Bass  Richard  Van  Allan

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

van allan

Obituary from The Independent, December 19, 2008
van allan By Elizabeth Forbes  [Text only - photos and links added for this website presentation.  Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD]

For more than 30 years the English bass Richard Van Allan sang at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, English National Opera, the British regional companies and at various opera houses in Europe and North America. He had a wide repertory encompassing Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Strauss and Britten, and took part in several premieres of new operas.

His voice was full-toned and sharply focused without being particularly large, while his diction was excellent. He was a very fine actor and often played speaking parts, including the Majordomo in Ariadne auf Naxos or the Pasha Selim in Die Enführung aus dem Serail with distinction. Towards the end of his singing career he became a popular and successful Director of the National Opera Studio.

Richard Van Allan was born in Clipstone, Nottinghamshire in 1935. He served as a police officer before studying with David Franklyn at the Birmingham School of Music. He joined the Glyndebourne chorus in 1964 and two years later sang the Second Priest and the Second Man in Armour in Die Zauberflöte. In 1967 he sang Osmano in Cavalli's L'Ormindo and won the first John Christie Award.

During the next five years his roles included Zaretzky in Eugene Onegin, the Doctor in Pelléas et Mélisande, Lord Francis Jowler in the first performance of Maw's The Rising of the Moon (1970), Leporello in Don Giovanni, Selim in Rossini's Il Turco in Italia and Osmin as well as the Pasha in Die Entführung. He returned to Glyndebourne in 1977 for Trulove in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.

[Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at right, see my interviews
with Bernard Haitink, John Cox, and Felicity Lott

He first sang for ENO (still under the name of Sadler's Wells Opera) at the Coliseum in 1969 as Don Giovanni, followed in 1970 by Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte, one of his finest roles, and as King Henry in Lohengrin in 1971.

That was the year of his Covent Garden début as the Mandarin in Turandot. His other roles at Covent Garden in the 1970s included Mozart's Figaro, Don Alfonso and Leporello, the King in Aïda, the Doctor in Berg's Wozzeck, Mr Flint in Britten's Billy Budd, the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos, Colline in La Bohème, Ferrando in Il trovatore, Quince in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Calkas in Walton's Troilus and Cressida. Van Allan also sang Masetto, his third role in Don Giovanni, at the Paris Opéra in 1975, Don Pizarro at Boston and his first Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier at San Diego in 1976.

He repeated Baron Ochs at Buenos Aires and at ENO in 1978. It soon became one of his best roles, in which the dramatic was of equal importance to the vocal side of the performance. The same year, he sang the Father Superior in Verdi's The Force of Destiny at ENO; Wurm in a new production of Verdi's Luisa Miller with Luciano Pavarotti [LP cover shown below], and Don Pedro in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, also a new production, with Placido Domingo, both at Covent Garden.

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See my interviews with Sherrill Milnes, Anna Reynolds, and Peter Maag

van allan In 1979 his new roles included the Comte des Grieux in Massenet's Manon, Mustapha in Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers and Don Magnifico in Rossini's La Cenerentola; and in 1980 Mephistopheles in Berlioz' Damnation of Faust and the title role in Musorgsky's Boris Godunov, all at ENO. At Covent Garden in 1981, he sang the Theatre Director and the Banker in the first London showing of the three-act version of Berg's Lulu.

Van Allan was as busy as ever during the first half of the 1980s; at ENO he sang Friar Laurance in Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, the Father in Charpentier's Louise, the Water Sprite in Dvořák's Rusalka, Collatinus in Britten's Rape of Lucretia, Sir Walter Raleigh in Britten's Gloriana, Procida in Verdi's Sicilian Vespers, Kochubei in Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa, the Count in The Marriage of Figaro (for the first time), Philip II in Don Carlos and Pooh-Bah in Jonathan Miller's 1920s production of The Mikado. In their different ways, the last two characters were both immensely successful. At Covent Garden he sang Capulet in Bellini's I Capuletti e I Montecchi for Welsh National, Kecal in Smetana's Bartered Bride, and at Glyndebourne, Superintendent Budd in Britten's Albert Herring.

[Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at right, see my interviews
with Sir Thomas Allen, and David Atherton

In September 1986 Van Allan was appointed Director of the National Opera Studio, set up by the Arts Council in 1978 to provide intensive training for young opera singers. He remained there for 15 years. His own appearances were of necessity rather fewer, but for a decade he continued to sing, in London and abroad. He sang Mephistopheles in Gounod's Faust at Seattle (1987); he made a magnificently evil Claggart in Billy Budd (1988) [DVD shown at right], and sang Frank Maurrant in Weill's Street Scene (1989) at ENO. He also gave his much-admired performance of Don Alfonso at the Metropolitan, New York [CD shown below]. He sang Comte de Saint-Bris in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots (1991) at Covent Garden and Don Jerome in Gerhard's The Duenna (1992) at Barcelona.

In 1994 he scored two great personal triumphs at ENO, as Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin and in the title role of Massenet's Don Quixote. His Quixote was particularly moving. Van Allan was appointed CBE in 2002 for services to music.

