My father was a professional musician, and so it would have been quite natural that my parents would take me to see Verdi’s Aida when I was 5. It was in Savonlinna, and I remember standing on my seat to see better (the other punters must have been thrilled), the soldiers marching carrying feathered fans and vexilla. The next memory I have is of someone giving me a Richard Clayderman LP for Christmas, and after that a 5-disc set called something like “The Greatest classical music in the World”. And then I heard Puccini’s Tosca on the radio, and that was that. I would devote myself to opera.
I was probably 13, and a very strange child.
Sir Thomas Allen came to my life soon after. I started listening to operatic everything but mostly Mozart, and there he was. Papageno in Magic Flute. Don Giovanni. The Count in Marriage of Figaro. Figaro in Rossini’s Barber of Seville. I didn’t consciously think “hey, a favourite singer”, just more like “part of the fabric of my listening”. I thrifted away from classical music eventually, in my late teens and early 20s, and learned that I love bluegrass and old school country, and quite like all sorts of jazz, that I am not entirely averse to hard rock, and that Joan Baez is God. Secretly I’d listen to Celine Dion and Savage Garden and Madonna, but was never into boy bands (so much bad hair). And then just as easily I thrifted back. I worked couple of years in a music shop, honed my tastes, learnt about music, and then I left that gig to come to Oxford.
And there Sir Thomas was. In the University Church of St Mary, to be exact, singing Poulenc and Ravel and playing peacock (literally). I was amazed, actually. I had come from small town Finland, and suddenly there I was, in a world where I could go and see the man from all those Mozart albums for five pounds. It was very exciting. And I fell a little bit in love. I discovered an artist who had sung not just Mozart but everything – whole genres opened up for me because of this “journey of discovery” (eww) that I had been hurled into. Wagner. English song. Benjamin Britten. Because of Allen, Felicity Lott (whom I remembered from my wild youth; the radio was always on, and there she was), Ann Murray, Bryn Terfel, Kate Royal and ultimately Sarah Connolly came into my life – there really is something about British singers, isn’t there? My first visit to the Royal Opera was to see him perform in Gianni Schicchi, and suddenly this place that had seemed like a universe away, became something within my reach. And all the while, I kept discovering – still do – new things, new songs, new recordings of things I have never heard.
Who knows what makes us love particular voices – what magic does Connolly possess that sets the stars spinning for me that Joyce DiDonato* doesn’t? Why is Allen superior to anyone else? Other than, you know, being superior? The perfect, blessed combination of a wonderfully beautiful voice, a gift of expression, an insight, a feeling, into the music? Or an intelligence as a singer that has enabled him to choose his repertoire well, to keep going when others have been forced to drop out? The ability to charm the birds off the trees, and a sense of humour that could be described as “a bit niche”?
Okay, that probably has something to do with it.
*(disclaimer) who is just as brilliant as singer, just different