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SEEN AND HEARD INTERVIEW
Singing, Acting and the Mathematics of Performing: Sir Thomas Allen, the Royal Opera’s next Gianni Schicchi in conversation with Mark Berry(MB)
Sir Thomas Allen - Picture © Sussie Ahlberg
Sir Thomas Allen, who is shortly to appear as Gianni Schicchi for the Royal Opera, kindly agreed to speak to me at the Royal Opera House before crossing Covent Garden to St Paul’s Church for Peter Glossop’s memorial service. I thanked him for coming and asked him about the forthcoming season at Covent Garden.
Puccini, Gianni Schicchi
MB: The role with which we are immediately concerned is that of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, one of three – three roles across the repertoire, I should add, rather than three Puccini roles – that you will be taking on for the Royal Opera season. Is that right?
TA: Are there? I’m trying to think. I have Faninal coming up. What is the other one?
MB: Isn’t there also Prosdocimo in Il turco in Italia?
TA: Yes, of course, you’re absolutely right. Some time in the spring we start rehearsals for that. I tend not to think of when we’re doing it as to where I’ll be when I’m really starting work on a role. I’ll be in Dallas for that.
MB: A Turk in Texas then?
TA: Yes, quite.
MB: Let’s start with the Puccini role then. How would you characterise that for someone who doesn’t know it, which I imagine might be a good part of the audience
TA: Working from the inside out, from a performance point of view, it’s joyful, for all of us really. When you look at Dante which was the source material for Forzano, there’s nothing there: there’s a reference to a man, Gianni Schicchi, and a hint of the incident this is about, but then they develop this less-than-an-hour-long piece into a work of what I think is absolute genius.
MB: So it comes from absolutely nowhere then?
TA: Absolutely nowhere. The hint is in Cantos XXV and XXX, I think, a brief reference, that’s it. In many ways, if anybody knows Priestley’s domestic dramas or maybe even Alan Ayckbourn’s domestic dramas, they can transfer that to the opera. You have a similar thing with Albert Herring, for example: Albert is unsuited to the role that befalls him. And then there is another vision of life, with the Donati family: the death of the old man of the family, the patriarch. His will is not to the liking of the voracious members of his family; they are all particular types, types we all know. When there’s a tragedy in a family, it’s amazing how it always brings out the worst in people. Prior to this happening, clearly whoever Gianni Schicchi is, whether he’s a garage mechanic or a bus conductor or whatever, he has been something of a thorn in society’s flesh, in his family’s flesh. There’s some history there. Nevertheless, he’s the factotum of the area, the one who can sort out the problem for them. And he watches their vulture-like attitudes as to what they want, deciding to teach them a lesson once and for all, to turn the tables on them as a notary, after which of course nothing can be done. It’s a wonderful lesson in human nature really: just don’t be greedy.
MB: I haven’t seen the production yet; I didn’t see it the first time around. How would you describe it?
TA: Well, quite simply, I think Richard [Jones] has looked at life and at all the truths that lie within this piece – and there are many. The thing about this piece is there’s not a note of spare music within it; everything Puccini wrote is saying something. It’s beautifully crafted drama with the music, and in that way it’s perfect.
MB: Everything’s there for a reason?
TA: Absolutely. It’s a perfect little masterpiece, a gem of an opera.
MB: And how do you find it goes with the Ravel work [L’Heure Espagnole]?
TA: Well, it’s a standard coupling, a regular coupling, and I think it works very well. In fact, at this stage of my career, I’m close to the beginning of my relationship with this work, so my experience is limited. And the thing is that, in the many years of my association with Covent Garden, this opera, I think I’m right in saying, has never cropped up – nigh on forty years.
MB: So it’s about time then, really?
TA: Well, you know, there’d have been no shortage of candidates for the roles. Why it was overlooked, I simply have no idea.
MB: These things sometimes acquire almost a negative impetus of their own, I suppose, in that, because it hasn’t been done for some time, it’s not always the most obvious thing to do.
TA: Yes, and then an artist arrives on the scene and is the catalyst for one role or another, or an opera. It was like that for me for Billy Budd. In the early days of singing Billy Budd, the early ‘70s and onwards, you felt that you were carrying out some sort of an evangelical campaign, missionary work. Now, it’s accepted in Germany and America, of course, it’s performed much more than anyone might have imagined.
