Thomas Allen was born into a musical family in the mining town of Seaham Harbour, County Durham, in the north of England. Between 1955 and 1964 he attended Ryhope Grammar School, becoming head boy and excelling at sports as well as singing and playing the organ. Initially intent upon becoming a doctor, in 1964 he took up a place at the Royal College of Music, where he studied singing with Hervey Alan and later James Lockhart, and organ with Harold Darke. He graduated in 1968 with the Queen’s Prize and was offered a contract with Welsh National Opera (WNO), of which Lockhart had become musical director.
Allen made his debut with the company as d’Obigny / La traviata in 1969, the year in which he also sang in the Glyndebourne Chorus. Other roles with WNO included Almaviva / Le nozze di Figaro, Guglielmo / Cosí fan tutte, Papageno / Die Zauberflöte, Billy / Billy Budd, Onegin / Eugene Onegin and Germont père / La traviata, all of which were to feature in his later repertoire. He first appeared at Covent Garden in 1971 as Donald / Billy Budd, making an immediate impression with his fine voice and natural stage presence. From 1972 to 1978 Allen was a contracted member of the Royal Opera Company and has sung with it consistently ever since. In 1974 he created the role of the Count in the first perfomance of Thea Musgrave’s The Voice of Ariadne at the Aldeburgh Festival and from 1973 was a regular guest at the Glyndebourne Festival. Here he sang the major Mozart baritone roles, culminating in a spine-chilling realisation of the title part in Don Giovanni (1977) under the stage direction of Sir Peter Hall. In the same year he sang Almaviva at Covent Garden under Karl Böhm, whose belief in him gave Allen the confidence to embark upon a freelance career.
By the beginning of the next decade Allen had become established on the international operatic circuit. Highlights of this period included his Metropolitan debut in 1981 as Papageno, returning as Almaviva, Eisenstein / Die Fledermaus, Billy Budd (1989) and Don Alfonso / Cosí fan tutte (1996); Ulisse / Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria at the Salzburg Festival in 1985, returning as Almaviva and for a lieder recital (1987); Onegin at San Francisco and the title role in the stage premiere of Busoni’s Doktor Faust for the English National Opera in 1986; Don Giovanni at La Scala, Milan (1987), returning as Oreste in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (1992); Figaro / Il barbiere di Siviglia in Chicago and Don Giovanni at Cologne, in 1991; and Eisenstein, Don Alfonso, Ulisse and Don Giovanni at the Bavarian State Opera. His work at Covent Garden has been especially rich and varied and includes Belcore / L’elisir d’amore (1976), Wolfram / Tannhäuser (1984), the Forester / The Cunning Little Vixen (1990), the Count / Capriccio (1991), Beckmesser / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Danilo / Die lustige Witwe, Don Giovanni and Morone / Palestrina (1997), and Sweeney / Sweeney Todd (2003); as well as Ford / Falstaff, Patroclus / King Priam, Sharpless / Madama Butterfly and Yeletsky / The Queen of Spades. More recently Allen has turned to stage direction, taking charge of Albert Herring at the Royal College of Music (2003), Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni at the Sage Centre in Gateshead (2005 and 2007 respectively), Le nozze di Figaro for Arizona Opera (2006) and Il barbiere di Siviglia for Scottish Opera (2007).
Allen’s colleagues have been quick to note his great ability as an actor as well as the beautifully natural, unforced character of his voice. The conductor Bernard Haitink has described him as ‘a theatre animal’ and felt that Allen’s Don Giovanni was the highlight of his period as music director at Glyndebourne. The stage director Jonathan Miller, who directed him as Don Alfonso at Covent Garden in 1995, commented that ‘he brings a subtlety and finesse that is almost unprecedented’. Allen has created a large discography, in which songs and oratorio are as worth investigating as opera, his subtlety of musical communication being especially well suited to lieder and concert repertoire.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).