PROMS AT ST JUDE'S: leading stars attracted by intimacy of venue

Sir Thomas Allen and Dame Felicity Lott tell David Sonin why they believe it s so important to keep in touch with the grass roots of music at the same time as juggling international performances In a country where love of song is deep rooted and the cho

Sir Thomas Allen and Dame Felicity Lott tell David Sonin why they believe it's so important to keep in touch with the grass roots of music at the same time as juggling international performances

In a country where love of song is deep rooted

and the choral tradition extends over centuries, the number of those practising the vocal arts runs into tens of thousands.

But above the layers of local choral societies, cathedral, church and college choirs, Britain has produced some of the finest singers in the world.

In drawing up any list of singers close to the music loving public's heart, the names of soprano Dame Felicity Lott and baritone Sir Thomas Allen would be among them.

As headliners in opera and on the recital platform internationally, Dame Felicity and Sir Thomas do not restrict their appearances to the great venues.

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They are often to be found giving recitals in churches, village halls and small regional venues where stellar voices are rarely heard.

And the opportunity for Proms patrons to hear this much-admired duo with the piano accompanist Malcolm Martineau will come on Monday June 18.

They will present a programme of what Sir Thomas describes as "digestible Mendelssohn and those gems from Mozart operas where we can let our hair down".

But he adds: "It is not all heavyweight stuff that is designed to weigh down an audience. The programme caters for a wide variety of taste with songs by Richard Strauss, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Stephen Sondheim."

Both singers, whose professional collaboration began in the mid-1970s, cannot stress enough the importance of taking music to the people.

This is especially so with the demise of music societies and the erosion of Britain's great choral tradition.

"I don't think schools do enough and recruitment into the cathedral choir schools is not what it was. I remember an incident a couple of years ago when I needed a boy for a part at Covent Garden and in the end had to give it to a girl," says Sir Thomas in a matter-of-fact way.

He hopes that in taking their programmes to the small communities this will help stoke the fires of interest.

Dame Felicity, who cannot disguise her enthusiasm for these rural tours, points out that the benefits are two-way.

"We are able to visit parts of the country and sing in historic churches we might not otherwise visit.

"It is a wonderful feeling to see part of our heritage at close quarters and still know that we have plenty ground to cover."

Dame Felicity and Sir Thomas will spend part of the summer touring the south of England with recital dates they seem to accommodate in their bulging diaries with ease.

Sir Thomas is currently in rehearsal at the Sage, Gateshead with his own production of what must rank as his outstanding operatic performance - Don Giovanni.

Dame Felicity's commitments, which she magically juggles with a family - actor Gabriel Woolf and daughter Emily - are no less demanding.

"I do not have much opera on the horizon, which I find a bit sad," she says.

"However, I have a series of recitals planned and recently sang Poulenc's heroine in staged performances of La Voix Humaine at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid and at the Maison de la Culture de Grenoble, where I spent an undergraduate year and for which I retain a certain fondness."

Having refined an outstanding vocal blend, Dame Felicity and Sir Thomas are also well matched in dramatic temperament and musical outlook. This is reflected in their respective and collective love of Mozart.

"You know I have never sung Susanna in The Marriage Of Figaro," recalls Dame Felicity.

"I am one of the nervous bags of bones who could never serve or dress anyone. I know my nervousness is infectious because it spreads to those around me and that knowledge somehow helps me to overcome my nerves."

Her self-perception as a bundle of nerves does not really fit with her on-stage ability to interpret imperious nobility and aristocratic heroines to perfection. One just has to list her catalogue of operatic roles of classical and 20th century opera to recognise what is a Dame Felicity role and why her successes have been legion.

"I did not set out to be a singer although at home in Cheltenham we all seemed to sing.

"I wanted to study and use French. However, I continued to take lessons while completing my degree at the Royal Holloway College.

"I had lessons during my year in Grenoble and, in the eventual tussle, music won out and I ended up at the Royal Academy of Music."

Lucky breaks help as young artists and hers came while covering Pamina in The Magic Flute at the English National Opera - in her 1975 debut in

the role. And, as the saying goes, she has never

looked back.

Sir Thomas recently celebrated his 35th anniversary of his debut at Covent Garden.

And his career seems to carry on undiminished with appearances in classical, grand and 20th century opera in such widely separated venues as Covent Garden, the Lyric Opera in Chicago, the Salzburg Easter and Summer Festivals, Glyndebourne, San Francisco and the Metropolitan in New York.

But he is equally renowned for performances on the recital platform at home, in the United States, in Europe and throughout Australia.

He has committed much of his repertoire to disc and has recorded with eminent conductors, including Sir Georg Solti, Sir Neville Marriner, Sir Simon Rattle and Bernard Haitink.

In 2003 his career path took a bold direction as

he brought all his skills to bear as director of a production of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring at the Royal College of Music.

Recently, he directed a critically successful production of Mozart's Così fan tutte at the Sage, Gateshead.

His American directorial debut was made with an equally acclaimed production of The Marriage Of Figaro for Arizona.

Later this year he will direct The Barber Of Seville for Scottish Opera.

Dame Felicity is also exploring new directions with more appearances in operetta.

Most recently, she scored a critical triumph in Offenbach's La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein. It is also reflection of what her musical tastes were as a girl. "I simply loved musicals - everything from South Pacific to Fred an d Ginger putting on the Ritz - and when I get the chance to sing that repertoire I just

love it."

So when they mount the Proms at St Jude's platform for their recital, they will present to the audience a selection of their favourite musical lollipops that should satisfy any musical palate. And the odds will be tight as to who will enjoy themselves most.