MB: I noticed a little while ago, it’s even recently been done in Vienna. Donald Runnicles, I think, was conducting it. I don’t think Vienna has been a natural home for Britten.
TA: No, there are of course so many historic riches in Vienna, but it’s nice to hear that they are becoming more adventurous.
MB: Well, I suppose you can fill the house of the Staatsoper every night with Rosenkavalier or Figaro there, and the tourists will love it.
TA: And there are also the atonal groups from the city.
MB: I saw a marvellous Moses und Aron there a while ago, under Daniele Gatti.
TA: So the whole place is very rich, without necessarily having felt a need to delve into Britten. I’m delighted to hear this though.
Faninal in Der Rosenkavalier, other Strauss, and Beckmesser
MB: Speaking of Rosenkavalier, the second of your roles here this season is Faninal. Have you done this at Covent Garden before?
TA: No, no, I haven’t done it anywhere before. So whilst I’m doing Gianni Schicchi and giving that my all during the day, in between, over lunch, and in the evening, I’m working on Faninal. Well, I like crosswords and riddles, and puzzles of all sorts, and I find Faninal falls into that category. It’s very much a miniature version of Beckmesser. It’s a different character but the mathematics of it are not dissimilar. The character, however, is a sort of Arthur Lowe figure, which I have to work at, because I’m not an Arthur Lowe figure, so I have to find another way in. He’s a little nouveau riche man.
MB: Indeed, so you can see where Sophie is coming from.
TA: Yes, her home and what she’s had to put up with.
MB: And that he would actually hand her over to Ochs. That would be the making of the family.
TA: Yes, to have that name attached to the family, that would be everything he would require, notwithstanding the fact that she would be utterly miserable in the hands of this grotesque creature.
MB: Of course that doesn’t matter: in that sort of society, one doesn’t marry for love.
TA: ’Twas ever thus.
MB: How about other Strauss? I remember seeing you as the Music Master in Ariadne. Has Strauss otherwise figured largely in your career?
TA: I wouldn’t say largely. I’ve sung a lot of Strauss in orchestral concerts but there’s always been a smattering of it in opera too. I’ve managed to avoid Salome, any of the main intriguers in that, and Jokanaan was never for me. My history, my experience in opera, started in this place, Covent Garden, with a performance of Bohème. Preceding that was Arabella, with Fischer-Dieskau and Lisa della Casa. From that moment, I thought: Fischer-Dieskau is who I want to be. If I can’t be him, I’ll try and emulate him, which I did for rather too long, perhaps. But I had no idea quite how brilliant he was in that role of Mandryka until I had to sing it myself, because it’s so fiendishly difficult.
MB: Yes, very difficult, and so unsparing.
TA: Yes, very unsparing: that’s the hard part of it. Once you arrive, with your forests and your mines and everything else, this big bear of a man, there’s very little let-up. It’s glorious but at the same time perilous. I sang it on only two occasions, which was a little mistake on my part really, I think. I sang it with the Bayerische Staatsoper under Sawallisch and I would really love to have taken it away again after that; there was far too little rehearsing for someone like me, new to the part.
MB: So it was in repertory in Munich, presumably?
TA: We were actually in Japan. And it didn’t go well: I wasn’t at all happy with it. But you can’t do a piece like that on two or three rehearsals. So that was one of my big regrets, though you’ll always have some regrets over a career. There have also been a number of Musiklehrers though – and that is enormously satisfying.
MB: I imagine it must be rather fun too.
TA: It is, yes, once you’ve worked it all out. And it is often the baritone’s lot, to be the killjoy for someone or other. But he also stands as a kind of father figure to the Komponist, saying, ‘Just remember, young man, never mind art, you’ve got to make a living out of this.’
MB: Yes, a reminder we all sometimes need.
TA: You feel the professional musician coming out of him there. Thinking of the character, thinking of who this man is, it’s rather helpful to think of him rather like Beckmesser in a way: the kind of person who would love to have been there himself and had that sort of success, but now has to do so in a secondary manner, to help his student.
