol last September?

The gift of singing opened Allen's ears.

A career in singing opened his eyes. This is a man who read Byron's 'Don Juan' as he immersed himself in Mozart's musical portrait of the character, and who never misses an opportunity to visit the great art galleries of the cities he works in. 'I like carving wood, painting, and I sometimes write. As Chance l lor of Durham Un ivers ity, I shall have to write. And look good in the robes!'

Years ago, speaking of the way in which many people now respond to the world around them, and take their pleasures for granted, without proper thought or appreciation, he said, 'Our senses have become diminished.' Prompted, he offers an example of what he meant.

'In about 1986, I was in Prague for some concerts, singing the German Requiem of Brahms. The place was packed, and for an hour and 20 minutes nobody moved. I remember a man sitting in the front row - he had a handkerchief in his lap - and he sat there, utterly absorbed. It struck me at the time that we had lost something. …

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