Elizabeth Forbes

Richard Van Allan, opera singer and administrator: born Clipstone, Nottinghamshire 28 May 1935; Director, National Opera Studio 1986-2001; CBE 2002; married 1963 Elizabeth Peabody (one son; marriage dissolved 1974), 1976 Rosemary Pickering (one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1986); died London 4 December 2008.

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See my interviews with Tatiana Troyanos, Jerry Hadley, Thomas Hampson, James Levine, and Ileana Cotrubas

In January of 1987, Richard Van Allan was singing Méphistophélès in Faust in Seattle.  A photo from that production, as well as the program are shown farther down on this webpage, where we discuss that role.

We arranged to have a conversation on the telephone the day after the first performance . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   How did the performance go last night?

Richard Van Allan:   It went very well, thank you.  The audience seemed to enjoy it very much, and we certainly did.

BD:   Good.  Is it important for the performers to enjoy the performance as much as the audience?

RVA:   I think so, really.  If one becomes aware of an audience enjoying it, it probably gives the adrenaline a boost, and the performance improves.  It’s a two-way thing because an audience can certainly give performers a boost, and in the same way, if one doesn’t get to an audience early, it can have a depressing effect on a cast if they think they’re not actually communicating with the audience.  A performance can go a bit downhill if the audience response isn’t as good as you would like it to be.

BD:   So you try and try for a while, and then give up?

RVA:   No, it’s not a question of giving up, but one can try too hard with timing and business, and one can err towards exaggeration in an effort to make communication.  In some ways, trying harder to get a result can actually distort the shape of the performance.

van allan BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear your performances?

RVA:   I don’t know if one expects anything.  It’s rather an intangible thing, I suppose, in many ways.  It’s a warm buzz that you feel when an audience is enjoying it.

BD:   Is the audiences different from city to city, or around the world?

RVA:   Oh, absolutely!  There are audiences in my experience not greatly into the production, as such, but interested mainly in the singing.  London audiences are interested in both, as are American audiences.  In playing comedy with American audiences, it’s different from playing comedy in England.  I’ve not had enough experience of working comedy in this country, but certainly the timing is different, and so far, I wouldn’t claim to have mastered the art of timing comedy with an American audience at all.

BD:   I want to come back to the art of comedy in a little bit, but let me pursue the audiences first.  Do you find even in the same city that a Friday night audience is different from a Saturday afternoon, or a Wednesday evening?

RVA:   Yes, I think this is true all over the world.  It’s certainly true in London.  Friday and Saturday nights in London are reckoned to be the best nights, and they usually are.  Tuesday night audiences are usually a bit sticky, as are Thursday night audiences.  [Laughs]  Wednesdays tend to be okay, but I put it down to purely to physical things.  Tuesdays are a bit early in the week.  They’ve got the working week ahead of them, and a lot of people come straight from work and they’ve still got the week ahead.  It’s a late night, so they’re a bit chary [wary or reluctant] about it.  Wednesday night, they’re sort of half-way through and they’ve got used to working that week, so they’re conditioned.  Thursday night they’re getting a bit jaded by the week’s work.  Friday night they’ve got the weekend to look forward to, and often don’t have to get up early on Saturday morning to go to work, although a lot of them are tired from being at work all day.  Saturday they’ve usually had a day of rest so they’re quite fit and bright when they come to the theater, and don’t have to get up on Sunday morning!  The business of all this reaction is probably purely a practical one.

BD:   Do you play to this at all, or just let it happen?

RVA:   I try to play to audiences in the same way because they’ve all paid the same money, and we’re there to give a service in many ways.

BD:   You say they’re all paying the same money, yet the people in the Stalls are paying considerably more than the people in the standing room.

RVA:   Oh, yes, this is true.  But I mean, the theater-goer, whichever seat he chooses to occupy, is paying the same on whatever day of the week he goes, and it’s our job to give a hundred per cent of what we’re capable of every time we go on stage.

BD:   Just so you’ll know, here in Chicago they advance the prices just a little bit on Friday and Saturday nights.

RVA:   Do they really?

BD:   It’s recent innovation that the management has done in the last two or three seasons, and it’s perfectly understandable.

RVA:   Yes, it is.  It’s the most popular two nights of the week.

BD:   You say you’re giving a service to the audience.  Do you feel that opera is art, or is opera entertainment?

RVA:   I think it’s both.

BD:   Then where is the balance?

RVA:   If one tries to interpret the art as tastefully and energetically in one’s own presentation of a role as possible, this will entertain for most composers.  Some of the modern works I’m a bit doubtful about, but with most of the composers of repertory works, the pieces are fine works of art themselves, and if I interpret them to the best of my ability, this in itself will be entertainment to the audience.  I have confidence in most of the operas in which I’ve been involved.

van allan BD:   Is it important for you to have confidence in the work that you do?