MB: Rather like my own experience of teaching, it can be a wonderful thing to help, even in a small way, someone to succeed.
TA: It is wonderful. I shouldn’t really mention this, since I have six granddaughters and it would be unfair on the other five, but one of them, even from a very early age, I remember thinking: ‘Oh God, you’re already cleverer than me, much, much cleverer.’
MB: And she’s only going to get better.
TA: Yes, that’s what Beckmesser has to realise in life.
MB: And of course, one of the worst ways to portray Beckmesser is a caricature rather than a character. That just isn’t interesting.
TA: There’s such a lot to think about, who you are on stage, what makes him tick. That’s when opera becomes tricky: it’s not just about the music, but the words, which of course Wagner himself wrote so brilliantly. And it’s very tricky. You try to eliminate some of the problems and pitfalls by just being that person, completely understanding the nature of that person, and then you kind of feel that that can take care of itself. So whatever you do is that person but not yourself. Sixtus is doing that.
MB: With both Wagner and with Hofmannsthal, one is dealing with very sophisticated language.
TA: Yes, it is very much so. But the other thing, just going back to the Musiklehrer, is that you see he is there to encourage. The text that you hear coming from the Komponist, referring to Kunst, to heilige Kunst, he’s hearing that for the first time perhaps, but is inspired by the way that it comes out of the Komponist’s mouth. For him, that gives a lot of satisfaction, and I think that shows his own generosity. It’s not envy there; he’s willing that young man forward. That’s a wonderful thing to be aware of.
MB: And the reference, of course, to ‘heilige Kunst’ must surely have resonances with Meistersinger.
TA: Yes, the only thing missing is the word ‘deutsche’.
MB: ... which is probably just assumed. Thinking of things that are deutsch, do you find you approach German and Italian repertoire in different ways, or are they simply too broad categories to be helpful?
TA: I’ve no idea. Yes, I do have an idea, but how best to answer it? The business of studying and memorising a role is always interesting. Once you’ve learned the notes, what you are calling on is the entire culture of a city, a region, whatever you have remembered and which is in your own experience. So if I am studying Gianni Schicchi, as I was last year, singing it for the first time, I am observing whatever is going on around me and trying to incorporate that into what I do on stage. Life going on, in the marketplace, in the streets, everywhere, it all informs your understanding of a role. You have to answer to that as well as to the music and to everything you learned for three, four, or five years in a conservatoire. If you’re in Munich, you’re going to try to understand the people, how they use that language, the palette they use. So whether in Munich or wherever else it might be, I’m sponging off whatever I can.
Mozart, especially Così fan tutte
MB: I suppose in Mozart, one gets both, in the language and in the music.
TA: Yes. And in most cases, you’re dealing with a different period as well, which is very important. The texts to any of the three Da Ponte operas are brilliant, and Da Ponte doesn’t get enough credit. It’s all very well Mozart writing what he wrote, but in the role of Don Alfonso, where you don’t even have an aria, and indeed in any of the roles within those operas, there’s a great deal of recitative, and it depends on the success of the recitative how successful the projection of the character and what happens is going to be.
MB: It often surprises me, even though I know there is no aria there for Don Alfonso, that I have learned so much about him and then realise once again that he hasn’t sung an aria.
TA: Yes, well that shows that you don’t need an aria. Singers sometimes take the attitude, ‘I’m not interested in that role, because there isn’t an aria...’
MB: No glory to be had...
TA: Yes, no glory to be had. Life isn’t quite as simple as that; it’s more interesting.
MB: Thinking of Don Alfonso, I saw you here but I also saw you in the Herrmanns’ production in Salzburg, which I really liked. I thought it was extremely beautiful. It was a work of art in itself; its artifice really suited the work.
