Sir Thomas Allen has enjoyed a distinguished career on the operatic stage, making his professional debut with Welsh National Opera in 1968. Next month, he returns to Covent Garden as Don Alfonso, at the cynical centre of Così fan tutte. Yet he’s divided his time between treading the boards and the concert platform, being one of our most experienced Lieder recitalists. Latterly, he has turned to directing too, and it was in the midst of rehearsals for his production of Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal College of Music that we caught up to talk about the art of song.

Sir Thomas Allen © Sussie Ahlburg
Sir Thomas Allen
© Sussie Ahlburg

How important was song to you, growing up in County Durham?

It didn’t impact like a Damascene moment that strikes some people. Growing up in County Durham in the 1940s and 50s, you didn’t have aspirations to be an international opera singer. It was usually just about avoiding the pit! But I did hear a lot of song, not French chansons or German Lieder, but traditional songs and ballads. My father was a very enthusiastic amateur musician so I got to hear a lot of the local singers.

Kathleen Ferrier’s recording of Blow the wind southerly was an enormous vinyl hit.

When I was at sixth form, I studied Chemistry and Biology and Physics which allowed us to spend our lunchtimes in the biology prep lab. We’d brew coffee and drink it from chemistry beakers and things like that. We didn’t smoke gauloises but it was the next thing down the line! I remember one lunchtime we had a specific discussion on the qualities of Kathleen Ferrier’s voice. Elvis Presley was around then and The Beatles were beginning to emerge, but for some of us it was about whether you liked the plummy qualities of her contralto or not.

When you were at the Royal College of Music, how much focus was there on Lieder?

A lot. I studied Dichterliebe and then nosed my way into Winterreise but thought it was too advanced for me at the time and I didn’t get much beyond Der Lindenbaum. I remember a masterclass where I sang Brahms for Nadia Boulanger when she came to the college. Lieder was an important part of my development.

There’s a big bone of contention here regarding language. In my studies, there was a requirement for vocal students to study either Italian or German in the first year, after which it was an option… but I don’t think that it should be an option. Languages should be part and parcel of learning to become a singer. Being students, of course, we opted out as quickly as we could!

Which languages are the most difficult to master?

German comes quite easily because the Teutonic language and the Teutonic people are so ordered in their arrangement of grammar and syntax that it fell nicely into place. I loved learning French at school, but it’s always the language one doesn’t have at one’s fingertips which are the most difficult which makes something like Russian much harder. You have to learn the cyrillic script and then become as acquainted with the language as possible.

Who were your Lieder heroes?

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was an extraordinary phenomenon. The first recordings I bought of his – Brahms Lieder and Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin – were from an electric goods store in Sunderland when I was about 16! He made a terrific impact. Yes, there were tricks, lots of tricks. I learnt from an engineer at Deutsche Grammophon that there was a microphone placed very close that allowed him to do some of these sotto voce effects but that’s not to deny that, in the right repertoire, it was very telling. For many people though, myself included, it could be a little detached and cool.

Sometimes I prefer what Hermann Prey does. Occasionally he is a bit wayward with pronunciation or whatever, but he brings a human quality to his interpretations. And then there was Hans Hotter. He terrified the living daylights out of me when I met him! He was such a tremendous, overwhelming figure with an almost asthmatic breathing technique – you could feel the breath being taken or the hauling up of the voice from the depths of somewhere.It was very instructive listening to him.

When is the ideal age for a young baritone to start even thinking about Winterreise?

I don’t think there is any hard and fast rule. Fischer-Dieskau sang it when he was a prisoner-of-war when he was about 20 – an alarming thought. But then, he was an unusual man with an unusual background. To be as culturally aware as he was at that stage in his life in those circumstances was remarkable. Everybody has to put their foot down somewhere and take a first step on that journey. It doesn’t mean that you have to sing it in some 2000-seat auditorium which are not best suited to singing intimate Lieder. But there’s no harm giving it a try so that when you do enter deeper waters, you’ve done some preparation.

Sir Thomas Allen © Sussie Ahlburg
Sir Thomas Allen
© Sussie Ahlburg

What was your approach to learning the great Schubert cycles?

You look through the scores, particularly at the tessitura. Out of the 24 songs in Winterreise, some are ideal, there are some where you need to find bass-baritone colours, some are more in the tenor category. That was the thing that stymied me as a student; being a high lyric baritone, I didn’t know how to handle some of the lower songs. Knowing how to deal with that lower end of the range, how to dig for it, is something I’ve learnt to do.

After that: text, text,text. In a way, singing something like Gianni Schicchi has helped. The entire opera is over in 55 minutes with no time lapse whatsoever. You’re not thinking aria-recit-aria-recit… you live the whole thing in real time. Heading into Winterreise is not dissimilar. You live that journey and everything you encounter on the way – the sound of chains, dogs howling, the darkness of the town you approach, the unfriendliness of it all. It’s all there in the text and that applies as much to a Schubert song cycle as to a Mozart opera. It’s about finding how to represent the words and where they lie on the vocal palette.

You’ve been a great ambassador for English song.

I didn’t set out with a mission, it just happened that way. The challenge is not to be over pedantic in pronunciation. Knowing how to deal with the English language of Billy Budd, for example, where there are three levels of language: the officer level; the policeman level; and then the foretopman level, if you like. I can’t sing the text as Billy Budd the same way the tenor would sing Captain Vere. Treating the language intelligently is one of the challenges.

Operatic roles develop over time. Has your approach to Lieder developed similarly?

Oh, absolutely. Life experience makes all the difference! Winterreise starts out with a man looking back at the house that he’s leaving behind, the relationship that he’s leaving behind as he sets out on this journey. It embraces a journey we all have to make. For some of us, it’s hazardous, for some it’s privileged, uninterrupted by the ups and downs of life. And I think for the “artist”, you draw on all of life’s rich tapestry to inform wherever you might be – arriving at an inn where there is no room, or arriving in a graveyard and looking around. I often find myself doing sketches in graveyards, I find them fascinating places. In Central Europe, you have stone crosses and those great iron filigree ones and they can snag your coat. You can imagine someone like Casanova still snagging the girls long after he’s dead!

You’ve balanced your career between the opera stage and recital platform. What does Lieder singing bring to your operatic work (and vice versa)?

Oh that’s a very interesting subject. I started off just wanting to be an oratorio/ song singer. A singer of songs. Nobody then set out wanting to sing opera arias.

I think it’s rather like a good chef who starts off with umpteen sauces in the kitchen. Gradually, over a period of time, you distil them into what you want, so it is something that’s still evolving for me. Even now, I’m finding greater depths in songs, greater depths in the poetry. I sang Winterreise with Joe Middleton a few years ago, several performances following closely on from one another. It gave me a greater period of time than I’d been accustomed to, so I spent a lot of time every day just sitting, reading, studying and thinking, conjuring up the images in my head that I’d seen in galleries in Munich and Vienna and Berlin. It all helped me to form what I wanted to do to set me on that particular winter journey.

My Don Giovanni, for example, started out as an Errol Flynn swashbuckler forty odd years ago and, as time went on, he became someone who spent time observing things, just as Don Alfonso does in Così. He has less time to hang around than Alfonso, but it is the same process: you learn not to need to fly around the stage. It’s more a question of living in a particular moment and not worrying that you’re not doing anything. You are doing something – you’re thinking!

From the recital stage, I’ve learnt to harness the stillness that I always had and transfer it to the opera house. And the colours I’ve built from the roles that I’ve sung on stage, I can add to my palette for my song repertoire. So Lieder singing and opera work hand in hand.