RVA:   [Laughs]  Well, it helps.  Where one doesn’t have absolute confidence, one has to work even harder to overcome the limitations.  Sometimes it’s no fault in the work, but a fault in oneself in that I may not have understood the work fully, and therefore don’t particularly enjoy doing it.  But under those circumstances, one feels that one has to work harder to try to give a proper professional performance.

BD:   Do you find this more difficult in contemporary works, or even world premieres which you’ve been involved in?  [Vis-à-vis the CD shown at right, see my interviews with Paul Plishka, and Julius Rudel.]

RVA:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s more difficult in contemporary works, yes, and occasionally in contemporary productions of traditional works.

BD:   That
s another thing entirely.  Do you approve of the direction that opera’s going production-wise?

RVA:   Not always.  We have to investigate new ways of doing the standard repertory, but I don’t always know that we succeed.  When a new approach is attempted
whether it’s an updating or a stylized performanceif it’s undertaken honestly in an attempt to realize the work in an honest and genuine way, I respect that and often enjoy doing it.  But when I feel that it’s dishonestin that the producer is using his artists to sensationalize the work, or to use the piece to distort the work in such a way that he uses it as a vehicle to express his own feelings, whether political or emotionalI’m not happy, no.

BD:   In an operatic production, who should be the most important
the composer, the producer, the singer, the audience?

RVA:   That’s a difficult one.  Primarily, the composer and the librettist are the most important because unless you have a great respect for the nucleus of the performance, you’re wasting your time.  Then, the director and the conductor should be equally important.  It’s very much a director’s world in England at the moment.  The conductor, politically speaking, doesn’t seem to have the same pull, and the singers are nowhere along the line in the pecking order, quite frankly.  They interpret as best they can within the directions given to them by the director.

BD:   Do you hope that it gets back to being the singer’s world again?

RVA:   No, I think that was equally bad.  I really don’t see any point in going back to the situation where the primo tenore, or the soprano, or the baritone sent their valet or maid down to the theater to say where ‘Madam’ or ‘Sir’ stands at a particular moment.  No, I’ve always regarded opera as a totally integrated art form, and when the balance gets out in one direction or another, then the work suffers.

BD:   You seem to have a much more realistic view of all of this.  Is that articulated by the fact that you’re a bass and not a tenor, or a baritone?

RVA:   It may be because in the lower repertoire one tends to be more with acting parts than a bel canto type part.  One presupposes that one has a voice before you even let loose on a stage, and in the lower repertoire, acting is more important.  For instance, more of the comprimario parts are for lower voice rather than the higher voice, and so we start off doing these supporting and acting roles before graduating on to the big ones.  The higher voices tend to have to go in at the deep end, to a large extent, and may become voice-orientated.  This has changed considerably.  We often do see an increasing number of actor-singers or singing-actors worldwide.

BD:   Where should the balance be between acting and singing?

RVA:   In an ideal situation, both should be of a phenomenal standard, but there’s a case to be made if someone was casting a part, that the person casting would have to decide in any particular role whether, all things being equal, he would choose a singer who was marginally better at acting than another singer who was marginally a better voice, and since this is always a matter of taste, there’s always going to be this disagreement about whether the proportions are rightly allocated.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve done a lot of work at the English National Opera where everything is done in the English language.  Do you feel opera works well in translation?

RVA:   Yes, I think it does, but I’m speaking from the luxurious position of working in London where we have two major houses
one which sings opera in the original language, and one which sings opera in Englishso that audiences have an opportunity to satisfy the palate on either count.  Those who prefer can hear an opera sung in the vernacular, and those who prefer can hear the original language.  Certainly, in London there is too much hoo-hah whether opera should be sung in the original language or in a foreign language.  My opinion is that it should be sung in both because there are valid cases for both methods.

van allan BD:   So then you enjoy the luxury of going between the Garden and the Coliseum?

RVA:   That’s right, I do!

BD:   Do you think there’s much crossover in the audience?  Do many people who have stalls at the Garden then also go to the Coliseum?

RVA:   There isn’t a great deal of crossover, no, but this is not due to the language.  In many ways it’s due to the type of people in the audience.  The ones who go to the Coliseum think the people who go to Covent Garden are too snobbish, and don’t really care about the music.  It is felt that they go there for the occasion, and don’t actually like mixing with punters at Covent Garden, and vice-versa.  But another thing which affects them is the Garden’s system of using visiting artists to a large extent.  So, the productions at Covent Garden are probably less adventurous than some of those at the London Coliseum, and a lot of the audience who come to the Coliseum come there for the fact that the productions are more enterprising in many ways.  Covent Garden tends to be very traditional.

BD:   Have you seen this new gimmick of using the supertitles in the theater?  [Remember, this interview took place at the very beginning of 1987.]

RVA:   I’ve only seen it briefly at Covent Garden, and during the rehearsal here in Seattle.

BD:   I just wondered if you feel that it’s a good compromise.