TA: It was and it did. It’s amazing how lacking in insight some people are when reporting on these things, the journalists reviewing it and so on. I suppose we’d better describe what we’re talking about here. The Grosses Festspielhaus is very, very wide. You do have to pace that out, just to get from one side of the stage to the other, to cover it. And then Karl-Ernst Herrmann designed a badminton game; then it became a fencing match, so you were ostensibly in a gymnasium. This was on that vast, stainless steel surface, with an egg and the real harpsichord and harpsichordist on stage. Don’t question it. It’s a painting. He’s a designer and he’s given me many drawings, which I’m delighted and privileged to have. He’s an artist and we worked within the particular picture that he created. There are something wonderful things in that production. And that magical moment in the second act of Così when, left on their own, we see the wronged couples and Fiordiligi says, ‘Oh, che bella giornata!’ tentatively. Indeed, it really was a bella giornata. They were standing under a great big sunshade, with, behind them, the most wonderful colour that had been found by the lighting designer man. And the cloth that ran behind, sometimes it was a long, extended copse, sometimes it was like a sea.
MB: It put me in mind of the paintings of Magritte. This was a very visual Così, I thought, a very painterly vision.
TA: I liked it. Odd, weird, wonderful things happened in it. It was fun over several years.
MB: With, I think, quite a change in cast – and a turnover of conductors.
TA: Simon Rattle, first of all.
MB: Yes, at the Easter Festival, wasn’t it?
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras
TA: Yes. Then it was shared with the summer festival. You know, we were really struggling, having to go from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Vienna Philharmonic... That was a hard life!
MB: Absolutely. I know it’s a cliché, but almost whenever I hear the Vienna Philharmonic play Mozart, I think that one has never heard Mozart until it’s been played by that orchestra.
TA: It’s extraordinary. It’s like a silvery veil, somehow. You never have to push through. It’s wonderful singing with those musicians. And when you look into the orchestra occasionally, finding yourself intrigued by the beauty of the sounds, you see the string players leaning towards you, listening and accompanying. Even better than that, in a way, was when we first did it with Simon’s Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. We did it in Salzburg first and then took it for two concert performances to Berlin. What happened here was that he wanted a lot of decoration, a lot of ornamentation and what have you: not to everyone’s taste, but it’s what, these days, is more or less de rigueur. And so, in the second act and particularly in the ensembles, we found various extemporisations going on, which were copied by an orchestra listening to what the singers were doing, and then developed. It was the most jazz-like Mozart I have ever experienced.
MB: Mozart as a jam session then?
TA: Yes, exactly. In Salzburg and Berlin, this was wonderful.
MB: Were the extemporisations worked out before at all?
TA: No, they were just done there and then, more or less. Of course, they didn’t involve me really; they were much more for the ladies.
MB: But you could enjoy them?
TA: Yes, I enjoyed them enormously. And the other part of the relationship between singers and orchestras that was much closer than I had experienced before was spending time with each other in Salzburg, eating Apfelstrudel together and so on: much better than I’d ever experienced.
MB: I can’t quite imagine that under Karajan.
TA: It didn’t always happen, put it that way.
MB: Did you ever sing for Karajan?
TA: I sang for him. I did a memorable audition for him. He offered me the earth afterwards, including a production of Trovatore, which I told him I didn’t sing. I’d auditioned for Un ballo in maschera, Faust, the St Matthew Passion, all kinds of stuff, and he wanted me to do Trovatore. He said, ‘You will do Trovatore,’ and I said, ‘I won’t do Trovatore for anybody.’
MB: ‘Not even you...’
TA: So we didn’t do anything. Nothing actually happened. And then we were to do Figaro together in Salzburg, a new Figaro and, rather inconveniently, he died. So yes, I did meet him, and it was – well, it had to be memorable.
MB: Another Salzburg role of yours I’ve seen, on video of course, is Ulisse in Henze’s realisation of the Monteverdi opera. I think it’s a marvellous realisation, so full of Mediterranean colour.
TA: That’s true. But what a lot of people didn’t realise was that it’s pre-Christian.
MB: Indeed, it’s pagan, the world of The Bassarids.
TA: And you feel that the other versions, correct as they may be with the instruments of the day, you felt that they were coming out of the Vatican somehow. We were in Greece, in antiquity.
MB: It’s very sensual.
TA: And it didn’t by any means gain approval from those used to Harnoncourt. I certainly remember there were many early music specialists there that year, who were there for other productions, who were appalled by it. Well, we just disagreed, basically.
