Durham University’s new chancellor, the renowned opera singer Sir Thomas Allen, found time whilst directing Scottish Opera in ‘The Barber of Seville’ to talk to our writer, Jonathan Penny.
You studied at the Royal College of Music in London. Did you have a family tradition of higher education?
No, not at all – the opportunities just weren’t there for them. I think I had a cousin who went to study at Newcastle, but I was definitely the first to go into the arts.
So would your parents be particularly proud to hear about your recent appointment?
There’s not a word to describe how they’d feel. My parents’ generation was one which was naturally very respectful towards authority and establishment, almost deferential in fact. They were always incredibly supportive and proud of my success during their lifetime, and I can only imagine that they’d be dumbstruck at this news.
Do you have a favourite area in County Durham?
[He laughs] If you start at the mouth of the Tees, and work your way up to the mouth of the Tweed – everything in between there. It’s not all beautiful, but the North East is very special to me and always has been. I just love coming home and filling my lungs with the air up there. In fact, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
What about local sport?
I’ve always been a Sunderland supporter. I used to be there every Saturday at Roker Park, but I don’t go very often any more. I just can’t justify in my head the amount of money that changes hands in the Premier League.
What was your route into music?
I was never much use as a treble but once my voice had broken I was very much involved with my school’s choir. We didn’t have an orchestra but I used to play the organ at school and eventually took some singing lessons. I was originally going to study medicine but that changed when I realised that music was potentially a viable career for me.
As a child, did you have any experience of the city of Durham – as a performer or not?
Not as a performer. I definitely have a memory of visiting the cathedral and sitting in the choir stalls to listen to evensong – was almost certainly the first time I’d been to evensong. The organist then was Conrad Eden, and just being able to sit so close to this well-drilled choir was a completely new experience to me – light years away from anything I‘d experienced previously. The main problem for us was money, and the fact that orchestras like the LSO just didn’t go anywhere near the North East. There was a very good amateur scene at the time, though.
Were you involved in that amateur music-making as you grew up?
Well initially, there was a little concert party in Houghton which used to trot out this local lad on occasion. When I got a bit older, I joined the Bishopwearmouth Choral Society in Sunderland which was a great experience. I remember two of the first works we sang: Bach’s St Matthew Passion, with Christus sung by Hervey Alan who went on to be my teacher at the Royal College, and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, with Janet Baker as the Angel. It was fantastic to get to know this core repertoire before I went to study in London, which turned out to be a bit of a baptism by fire – I remember singing Tippett’s Child of our Time and the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms.
Did you have a musical idol as a youngster, and do you now?
[Without hesitation] Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. From an early age, I have had such admiration for him. Many tastes change as you get older, but that one never has for me – he is simply a master in every genre he approaches. As any performer, though, you have to be careful not to emulate your idols to the point of trying to be just like them! I’ve actually been asked to give a recital for Fischer-Dieskau next year: he’s being awarded some sort of Bavarian lifetime achievement award, and in my capacity as Kammersänger at the Bayerisches Staatsoper I’ve been asked to perform. Have you any idea how daunting that is?! It will be a bit like a musicians’ Nobel prize. I’ve been asked to sing some of his repertoire, so Schubert and Wolf will probably feature, and I will be complementing that with some French and English songs.
You are obviously not afraid of singing ‘songs from the shows’, for example, your performance at the Last Night of the Proms in 2004. Would you disagree with the notion that people either sing classical music or ‘light’ music?
Absolutely! I loathe the term ‘crossover’. I think the difficulty comes when a singer assumes that they can sing anything in ‘their’ style – so an opera singer should not perform a Gershwin song as though it were Wagner. As a musician, you have to completely understand the style and be very respectful of the composer’s wishes. I often include in my recitals songs by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Gershwin, Jerome Kern – I believe that a big musical number is every bit as demanding as an operatic aria. Singers have to have the courage to simply do justice to the music, and that also means backing off where necessary. One of my favourite songs is Jerome Kern’s ‘The Folks Who Live On The Hill’, but if I sang it like something from La Traviata that would be a disaster! It’s all about really understanding the music and being tasteful.
Many people see opera as a genre which is ‘elitist’. What would you say to interest those people in your passion?
[Angrily] First of all, I think that’s a ridiculous notion. I saw my first opera in the Sunderland Empire and that wasn’t elitist or expensive, let me tell you! Obviously I hope to change this perception, although I’m not going to walk around banging a drum about it. Music is everywhere nowadays, but at the same time people seem to lack the inbuilt understanding of music which used to be so common – families no longer stand round the piano and sing together. Because of the misconception that opera is stuffy and boring, it is difficult to persuade people to see where it is coming from. I was doing a workshop in a school, and we got the children to run around in the gym whilst singing. That’s an opera – movement and sound. I then told them a story about a sailor and sang some of Billy Budd, and because I didn’t say that it was an opera, or complicated music by Britten, or inaccessible or anything else, they were captivated and loved it. Opera has a lot of natural barriers, the language being one, but these just need to be ignored. I just wish the government would see how important opera is and give it the support it needs.
A personal favourite of mine is your 1990 recording of Vaughan Williams ‘Five Mystical Songs’. For someone who has never listened to your work, what would you call your ‘essential recording’?
I don’t know what to say to that, really. Sticking with Vaughan Williams, one disc that many different people have told me is a favourite is his ‘Songs of Travel’ in the orchestrated version, which I recorded with Sir Simon Rattle and the CBSO in the ’80s. [He adds modestly] It’s probably because it’s such terrific poetry.
I know that you are very much involved with the Samling Foundation, which does fantastic work for young musicians. Do you think there is scope for a link between your charity work and your new position?
That would be interesting – there’s no reason whatsoever why there shouldn’t be. It could be very productive; what I’ve found is that the sort of work we do at Samling can show students from institutions which are not so practical-based what it is like to do a masterclass of the highest level.
Do you hope to get involved on a practical level with the musical scene here at Durham, either in singing or directing?
These are very early days at the moment, and I am just testing the water – I would hate to be seen to be hogging the concert platform and interfering. But to be honest, I’m itching to get involved with the musical groups, either through masterclasses or more informal advice sessions. It’s just a question of time, but I absolutely do.
Our last three chancellors have been Bill Bryson, Peter Ustinov and Dame Margot Fonteyn. How does it feel to follow in their footsteps?
Very difficult. Especially Margot Fonteyn, as she was en pointe most of the time! Seriously though, I’m very aware of how successful and popular Bill Bryson has been, but I’m not trying to emulate what others have done; I just hope I can do the University justice, and make myself available without getting in the way.
The student ratio here at Durham seems very biased towards those from the south of England. As you grew up in County Durham and are now acting as an ambassador to the University, will you be keen to promote it to people from the North East?
Absolutely. I understand that the University is very popular to people from London and the south, and obviously I do know the local area and so will naturally be promoting Durham as a successful centre for academic excellence to anyone who’ll listen to me.
What would you say if you had to send a message to current and future students of the University?
I think it’d be, don’t panic! You’ve got an opera star coming into your midst – not a wild animal. I’d ask that people forget any preconceptions about what I do: I’m just a normal guy from 12 miles down the road. I’m very approachable and I’m looking forward to meeting you all and working together.
To see and hear our new Chancellor in action:
A rendition of the Irish folk song, She moved thro’ the fair
If you’d like to see Sir Thomas perform in the flesh, he is a guest performer at the Cathedral Choir’s ‘Carols of Light’ on 6th December. Tickets available from 0871 911 1973.