RVA:   I have mixed feelings about it.  If it’s judiciously used, it can be an advantage.  I must say I find it distracting in the way it takes the attention of the audience away from the stage.  It’s like trying to communicate with someone when they’re reading a book, but that’s just a matter of personal taste.  Some people seem to prefer it and certainly Speight Jenkins [General Director of the Seattle Opera 1983-2014] believes the use of supertitles has increased audience
s attention and increased its comprehension.  If this is the case, then it must be a good thing.

BD:   You’re much more of an acting-singer, and thus much more conscious of your acting craft.  So, you’re more aware of the distractions from your performance, whereas a singing-singer, who is almost giving a concert, is very glad to have the words up there.

RVA:   Maybe, but I do like to try and communicate.  It’s a bit difficult if they’re reading the book all the time.

BD:   [Being hopeful, and without knowledge of the ubiquitous use of smartphones yet to come (!)]  At least they’re looking in the same direction as your portrayal on the stage, and not down at their laps or anywhere else.

RVA:   That’s right.

BD:   Do you feel that opera, which is such a visual art, works well on gramophone records?

RVA:   One shouldn
t really think about the two things together, because I regard a recording as really a different form.  It’s not the same thing.  It’s a different form of the same art.  The way in which a gramophone record is prepared is totally different from a performance.  It’s a much more clinical thing.  One of the things that is aimed at it is the eradication of any possible errors, and in a lot of ways this tends to destroy any spontaneity of performance on recordings.  But it is a way of listening to what was written by the composer, and if one is listening to gramophone records, that is an experience in itself.  One of the frightening things about gramophone records is that people buy them and listen to them with their 40-watts-per-channel output amplifiers, and God knows what else, and they then come to the theater and wonder why the singers don’t have as big a voice as they have coming from three-foot high loudspeakers in the front room!

BD:   Do you feel you’re in competition between yourself and your own records, or yourself and other records?

RVA:   People who are not used to hearing live performances, or who have come because they’ve enjoyed what they
ve heard on gramophone records, sometimes will be disappointed because they don’t have the same sound experience that they did at home.  I do it myself, so I’m fully aware of it.  There is an excitement at turning the speakers up to full blast with a particular favorite piece of music, and just letting it shake the house!  Moments like that don’t happen all the time on the stage.  It’s a different art form.  It’s a way of presenting a piece of music in a totally different way from what’s done in the theater, and is valid as such.

BD:   Are you basically pleased with the recordings you have made?

RVA:   Oh, one’s never pleased because one always listens to the end result and thinks,
Oh, my God, why did I do that, because no matter how much you try to polish and improve, there is a limit to the amount of time you spend on it, and the cost is prohibitive.  So, I’m usually dissatisfied with what I’ve done on recordings.

BD:   Then, does it displease you when someone comes up to you backstage and says,
I liked the performance, but I also love your recording”?

RVA:   Oh, no, it doesn’t displease me at all.  It pleases me that it pleases other people.  When I was much younger, people would say they enjoyed the performance, and I’d immediately go on the defense and say, 
“Yes, but I missed a beat in bar so-and-so, and the top note wasn’t very good.  After a while, one gets used to the fact that you’re going to make mistakes, and if somebody comes and enjoys it, and you start criticizing your own performance, you’re virtually calling them an idiot for having enjoyed it, which is a load of nonsense.  So one just has to be patient, and you thank them, for in the end, whatever one’s own mold and integrity about trying to be an artist giving a fine performance, a very important part of your work is actually to please the people who come to see it, who pay to come to see it, and if they are pleased, then at least part of the job has been successful, and one must be grateful for that.

BD:   I assume you don’t want someone to come back and say you gave a good performance, but in such-and-such a bar you missed a beat, and you were a little under pitch on a certain note.

RVA:   No, not really!  Usually you know about that, and the last thing you want people to do is remind you of it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You seem to sing quite a wide range of repertoire.

RVA:   Yes, I enjoy that.  

BD:   Tell me the secret of singing Mozart.

RVA:   [Smiles]  Oh, Mozart!  [Thinks a moment]  The roles I do in Mozart are usually big recitative roles, and I love recitative.

BD:   Back to the actor in you again!

RVA:   [Laughs]  I suppose it is.  One of the important things about Mozart is to enjoy the language because it’s so well set for the Italian language.  I get a terrific amount of pleasure from Mozart by savoring the language within the musical line.  I don’t know if that’s the secret of singing Mozart, but I’ve always enjoyed the words in the music as much as the music.

BD:   Then you don’t feel that you’re enjoying as much, or making the audience enjoy it more when you’re singing it in English?

van allan RVA:   Well, no.  The Italian for me is very closely tied to what I call ‘the three great Mozarts
Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così Fan Tutte.  I don’t derive as much pleasure singing them in English.  The audiences do enjoy it, but in many ways, Mozart suffers more from translation than a lot of the operas like Verdi and Puccini.  It is a little in the same way as Strauss also suffers from translation, and this is possibly because in both of those cases the composer was working with a giant of a librettist.  In the case of Mozart it being Da Ponte, and Hofmannsthal in the case of Richard Strauss.  Somehow the poetry or the prose in many ways are beautiful in themselves, and are supplemented by the music.  So there you have an integration of two very great artists, and this why I enjoy Mozart better in the original language, and why I think Verdi and Puccini didn’t suffer badly because their librettists weren’t in the same caliber.