MB: I’ve never understood the insistence that there can only be one way to do something: it seems to me to go against the openness of art and artistic experience. More like the Taliban...
TA: Nor do I understand it. I’ve done that particular role in various forms, the first occasion that one, which had a huge orchestra, with no high strings...
MB: ... a very interesting sound, of course...
MB: And earthbound, the earth of antiquity, I think.
TA: And we had all sorts of strange instruments: bouzoukis, electric guitar, mandolin, various percussion instruments... It made for a very interesting sound.
MB: Have you done it with period instruments too then?
TA: Otherwise, I’ve done it with six recorders and harpsichord in Pierre Audi’s production, which we did in Los Angeles a few years ago. It was wonderful: very spare and skeletal. I loved it; it was hugely satisfying. I absolutely adore Ulisse; it’s such a wonderful story. I’m not a Monteverdi specialist or an early music specialist, but I delve into it every now and then when it suits. The other one was in Munich, in David Alden’s production, which was usually under Ivor Bolton, with early instruments in the orchestra. And I loved that one: weird and wonderful, and people would wonder why. You’d speak to David about it and find a mind full of very strange imagery, at times no great reason or logic.
MB: But if it works, it works.
TA: Yes. The beach upon which Ulysses is washed becomes a sort of subway station in New York and he’s on a waiting-room bench, a bit of a hobo. It’s wonderful. We brought it to Wales, of course.
MB: And it’s such an interesting work.
TA: It’s marvellous. I’m working at the moment with Elena Zilio, who is Zita in Gianni Schicchi. She and I were both in this production in Munich. It has wonderful memories for us all; it’s one of those things you always hark back to. Special, strange, but very special.
MB: And Penelope is an extraordinary character. Again, of course, I only know this from video, but it seemed to me to be a role made for Janet Baker, in Raymond Leppard’s wonderful Glyndebourne rendition.
TA: Yes. I never did it with Janet, and I don’t think I saw her at Glyndebourne, but I saw Flicka do it, Frederica von Stade. And Flicka’s just one of those people that everyone loves. She’s one of the most lovely people that ever walked God’s Earth. And I don’t mind it going round the world that I said that; I love her dearly, a wonderful girl. To be on stage with her, she had that wonderful – what the Germans call Ausstrahlung, radiance. But she has that deep sense of tragedy in her eyes. You can see the pain and feel it with her.
Covent Garden, different opera houses, colleagues, and travelling
MB: Just looking around here, this house, in which Faninal, I am told, will be your fiftieth role, must be very special to you. How much do you find that opera houses operate differently and require different ways of working?
TA: Yes, this place is very special. And of course one of the most important things in any house is the way you are received, the way you are welcomed, once you are through security, which happens everywhere now. The welcome means such a lot. And also the way they are laid out matters. In Chicago, once you’ve got past security, the office is there: you see everyone that’s involved, everyone who’s going to run your life for the next two months or so. You say, ‘Hello again, looking forward to it,’ and it begins like that. In Munich, you have to go to the top floor and find out where you are, but again it works for me. They all have their different styles and they’re all very special. We’re all part of an international musical family. It’s wonderful while you’re part of it, and I’m well aware that there will be a day, and sometimes there has already been a day, when I won’t see my colleagues any more: they’re staying at home now, their careers are over. I might see them adjudicating but the chances of seeing one another again are probably remote.
MB: It sounds poignant.
TA: It is poignant. It’s strange because people say that you have so many friends around the world, but no you don’t. You have a lot of acquaintances and some of them are friends. It’s a very false environment, translating our home from London or New York or wherever it might be, to wherever it has to be for the next period of work. We’re just gypsies basically.
MB: Or people decide not to travel so much. Fischer-Dieskau didn’t work in many houses outside Germany, I think.
TA: Well, there was a wonderful system in operation in Germany. He came here for Arabella, which was wonderfully successful. He came for Falstaff and it wasn’t successful; he never came back. He didn’t think there was any reason why he should. And he was probably right. Tastes do vary. We’d had Gobbi here as Falstaff, and Geraint Evans, and Peter Glossop; his Falstaff would have been something entirely different: a different temperament, a different environment, a different approach, and a different taste. It’s the same with someone like Edita Gruberová. I’ve known Edita since 1973, when we were at Glyndebourne together; she was then a young artist in the Vienna company. And she’s had a magnificent career, which continues, but we’ve seldom seen her here, seldom in America. She’s content to have had her career in Germany and Switzerland.
