Parlando: The COC Blog


A Musical Lifetime with Così: Sir Thomas Allen

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager

Tracy Dahl as Despina and Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso

In an age in which superlatives such as “unforgettable,” “legendary” and “greatest” are thrown about indiscriminately, few would argue Sir Thomas Allen’s status as the pre-eminent lyric baritone of his generation. He has earned this title most especially for his iconic interpretations of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva, Figaro, Papageno, Guglielmo and Don Alfonso, both onstage and in the recording studio. Following his appearances at the Glyndebourne Festival in Sir Peter Hall’s legendary production, EMI recorded his Don Giovanni in 1984 – now considered the definitive account of Mozart’s notorious womanizer. For close to four decades he has been the baritone of choice for star conductors such as James Levine, Riccardo Muti, Georg Solti, John Eliot Gardiner, Colin Davis and Simon Rattle. Allen has not only mastered the fine balance between singing and acting needed to be a great opera singer, but stands as a master interpreter of the art song, especially in the English and French repertoire. He now passes on his expertise to the next generation of artists, giving masterclasses worldwide including, since 1996, at his own Samling Academy, located in Allen’s beloved native country in North East England.

Sir Thomas Allen’s association with Mozart’s Così fan tutte goes as far back as his student days in the 1960s when he came to the attention of the great British vocal pedagogue, James Lockhart. “One of the things I worked on with him was how to go through a score. He taught me how to do that and read it as a singer, prepare and pencil it up and do the things that all singers do. And the score chosen was Così, though I didn’t learn the role [Guglielmo] at the time, maybe just one of the arias perhaps. After that he [Lockhart] became music director at Welsh National Opera and one of the first things I did with them was a touring version of Così. That goes back to 1970 or something like that.” Allen’s first Così role, Guglielmo, is often regarded as a rite of passage for the budding lyric baritone. “I think the reason why we as a breed feel that way is that it doesn’t seem to have the emotional maturity of a role like that of Ferrando [with whom Guglielmo schemes to prove the infidelity of their respective fiancées]. The relationship Guglielmo enjoys with Dorabella is one of pure pleasure rather than the [more emotionally deep] way Ferrando latches onto Fiordiligi. Musically as well, of all the Così roles, Guglielmo is the one that tends most towards the buffo [comic].” The other three young leads sing some of the most sublime, grand and emotional music Mozart ever wrote but Guglielmo’s “vocal opportunities are just not on the same level.”

Don Alfonso costume sketches by Debra Hansen

On the other hand, Allen relishes the entirely different demands made of Don Alfonso, Così’s philosopher and cynic, and the role which brings him to the COC this winter. He draws some fascinating parallels between Alfonso and Don Giovanni, the Mozart role with which he has the closest association. “It’s a strange thing about Mozart. If one looks at Don Giovanni musically, he isn’t all that demanding – it’s an endurance test and you have to sing very loudly at the end of the piece. But you’ve not been asked great musical questions during the course of it in the way Donna Anna has, or had to sing the long-breath lines that Don Ottavio has. And similarly, Don Alfonso doesn’t have those great [vocal] demands made of him. The thing is to use those moments when you’ve seemingly not been asked to do much… when in fact you are actually doing a lot. Then it’s a question of listening to what others are doing, and causing action and reaction in them by just being there; by setting a plan in motion, sowing a seed of doubt or whatever it might be. A lot of it is just sitting down, crossing your legs comfortably, having a cup of coffee whilst you’re watching everything going on. That’s the way it often pans out. I have no qualms about that – I don’t crave great lengthy stentorian arias – I’m very happy to just pull the strings and watch the others dance to my tune!”

Having mastered Così’s two low-voiced male roles, Allen has taken the next logical step and can now be found directing Mozart’s effervescent comedy in addition to Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute for companies such as Scottish Opera, Arizona Opera and Boston Lyric Opera. For the latter he not only directed Così but simultaneously played Don Alfonso, an undertaking which required “eyes in the back of your head. It’s not easy, but not impossible either.” In Boston he opted to perform the opera in English, wanting the text to have an immediate impact on the audience. For Allen, communication through music – its actual sounds, pitches and dynamics – are definitely the singer’s responsibility, but even more important is the performer’s ability to personally connect to the text and enliven it for the audience. By using an English translation for his Boston Così, he wished the singers to experience the words first, rather than second-hand. “Using one’s own language is a distinct advantage. I don’t care how seriously and intensely you work with a second or third language – there’s nothing like getting back to one’s own – it’s in your DNA. Also, the colours that become available to a singer for expression are that much more telling. It’s a much more advanced process when you’re learning a role that’s not your native language.” That, says Allen, is “a lifetime study. I’m still doing it.”

Just as director Atom Egoyan will re-envision Mozart’s “school for lovers” for our audiences, Allen will also be looking at it afresh. “The main thing is not to come with anything assumed. Listen to what [the director] gives you and then respond to that rather than relying on the process you’ve used for years and years. I keep on saying this to singers – listen to what you’re hearing and respond to that, not to the thing you’ve learned like a parrot from several recordings.” Having lived with Così for over 40 years, Allen has witnessed a huge sea change in attitude with respect to the piece. There might have been a time when critical opinion denigrated the opera for its perceived immorality and frivolity, but in a post-Freudian world fascinating avenues have opened up to explore the “lessons of love” which lie beneath its undeniably frothy exterior. As Allen reasons, “It’s no longer possible to regard these characters simplistically, as no more than decorative 18th-century porcelain figurines.” This is especially true of the opera’s ambiguous ending – do the original couples “kiss and make up,” returning to their original partners, or are their relationships damaged forever? Allen feels the answer is found in Mozart’s score itself: “You start thinking surely [the two couples] can’t just return to everyday life as a result of the lessons that have been learned. In a way, Mozart indicates this in the finale which is in the very basic key of C major. It’s music that’s so simplistic, almost as though he’s deliberately trying to show us that [the wedding between the two “original” couples] is a façade – they’re clearly going through the motions here – it’s very superficial when you think of all the glorious music that went before.” How will things end up for the lovers in Toronto this winter? Allen and his fellow cast members will no doubt have fun playing with the possibilities when they meet on stage for the COC’s new production of Così.

Photos: (top) Tracy Dahl as Despina and Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso in the Canadian Opera Company's new production of Così fan tutte, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper; (middle) Sir Thomas Allen. Photo by Sussie Ahlburg; (middle) Preliminary costume sketches for Don Alfonso for the COC's new production of Così fan tutte, by set and costume designer Debra Hanson; (bottom) Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso (at right) with the COC Chorus in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Così fan tutte, 2014. Photo by Chris Hutcheson.

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An Exploration of Enchantment: Egoyan Directs Così fan tutte

By Claire Morley, Associate Manager, Editorial

Robert Gleadow as Guglielmo, Paul Appleby as Ferrando, Wallis Giunta as Dorabella and Layla Claire as Fiordiligi

Setting the scene: In Mozart’s wry comedy, Così fan tutte, two soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are challenged to test the fidelity of their fiancées, sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Ferrando and Guglielmo disguise themselves and woo the sisters, who, although perfectly aware they are being deceived, nevertheless grapple with strong emotions that make us all wonder: When it comes to the laws of attraction, how much are we really in control of ourselves?

It’s no secret that director Atom Egoyan’s experience lies in exploring characters and stories that are often psychologically probing and can be deeply dark (like his remounting of Salome at the COC this past spring). Although his Così will certainly pose some very serious questions by delving into a close examination of love, fidelity, and what happens when we are tested by these forces, Egoyan is thrilled to explore the comedy in Mozart’s sparkling and beautiful work.

First performed in 1790, Così is Mozart’s final collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Written at the height of the Enlightenment, both Mozart and da Ponte were well aware of the growing arguments and support for rationalism. But Così is not a diatribe against the abject nature of human emotional response; in fact, it is Così’s straddling of rationalism and emotion that Egoyan finds most scintillating.

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company's 2014 production of Cosi fan tutte

Egoyan has taken his cue from the opera’s subtitle, La scuola degli amanti (“The School for Lovers”) and has set the piece in a school, in which Don Alfonso instructs his students on the laws of attraction, and, as Egoyan puts it, “teaches them that human beings can be conditioned to have feelings. Così challenges the Enlightenment idea of optimism because it says that, as much as we may have been able to move away from notions of superstition and mystery coming out of religious and institutionalized places where people have been controlled, we ourselves will still always be controlled by the limits of our own emotions and feelings. Since the laws of attraction will not obey any reasonable force, their workings are completely arbitrary.”

Egoyan also argues that Mozart’s music itself challenges the Enlightenment rationale because “what Mozart does with his music is beyond words; Così’s arias can be piercingly emotional. He is saying that of course there is mystery – it’s at the basis of who we are.”

Layla Claire as Fiordiligi and Wallis Giunta as Dorabella

A frequent challenge for directors is how to overcome the overtly silly and sexist convolutions of Così’s plot, namely that sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella are so easily duped by the men. Even as early as 1791, actor Frederick Schroder deemed the storyline “a miserable thing which lowers all women.” Egoyan has eradicated any sense of misogyny by creating a second wager between the two sisters (which will be visually established in the overture), allowing them to be fully aware, equal players in the game-playing that surrounds them.

Despite the fact that the double-wager is never made explicit in the libretto, Egoyan argues that Mozart’s score provides ample opportunity for new and nuanced interactions between the characters. “Mozart has a porousness that allows you to explore in a different way.” This is most evident in Così’s recitatives, where there is flexibility to pause, quicken or stretch out a particular phrase, made easier by the fact that the only instrumental accompaniment for these recits is the piano, which will be played by conductor Johannes Debus. He and Egoyan will work very closely to discuss phrasing and, in fact, Debus will “actually become another character, which we will address with the production’s design and lighting.”

This close collaboration extends to the rest of the cast. Egoyan has requested extra roundtable time in advance of rehearsals in order to discuss his ideas, give the singers time to ruminate on them, and revisit them. “I don’t think there’s another production [of Così] that makes [Fiordiligi and Dorabella] so aware of what is happening, and I want to explore the emotional logic of that with the singers.”

Las dos Fridas

“Debra Hanson is creating an incredible set,” says Egoyan. It’s peppered with visual allusions to Frida Kahlo’s painting, “Las dos Fridas” (pictured above). “The first impression one has of the painting is of twin sisters, but ultimately it is a self-portrait of these two sides of Frida, with all these dualities represented. But rather than the painting setting the tone for the entire piece, the use of Kahlo’s work is more of a wry artifact.”

Fiordiligi and Dorabella at their wedding banquet.

Hanson’s set contains more references to Kahlo’s painting, from the brooch (coincidentally, an explicit part of Così’s libretto), to the surgical scissors whose blades are precariously poised around a heartstring, to the large and intricate metal butterflies, which Egoyan describes as “the very symbol of freedom, but which can also be caught and pinned down.” And rather than being fixed in any one time period, Hanson’s costuming is entirely character-based. Egoyan says, “She is an exquisite artist. The way she lavishes these characters with her own sensibility is very energizing; her sense of flare, beauty, fun, grace and elegance is inspiring. It is so lovely to work with someone so attentive to a character-based interpretation. What we choose to wear in the morning says so much about what we are feeling that day, so what an incredible journey for a person to chart.”

Although Egoyan is exploring weighty themes in Così, he is adamant that the frothiness and fun of the opera be preserved. “When I look at darker, more austere productions of Così, they are often very interesting but there is something that I feel I’m missing, and that’s pleasure, and there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in Così.”

Così fan tutte runs until February 21. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Photos: (top) (l-r) Robert Gleadow as Guglielmo, Paul Appleby as Ferrando, Wallis Giunta as Dorabella and Layla Claire as Fiordiligi; (middle) A scene from Così fan tutte; (middle) Layla Claire as Fiordiligi and Wallis Giunta as Dorabella. Photo by Chris Hutcheson; (middle) “Las Dos Fridas” painting by Frida Kahlo © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust; (bottom) A scene from Così fan tutte. All images from the Canadian Opera Company's new production of Così fan tutte, 2014 and all photos by Michael Cooper unless otherwise stated.

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The Toronto Star goes to Opera School with Così fan tutte!

In the months leading up to our brand new winter production of Mozart's Così fan tutte directed by Atom Egoyan, the Toronto Star joined us to explore the many departments that work together to bring a production to life. The result? An entire week's worth of opera school! Watch the videos below to get a glimpse of how the company comes together to create a new production, with a variety of staff members from our props, sets, costumes and wigs department as well as music staff!

Day One: Science
For our first day of Opera Class, we visit the props department where COC Properties Supervisor Guy Nokes gives a tour of the objects that the props team were creating for the curio cabinet and other experiments visible in the "School for Lovers."

Day Two: Industrial Design
For our second day, we see the bones of the giant curio cabinet, as Head Scenic Carpenter David Retzleff gives us the low-down on how the large set-pieces come to life.

Day Three: Drama
On our third day, director Atom Egoyan shares his favourite parts of the opera as we watch a staging rehearsal with Wallis Giunta, Layla Claire and Tracy Dahl.

Day Four: Fashion
Hike up your skirts and fix your netting! On the fourth day of class we visit Sharon Ryman in our wig department, and Sandra Corazza in costumes, for a look at the stunning ship-wigs and crisp student uniforms.

Day Five: Music
COC Music Director and Così conductor Johannes Debus discusses the beauty and fragility of Mozart’s music, and we catch a glimpse of the COC Orchestra in rehearsal.

You can also explore our behind-the-scenes videos with our Inside Opera series. Watch Constructing Così Part One or Constructing Così Part Two on COC Radio today!

Così fan tutte runs from January 18 to February 21, 2014 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Click here to learn more or to purchase tickets.


Photo: (l-r) Layla Claire as Fiordiligi and Wallis Giunta as Dorabella in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Così fan tutte, 2014. Credit: Chris Hutcheson

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001