BD:   Is Mozart more difficult or just different to play in a theater like Glyndebourne as opposed to Covent Garden?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Carol Vaness.]

RVA:   It’s much easier to play in Glyndebourne because the theater is probably nearer the scale of theater for which it was originally intended.  Certainly, in the case of Figaro and Così Fan Tutte, it’s situation-comedy, really, and in the case of Don Giovanni, apart from the chorus scenes, the most number of people on stage is six in any one time in the evening.  In the smaller theater, I feel it’s possible to get a much closer contact with the audience and gain a much greater involvement.  So, I do prefer playing it in a small theater.

BD:   Now in the opera Don Giovanni you’ve sung both the title role and Leporello?

RVA:   Yes, and Masetto.  [Recording of Van Allan as Masetto is shown below-right.]

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Is there any great joy in playing Masetto?

RVA:   Not a lot, no!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Leaving him aside, then how do you decide which you would rather sing
Don Giovanni or Leporello?

RVA:   I’ve always identified more closely with Leporello rather than Don Giovanni.

BD:   Why?

RVA:   I don’t know.  [Thinks a moment]  I really don’t know why it is.  Maybe I just identify more with the character being the more normal man, rather than the way-out super hero that Don Giovanni is.  He represents every woman’s dream of the ideal lover, and every man’s aspiration of the ultimate in sex appeal.  Leporello is every man, and I prefer being every man to the super star.

BD:   How old is Don Giovanni?

RVA:   I don’t think it really matters.  He can be any age between about twenty-six and fifty-six, I suppose.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???  That’s giving a wide berth.

RVA:   Oh, absolutely.  There are many ways of playing it.  He can be a laid back, elegant, debonair-type who really has to do nothing, and when he does fall on his feet he can be a sadistic monster who people love to hate and who women fall for in spite of it all.  He can be a young gadabout, or he can be an aging roué with great success.  There’s motives for going through the lifestyle which can be just shear sexual drive, or a constant necessity to satisfy his ego by further conquest, or a death wish in trying to provoke the damnation which comes to him eventually, and waiting to see how long it will take God before He responds to these atrocities.

BD:   Do you adjust your vision to the director’s vision, and go along with whatever the director has decided in any particular production?

RVA:   Yes, one has to.  I’ve been involved in a lot of performances as Don Giovanni or Leporello, and with great works
including all the Mozart rolesI find that each time one revises them musically, the possibility of variations of interpretation are legion.  So, providing the production’s good, one’s always grateful for new ideas of characterization and new ideas of production because even with a great work, when you’ve done many performances, one can start doing it by numbers if one is not very careful.  One prefers to be re-energized and revitalized with new ideas from time to time.

BD:   I asked you how old Don Giovanni was.  How old is Leporello?

RVA:   There again, from my own personal point of view, Leporello should be somewhere around the same as Don Giovanni because he has the same aspiration, but without the guts to carry it out.  I feel also, as far as possible, that the two men should be physically a similar build.  I don’t like the idea of having a tall, slim Don Giovanni and a little fat Leporello, simply because it makes Don Elvira such a fool in the second act when Leporello disguises into Don Giovanni.  The builds of the two protagonists of those roles should be somewhat similar so that it gives a degree of credibility, that Elvira might be deceived in the dark into believing that one was the other, and similarly, with the disguise of Don Giovanni as Leporello in the escape aria, Metà di voi qua vadano.

van allan BD:   Does it ever confuse you at all doing one part and thinking the other part on stage?

RVA:   No.  I really don’t do Don Giovanni any longer.  I stick to Leporello.  At the time I was doing both, I’d never sung Don Giovanni in Italian, and I’d never sung Leporello in English, so the two languages kept them apart quite successfully.

BD:   You had two different tracks in your head?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Martina Arroyo, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Mirella Freni.]

RVA:   That’s right.

BD:   You’ve done Figaro?

RVA:   Yes, I’ve sung Figaro, Bartolo and Count Almaviva.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  No Don Curzio?

RVA:   No!  [Laughs]  I avoided that one.

BD:   What kind of character is Figaro?

RVA:   Well, he is a bit of a chump, isn’t he, really?  One of the problems I had was that before I knew the opera very well, it was always suggested that the character of Figaro of Il Barbiere continued into the Figaro of Le Nozze di Figaro.  I couldn’t reconcile this because the Figaro of Barbiere is a very quick-witted, clever chap.  I was trying to find the quick-witted cleverness of Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro, and in fact everything he turns his hand to goes sour in that opera.  He’s really quite an idiot, putting his foot in it all the way through.  His only success in the whole piece is recognizing that Susanna has disguised herself as the Countess in Act Four, and it’s a long time to wait.  He’s a genuine, hardworking chap, very much in love with Susanna, and there is this element of revolutionary thinking in that he’s determined to avoid the droit du seigneur being applied.  As such, he’s a political figure.  The only problem with that is that some directors in these modern times have tried to inflate the political significance of this revolutionary, making it into a revolutionary piece in modern terms, with overt defiance of the Count in the same way that, say, a trade union will defy the management.  But one has to keep it within the subtlety of that period, where the suggestion of questioning authority was indeed revolutionary, and not try to inflate it into a revolution in modern terms.