MB: A celebrated Zerbinetta in Ariadne of course.
TA: Oh yes, absolutely, but to a privileged few.
MB: Yes, you have to travel if you want to hear her. Coming back to this special place, Covent Garden, you’ve performed so many roles here, under a great deal of conductors, but also a number of music directors, going back at least to Colin Davis.
TA: Well, I started off with Colin Davis, right at the end of Solti’s regime here. Then there was Bernard [Haitink] and now Tony [Pappano] of course. Bernard I worked first with in 1973 at Glyndebourne: the same time I met Edita Gruberová. We did Zauberflöte together. And I’m shortly to see him in Chicago, with the Symphony Orchestra, to do some concerts, so it’s a long association with him.
MB: You sang at his farewell gala here, didn’t you?
TA: Yes, I did: Beckmesser.
MB: What you are singing in Chicago?
TA: I’m not; I’m speaking. We’re doing a version of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is a version with some narration, so I’m going to be a narrator, and I’m going to be Puck and Titania, as well as Helena and Hermia, and just about everybody else.
MB: So you’re adding a good number of roles then.
TA: Yes, I am, though I’m not sure I’ll have them all in my head at once. It’s varied. What I like about my life is that it’s like mathematics and applied mathematics: I’ve done all the mathematics and can now do the applied mathematics. Now I have the fun business, where all sorts of other benefits accrue.
Spoken theatre and opera
MB: Given the Shakespeare in Chicago, have you ever thought about or even done spoken theatre?
TA: I’ve done two or three American musicals and recorded some. People have approached me. The theatre is my first love really and I’m interested in almost anything. Again, I’m just fascinated with the whole thing; it’s about actors inhabiting a role, how they do that, the whole process. I’ve just been reading something from the London Library about J.B. Priestley, which reminded me how much I loved seeing When We Are Married, An Inspector Calls. I’m fascinated by the whole world. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but the trouble is, once you have a musical career, it’s very difficult to combine it with anything else, such as straight theatre. You do one or you do the other. I had this silly ambition at one stage of singing Beckmesser one night and playing Malvolio the next.
MB: Because he really is Malvolio, isn’t he?
TA: Absolutely, I thought that would be a lovely juxtaposition.
MB: I must go back to look at Cosima’s Diaries, to see whether Wagner makes that connection himself. He might well do, given how much he loved Shakespeare.
TA: I carry a torch for the theatre, but it probably won’t ever work.
MB: Who knows?
TA: You’re quite right, who knows. Jonathan Miller talks about it; Peter Hall has talked about it to me at some length. And it has cropped up on occasion. I might have to content myself to enjoying it from the other side, being a punter. The other thing about it is that there is that much more leeway. What you become aware of in an opera house or in an operatic environment, operatic life, is the discipline. You don’t think about it on a daily basis but you look back on it: what discipline you’ve lived with, for so long, the discipline of finding the voice every day, the best voice you can, all the time, the quality of tone, and there’s no let-up. That’s what you have to do. Whether you’re successful or otherwise is dependent entirely upon that.
MB: And, in terms of being on stage, you are being directed by a conductor in a way for which there is no equivalent in the spoken theatre at all.
TA: Exactly. That’s why it’s lovely to do something like Zauberflöte, where you have a little bit of dialogue. Just to throw off the shackles, briefly. That’s why I enjoyed doing, Sweeney Todd here, some years ago; you enter into another world. But there’s a way of doing it in a piece like the one I’m doing at the moment, Gianni Schicchi. If you’re inventive, all of this satisfaction can be had from an operatic role. That’s what I’m endeavouring to do, really.
© Mark Berry
The Royal Opera’s double bill of Gianni Schicchi and L’Heure Espagnole runs from 17 to 28 October. Seen and Heard will review performances under two different conductors, Antonio Pappano (Jim Pritchard) and Paul Wynne Griffiths (Mark Berry).