Fighting fit for Glyndebourne

Sir Thomas Allen weighs up his role in Die Fledermaus and the Government's track record in the arts
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The Independent Culture

It is impossible to imagine better casting than the baritone Sir Thomas Allen as Eisenstein, the rakish but regal figure about whom Die Fledermaus turns its cartwheels. He's looking forward to the Glyndebourne open- ing as a prizefighter does to a match: "The part has a very high tessitura - it could easily be sung by a tenor - so the first demand is to negotiate those upper reaches." But he has always enjoyed mixing dialogue with sung text, a requirement of this role. "It's nice to be a character who speaks, rather than just this odd figure whose emotions are carried purely on music. It's an interesting discipline."

Moreover, it's one that he is soon going to take further, when he stars in the Royal Opera's Sweeney Todd. But, as he points out, he's been moving in that direction for years, via Kiss Me, Kate and A Little Night Music. "It's a step in the direction of a straight play, which is what I've always wanted to do. That's where my love is. If I have spare time, I tend to go to the theatre, not the opera." Does the National Theatre know this?

"They do actually - there was discussion about my going into South Pacific at one point." But his passion is with Chekhov, Ibsen, and Shakespeare. "I harbour this strange ambition to sing Beckmesser [in Die Meistersinger] one night in a grand theatre, and, the following night, play Malvolio south of the river."

Last year, Sir Thomas set the Thames on fire with an incandescent speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society's annual bash, in which he flayed the record companies for dumbing down. Charlotte Church, Bond, and the Medieval Babes all got a thinly veiled drubbing, with their industrial patrons being stigmatised as "hijackers with no musical sensibilities or taste". Does he really think things are so bad? "Yes. And my worry is that it's being endorsed by the Government. There doesn't seem to be anyone at the top who is properly aware of the excellence of what classical musicians do. The Queen can't show bias, but the PM should be more wide-based than he appears to be. It's great he has an electric guitar, but serious culture is getting it in the neck because of this leadership, which seems to decry everything we stand for. The visual arts are fine, but there's something not quite acceptable about music. We must redress the balance."

Hard to see Tony Blair getting round this at present, but in the meantime, Sir Tom has been taking the gospel to under-privileged schools in Halifax. "And something that happened recently has reassured me. In one class I was asked to sing a folk song, so I said I'd sing "Molly Malone". 'We'll join in,' they said, 'because we know that.' Then, when I said, 'Who knows anything about opera?', there was much mystification. I sang Billy Budd's soliloquy, and they were hooked. It's nice to plough some- thing back into the furrows."

'Die Fledermaus', Glyndebourne Festival Opera (01273 812321), from 27 July