BD:   So you’ve a little more sympathy, rather than reading all of these thing into it?

RVA:   Yes.  The fact that he is questioning this authority and is struggling to protect Susanna for his own, is sufficient in itself.  The opera and the development of the situation is sufficient without using a sledge hammer to crack a walnut-type technique.

BD:   You say you don’t find him quite as quick-witted as in Barbiere, but they’re both from Beaumarchais.

RVA:   That’s true, but can you tell me where that Figaro is quick-witted?  I’ll be glad to discover it!  In the first place, he’s stupid enough not to see why the Count put them in that particular room at the beginning of the opera.  He’s absolutely astounded when Susanna tells him that the Count has no intention of giving up the droit de seigneur.  He goes and writes a letter to the Count, saying that his wife is having an affair, without thinking through the consequences of making a mess of it.  He arrives in the Act Two Finale, and the only answer he can give is the Countess
s explanation for the letter, and for the later arrival of Cherubino’s officers warrant.  All the answers that he gives to the Count are answers that have been prompted by the two ladies, not through his own quick thinking, and so it goes on through the entire piece.

BD:   I guess I’m a little more optimistic.  I think Figaro is still almost the same as he was in Barbiere, but maybe Susanna is just a little quicker than he is.

RVA:   That’s very generous of you!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Many of these operas are ‘happy ending’ operas, where everyone gets the right person at the end, and there aren’t too many corpses lying around.  I assume there are a number of parts that you play where you wind up either killing someone or being skewered yourself.

RVA:   Yes.

BD:   Would you rather kill or be killed on stage?

RVA:   [Thinks a moment]  I’d rather be killed.  It’s much more sympathetic to die than to kill.  For instance, the death of Boris is one of the most wonderful scenes to play.  Somehow, I prefer a falling cadence.  The death of someone is usually going to finish on a top E and a fortissimo, and I really prefer pianissimo endings somehow.

BD:   Where you do you get your inspiration to play the Devil?

van allan

RVA:   From Don Giovanni, I think.

BD:   You feel Don Giovanni is a Mephisto character?

RVA:   Mephisto is a Don Giovanni character!  [Both laugh]  I don’t see the devil as being a menacing figure.  I see him as being a figure of great charm, because what the Devil normally is encouraging us to believe that which we want to do for pleasure and enjoyment is acceptable, although we know it’s wrong.  The Devil is the one who comes to us and says,
No, it’s quite all right.  There’s no harm in doing this.  So to my view, Mephistopheles is a person of great charm who encourages, and only occasionally shows his claws.  This is what I mean when I say I think of him as a Don Giovanni character, rather than this sort of evil, flame-spouting monster.  The Devil, after all, usually is only encouraging us to that which we want to do.  We don’t need to be forced to do bad things, generally.  Rather, we are just encouraged that we’ll get away with the consequences of the actions.

BD:   Is there a difference between the Devil of Berlioz [Damnation of Faust] and the Devil of Gounod [Faust]?

RVA:   [He thinks] Yes, because the Berlioz work doesn’t give me the opportunity to use the same amount of charm that I try to be able to develop in the Gounod, because the writing is much more concise.  There are not so many situations to play with, or as many words to play with, and the role is much more compact and much more tailored to the demonic than the real-life situations with ordinary people that one gets in the Gounod.  So much of the stuff in the Berlioz is between Mephisto and Faust, or Mephisto and Marguerite, without a lot of chance to expand.

BD:   Do you enjoy playing the Devil?

RVA:   Yes, I do.  It’s good fun.

BD:   Have you sung the Boito [Mefistofele]?

RVA:   No, I haven’t.  I would rather like to.  This is the first time that I’ve sung the Gounod.  It is my debut both in Seattle and in the role, actually.  I learned it many years ago to cover poor Norman Treigle at Covent Garden.  I didn’t get on there because, although he was very sick then, it was just before he died and he did all the performances.  I covered Ghiaurov in the same production but I have never actually been on stage with it.

BD:   Is this Devil you are now doing [Faust] a satisfying role?

van allan

See my interviews with Hermann Michael, and Dale Duesing

RVA:   Oh, very!  You’re on and off stage all night, and you’ve a belting aria to sing.  I love the Serenade, and I love the temptation scene in the church.  It’s very rewarding to sing.  You have three arias, four including the little arietta at the end of Act Two, and a lot of recitative-style singing, too, so I find it satisfying in all respects.  There’s a lot of movement, there’s lots of reacting with the chorus and other people on stage.  It’s a terrific role to play.

