Taking a few minutes out of his busy rehearsal schedule Sir Thomas Allen who is directing Scottish Opera‘s forthcoming production of The Marriage of Figaro had a quick chat. Figaro opens in Glasgow on the 29th of Oct.
You’ve performed in the Marriage of Figaro many times and it was also your US directorial debut. What is it that draws you towards this particular opera?
Well it’s inescapable really. My own vocal abilities pointed me in the direction of Figaro from the very beginning of my career, actually with Richard Armstrong who of course was the music director at Scottish Opera. 42 years ago we performed Figaro together which was my first time. It’s been in my life right from the beginning and it has been around for 200 years. I think one needs to revisit it occasionally to understand how brilliant a work it is.
In a way the opera is a pale reflection of the importance of the the play. Mozart and da Ponte chose aspects of the play, which of course was a scandalous play in it’s day, as was the opera. It’s just full of absolutely brilliant music but brilliant situations as well. The personal, human situations within it are complex but not unfathomable and they provide us with incredible entertainment which was pertinent 200 years ago and remains so now and I think that’s a measure of how great it is and why it survives from decade to decade and century to century.
The human aspects of it are universal and for all time but there are certain aspects of it that just seem happier sitting in the latter part of the 18th century
Both The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan Tutti are seen by many as still being relevant today. Do you think that’s true and if so what is about them that resonates with the modern audience.
Well I think Cosi fan Tutte is for all time and consequently it does lend itself to updating or modernising. Figaro I’d find difficult to treat in that way because it lies in a very specific juncture in history. The world, at least the western world was in turmoil and it’s very difficult to find a modern equivalent of that, that is quite as powerful. The human aspects of it are universal and for all time but there are certain aspects of it that just seem happier sitting in the latter part of the 18th century.
we’re discovering all kind of things together the mix of experience and freshness benefit from each other
Could you tell me a little about the cast?
Some of them I knew from previous experience some of them by reputation and others I’m meeting for the first time so it’s a combination. I, as a director, don’t have an immediate hand in suggesting what I want for each role, that’s a specific job in itself and that’s down to Jenny Slack at Scottish Opera. I do have a certain input and it’s lovely that a mixture of experienced and young professionals coming to the opera for the first time are discovering it. In that way it’s a tremendous rite of passage.
Its rather interesting that in casting these mammoth operas there are directors I know that have insisted on only having singers who were unfamiliar with it so that they didn’t come with well worn methods and ways that couldn’t be shifted. It was almost that they were worried about working with a dinosaur that cant be changed in any way. I don’t think of it like that, most of the best colleagues I know are amenable to suggestions and want to try new ideas, new tricks and ways to find different aspects to their characters. So we’re discovering all kind of things together the mix of experience and freshness benefit from each other. Whatever it is one does you learn something in the process and in this particular piece you probably learn more than anywhere else.
Why do you think that is?
It comes down again to human relationships. One thinks of Mozart and the brilliant bright music that it is and it would be very easy to take that as the theme and allow that to take the emotional, comedic or dramatic charge. What I’m trying to delve after is to look at what is happening for each of the characters at any particular time and not take the easy option of making a gag or joke but to see something through no matter how dark that might be. Whether it’s the Countess in her travails or Cherubino; the young man growing up, one moment a boy not knowing or understanding the changes happening to him and the adolescent hot flushes he has or Figaro and Susanna stuck in their little apartment with the Count so close at hand and all that he intends. Stopping to examine these aspects allows you learn a lot about human relationships and in the main I’m trying to deal with them as we go on from scene to scene. The greatest comedy comes from situation rather than some piece of slapstick and the situation is the thing that drives it through.
I think audiences are very sophisticated, often more sophisticated than we give them credit for
This is an opera that’s often seen as an accessible piece for those unfamiliar with opera because of the the lyricism of the music would you say that was true?
I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that no. For a start Figaro is a long opera, it’s four chunky acts and it takes quite a lot of following, the ramifications and complications within it are considerable as to who’s got what contract and what letter, why does that key work there, can she get into that room, he can’t get into that room etc, all of that needs clarification.
Having said that it shouldn’t prohibit anyone for coming to see it, Figaro has everything you could want. It wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, nothing ever is. I wouldn’t want to spend an evening with delightful Donizetti for three and half hours but that’s my particular grouse. I couldn’t say that about this piece I think it’s sheer brilliance from the first notes of the overture right through to the end, there’s not a spare note in it.
I think audiences are very sophisticated, often more sophisticated than we give them credit for. They’re certainly au fait with theatrical gesture, innuendo all the various stage ploys and they know their way around the construction of a play so we are able to be as genuine and truthful as possible and take the audience with us.
How optimistic are you about the future of opera in this age of austerity?
You can do opera productions anywhere you like. There’s a growing trend in London at the moment of doing them in pubs. There’s just been a successful production in a pub in Kilburn and they’re just about to do a production of Cosi fan Tutte with Jonathan Miller directing. Jonathan’s cottoned on to it immediately and decided he wants to be involved.
It’s a very good idea that it is done because it will get out of people’s heads the persistent idea that it’s for a privileged few, it’s for everyone. It began in Italy and Italians, a great majority of them anyway, have grown up with it from a very early age and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do the same. You can perform it anywhere. I’ve been amongst people in a house and surprised them with singing and it’s extraordinary what happens when people get close to singers and live performance around them and you can make a very good case for it.
Watch Sir Thomas Allen Sing: