On the Beat

On the Beat

Allen enlivens New England Conservatory master class; returning to The Fantasticks after thirty years.

On the Beat Allen sm 613
I want magic! Allen coaches Brevik at NEC
© Andrew Hurlbut/NEC 2013

THOMAS ALLEN, the superb English baritone, spent much of the late winter in Boston, where he was singing Don Alfonso in Boston Lyric Opera's Così Fan Tutte. On March 12, he gave a master class at the New England Conservatory of Music's Williams Hall. In addition to being a terrific musician, Allen has delighted audiences with his astute, perceptive acting. His performances never owe anything to OperaWorld; his characters always have the breath of life, and his simplest gestures are rich in nuance and charm. One example: in LESLEY KOENIG's staging of Così at the Met in 1996, Allen made the simple act of emptying the sand from his shoe onstage an indelible moment. 

At the New England Conservatory, Allen was told that he would have no more than twenty minutes for each of the six student singers on the program. (He told the audience, "I feel like an NHS doctor.")

I do not believe that the students gathered for Allen's class represented the best that NEC had to offer. There were a couple of potentially good voices in the group, and in one case, at least, there was clearly a language barrier. But to a one, their level of textual preparation was — and I've searched for a kinder word — lousy. Each got up and just sang notes, without the slightest evidence of imagination or dramatic point of view. 

When baritone JASON RYAN sang an over-scaled rendition of Roger Quilter's lovely, simple "Go, Lovely Rose," Allen reminded him, "You've got to charm people off the trees…. You're talking to a rose. It doesn't need Wotan." He cautioned, "You're using an awful lot of energy where you don't need it and consequently throwing a lot of it away." When soprano WANZHE ZHANG offered "Meine Liebe ist grün," and at least demonstrated a comprehension of the text, Allen said, "You do know what it's about. I need to see it. Charm. That word. Charm." When baritone DANIEL BREVIK, the best singer of the lot, performed Schubert's "Gruppe aus dem Tartarus," Allen focused on the part of the song in which the creatures from the underworld rise up. 

"Can you see it?" he asked.

"Oh, yeah," said Brevik.


After the class, I spoke briefly with Allen. I asked him whether this level of dramatic preparation was something he encountered frequently. "Yes, and I think it's excusable in a way. The primary preoccupation with them is technique, so they come at this stage with a limited palette of colors they can use as a singer — because their lives are full of training and auditions, and the voice has to be in this wonderful condition. But you beg for a blurb in the voice that will indicate that there's a character struggling to get out."

I'm curious about general patterns he notices among young American singers. "In classes, I often get presented with the Count's aria from Figaro," he says. "In America, that difficult section of triplets at the end — just about every American singer I come across can knock all of that florid stuff right out. All the technical things are in place. I remember a comment I heard years ago in Glyndebourne, when an American singer was singing Ford, and one of the old coaches at Glyndebourne said, 'It's very good, but you get tired of thick cream all the time.' And that's what we tend to get — that monotony of sound that goes on and on, but there's no actual individuality to it." 

Allen feels that young people today don't benefit from the atmosphere that used to permit them to think about how to reach an audience in an intimate way. "We are spoon-fed television and film," he says. "You don't hear the spoken voice — someone just being able to get up and relate to you. And that's what singers have to be able to do. ANNELIESE ROTHENBERGER had it. STUART BURROWS. Flicka had it in abundance. Where does one learn that? In chapel? Around the family piano? That's where it's not being learned now — just being able to communicate with Aunt Meg over there in the corner of the parlor. And you extend the parlor and take it to Wigmore Hall. It's a beautiful thing to witness."

RECENTLY, FOR THE FIRST TIME  in thirty years, I saw The Fantasticks on the New York stage. When I moved to the city in 1982, the Harvey Schmidt–Tom Jones musical had passed the twentieth year of its record-breaking run at Greenwich Village's Sullivan Street Playhouse. Going to see The Fantasticks was, at that time, still a kind of rite of passage for becoming a New Yorker, along with navigating the aisles at Fairway and carting home your first bag of second-hand books from the Strand. That first autumn in the city, I made my way to Sullivan Street to see the show. I loved it — or I loved it as much as I could, since so much of what happens in the show had not yet happened to me.

After ending a 17,162-performance run on Sullivan Street in 2002, The Fantasticks reopened at Times Square's Snapple Theater in 2006. The first thing that struck me was that this odd, delicate show seems far more at home in the relative outskirts of the Village, not in the heart of the theater district, close to that symbol of today's squeaky-clean Times Square, the M&M Store, with the noise from another off-Broadway hit, Perfect Crime, seeping through from the theater upstairs. 

The cast was very good. As Luisa, ADDI MCDANIEL gave a wonderfully spontaneous lift to her lines, and GEORGE DVORSKY was a memorably cagey El Gallo. But there almost seemed to be another, unseen character on the stage — the three decades that have raced by since I saw the show on Sullivan Street. This time, the autumnal quality of Schmidt and Jones's score resonated with me in a way it just couldn't have thirty years ago. Dvorsky's simple reading of "Try to Remember" was quite moving, and the opening bars of "Soon It's Gonna Rain" seemed to me — now — an absolutely perfect musical statement of first love. The whole show made me think of the word that author MAY SARTON once used (in the pages of OPERA NEWS) to describe the feeling she got from Der Rosenkavalier — "Rilkean." My reaction to The Fantasticks is a perfect reflection, I think, of the heart of the show: it is possible to go home again, but you have to accept that it may sting a little. spacer 

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