BD:   Is it a particularly French-style Devil, or is it just the Devil?  Or is it a schizophrenic thing, being originally from the German of Goethe?

van allan RVA:   [Thinks again]  The situation obviously has to be Goethe, but I do find the vocal writing for Mephisto very French.  Some of the recitative lines are very French in style and humor.

BD:   You’ve done a number of other French roles including a couple of Massenet operas.  Are they satisfying to sing, or are the parts simply too small?

RVA:   Compte Des Grieux [the father] in Manon is a wonderful role, although it’s very short... just a small dialogue scene in the first part, but then there’s the scene in Saint-Sulpice with the son, and a short aria there, and then the
Papa Germont scene in the Transylvanian Hotel.  Although it’s a short role, I find it a very telling role to do.  I enjoy doing it immensely.

BD:   Did Massenet know how to write well for the bass voice?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Peter Glossop, Don Garrard, Gwynne Howell, and Sir Charles Mackerras.]

RVA:   That aria’s a little bit tricky.  He didn’t write particularly well.  I would have liked to have had a few words with him about it.  [Laughs]

BD:   Would you ever sing the larger role, like Don Quichotte?

RVA:   That’s a role I would like to do, yes.  I was once asked to do it in Wexford, but then the whole project fell through, so I haven’t done it.  [As noted in the obituary at the top of this webpage, Van Allan would triumph in this role seven years later, in 1994.]

BD:   You’ve recorded Palémon in Thaïs...

RVA:   Yes.  That was with Sills and Maazel.  That was a long time ago.  I’m afraid I don’t mention much about that.  It was so long ago, and I’ve never had anything to do with the opera since.

BD:   You just learned it for the recording and that was it?

RVA:   Yes.  I actually prefer to record stuff that I’ve sung on stage, but this doesn’t always happen.

BD:   I would think it would be more satisfying, and you could bring more to it.

RVA:   Oh, absolutely.  This is why we enjoyed doing the Don Giovanni recording with Haitink because it was basically the cast that had worked together at Glyndebourne [LP cover is shown above].  I’d done about twelve performances there.

BD:   You just moved into the studio?

RVA:   About a couple of months later.  We knew each other’s work so well and each other’s planning, it was very enjoyable to do.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let us talk a bit about contemporary opera.  You’ve done works by Tippett, Stravinsky, and Nicholas Maw.  Are these new things written well for the voice?

RVA:   Tippett’s not bad.  Nicholas Maw was quite good for the voice, but the only problem was his vertical scoring with umpteen instruments all bashing away on some parts.  It’s very heavy to actually cut through, especially the part I was doing, Colonel Lord Jowler in The Rising of the Moon.  Every time I sang, it was double woodwind bashing away on every beat of the bar.  He had to reduce it because it was impossible to get through, but the vocal lines themselves were not too badly written at all.  It wasn’t a screaming voice chop like some of the stuff my colleagues have had to do.

The Rising of the Moon is an operatic comedy in three acts composed by Nicholas Maw to a libretto by Beverley Cross. It premiered on 19 July 1970 at the Glyndebourne Festival conducted by Raymond Leppard and directed by Colin Graham. The title comes from the Irish patriotic song of the same name.

The opera was composed over a period from 1967 to 1970 while Maw was the artist-in-residence at Trinity College, Cambridge. It was Maw's second opera, and like his first, One Man Show, is a comedy. However, while One Man Show was a farce, The Rising of the Moon is in the genre of romantic comedy with a plot about British soldiers stationed in 19th-century Ireland at the time of the Irish famines. Its premiere at Glyndebourne in 1970 during The Troubles, a period of intense ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland, was "felt to be tactless" by some critics, according to Maw's obituary in The Daily Telegraph. Nevertheless, the opera ran at 90% capacity at Glyndebourne and was revived the following year after Maw had made adjustments to the score. The opera was subsequently performed in Bremen and Graz in 1978 and at the Guildhall School of Music in 1986. It was also revived at the Wexford Opera Festival in 1990.

BD:   Is there any real point in doing screaming voice choppers?

RVA:   From my point of view, no, because quite honestly, I don’t understand a lot of the really way-out contemporary music.  I don’t understand what the composer is getting at, and I don’t understand the effect.  Therefore, I’m not very good at it.  I’m thankful that I’ve not been approached too often to do it, and those that I have been approached by I usually manage to wangle a way out of.  I say this to my shame, that maybe I should try to investigate the possibilities further, but Stravinsky, Berg, and Benjamin Britten are modern composers, and anything after that is for the birds really.

van allan BD:   Then, are you optimistic about the future of opera?

RVA:   Something will happen.  We’re going through a melting pot.  All these composers are looking for a style, and I just hope that some of them will come back far enough to let the audience catch up with them, so that we understand what the sounds are all about.  At the moment, it’s very much like some of the modern paintings used to be, with just daubs of color, and goodness knows what.  The artist didn’t bother to explain, or wasn’t even interested if anyone had understood.  That was just his impression, and I feel the same about some of the modern music.  Some of it is so modern, and it doesn’t communicate anything to me.  It’s just noise.  I would like those really way-out composers to come and re-trench, to get back to let me be able to understand that it isn’t noise, that it is music.  Then I can keep pace with them, because if it is good music
and I don’t know if it is nor notit’s far too advanced for me to be able to understand it.

BD:   If it’s far too advanced for you as a professional musician, then I assume it’s gone completely beyond the audience?

RVA:   I would think so.

BD:   Let me ask about another composer whom you seem to sing at least a bit, and that’s Verdi.  Do you enjoy singing Verdi bass roles?  
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Renata Scotto, and Alfredo Kraus.]

RVA:   Immensely.

BD:   We know he wrote well for the baritone.  Did he write well for the bass?

RVA:   Basically he did.  He’s a lovely composer to sing.  One of my favorite roles is Il Padre Guardiano in La Forza del Destino.  That is one of the most wonderful pieces of bass voice writing.

BD:   Is that role the complete antithesis of the Devil?

RVA:   Not completely, because there is still a certain amount of bigotry there.  Although Guardiano is well intentioned, he’s still confined by the dictates and conventions of the church.  He’s not the complete antithesis, but he’s getting on that way.

BD:   He’s not an evil character, is he?  

RVA:   No, not at all, but he’s confined by his own beliefs in a certain way.

BD:   He’s a very human character?

RVA:   Oh, yes, very human, and particularly in that little scene with Melitone which is rather nice.

BD:   One other Verdi role, Banquo.

RVA:   That’s a super role because it’s got a terrific aria, and it’s a very dramatic role.  Like much of the early Verdi, it’s a nice concise dramatic role, and a lovely sing.

van allan BD:   Do you think Verdi captured Shakespeare well?

RVA:   Yes, he did very well in Macbeth.  The opera is a very telling condensation of the play as a whole.

BD:   At the beginning of our chat we touched on comedy, and the difficulty of comedic timing in America as opposed to England.

RVA:   Yes, it’s just a difficult one to answer.  I really find it difficult to explain, because if I could explain it to you, I wouldn’t have any difficulty in doing it!  [Laughs]  Although we laugh at parts of each other’s humor mutually and reciprocally between England and America, there are large parts of each other’s humor that we also miss out on.  I don’t know what it is.  Americans seem to like slicker and broader humor than we do in England.  It comes in different measures, so to speak, and it’s a question of getting the broadness and the quickness in the right places.  I don’t do it very well at the moment.

BD:   [Re-assuringly]  I’m sure you do better than you give yourself credit for!  [Both laugh]  So, humor doesn’t transcend nationalities very well?

RVA:   Some situations in humor do to a certain extent, really.  It’s like the old 1, 2, 3 joke on stage, when you know what the joke is going to be... it’s going to be 1, 2, 3, laugh!  We’re amused by it, not because we don’t know the joke, but we sit there waiting to see how well the performer executes it, and this is what is funny.  That sort of situation comedy will work in all countries, but when you get to that sort of humor, it’s the playing of the 1, 2, 3
or whatever type joke it iswhere the audience is waiting to see how well you execute it.  This is where one comes unstuck, because if one doesn’t get it right, then one doesn’t get the laugh.

BD:   Does the same hold true for drama?  When the audience is seeing how well you execute the high note at the end of the aria, or how you communicate this particular bit of pathos?

RVA:   I don’t think it applies so much with drama because in many ways comedy is a much colder science.  In drama, where one is trying to communicate a feeling, that’s probably more universal.  Where one is conveying emotion, most audiences respond in a similar sort of way.

BD:   Coming back to the purely musical part, do you find singing fun?

RVA:   Oh, yes, I love it.  One’s just lucky one does what one enjoys doing best, and get paid for doing it.  There are not many people about with that sort of job satisfaction.  It has its frustrations, but the frustrations are usually caused because one isn’t in as good voice as one would like to be, or they’re self-inflicted or self-caused frustrations.  One gets artistic frustrations when one doesn’t like the production, or one doesn’t like what the conductor’s done with a piece of music, but basically it is fun.  I love it!

BD:   What advice do you have for the young singer coming along today?

RVA:   Don’t start singing too early!  Many voices are damaged by over-training at too young an age before the voice has had time to stabilize in any way.  While some light training is fine, many young singers are damaged by singing stuff which is far too heavy for them in a state which is too big, before the voice has matured and before the muscles used in singing are sufficiently developed to be able to support the voice.

BD:   Is this especially true of lower voices?

RVA:   Young basses tend to be preoccupied with squirting out low notes, and this can disturb the quality of the voice. With the higher voices, real damage can be done to the cords by trying to hit the big stuff too early.

BD:   Thank you for being a singer.

RVA:   [Surprised]  Well, God did that!  So we’ll thank Him for it.

BD:   Thank you for spending this hour with me.  I have learned a lot about your insights into opera, and about your roles.

RVA:   It’s nice talking to you.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on January 18, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1990, 1995, and 1997.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.