MOZART’S ill-fated reprobate Don Giovanni is one of the great roles in the operatic canon. There are few men alive more familiar with the famous character than the acclaimed opera singer and director Sir Thomas Allen, who is currently reviving his 2013 production of the piece for Scottish Opera.

In his illustrious career on the stage, the English baritone has played Mozart’s blue-blooded libertine about 350 times. Based upon a centuries old Spanish legend, the opera – which boasts a script by the great librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte – tells the story of the titular, and utterly dissolute, nobleman whose misdeeds (including murder and attempted rape) catch up with him in spectacular and supernatural terms.

Allen is often referred to as “the real Billy Elliot,” on account of the fact that – as a working-class lad from a mining village in County Durham who rose to become a great figure in opera – he inspired writer Lee Hall to create the much-loved character of the schoolboy ballet dancer. Awarded a knighthood, for his services to opera, Allen (who is a fanatical supporter of Sunderland AFC) will step down as chancellor of Durham University in July, after more than a decade in the role.

I caught up with him in the midst of rehearsals for his reprise of his staging of Mozart’s famous work for Scottish Opera. His first performance in the role of Don Giovanni was, he remembers, in 1977, at the famous opera house at Glyndebourne in East Sussex.

Although he went on to play the character in no fewer than nine different productions, he never sensed that he had tamed the role. “I always felt inadequate,” he comments.

The National:

“I don’t think I did this with every role, by any means,” the director (above) continues, “but with Giovanni I just wanted to wipe the slate clean and start afresh.

“I remember particularly the last production I did at Covent Garden [in London]… On the first day of rehearsals I had to come on and tackle Donna Anna [who Giovanni attempts to sexually assault], then pick up a sword and do a fight [with Anna’s father, the military chief Il Commendatore] …

“I felt completely useless. It didn’t feel like I was built right or like I belonged there.”

The only way to make his performance work, Allen says, was to go back to first principles and build his characterisation “from scratch”.

Operatic performance in general, and the playing of Don Giovanni in particular, requires a constant process of revitalising, the director believes. “The worst thing in the world,” he continues, “is to hear an artist say, ‘I do it this way, and that’s the way it’s done.’”

Whether as singer or director, Allen has always sought to avoid repeating himself. Doing the same thing in the same way comes, he believes, “from insecurity”.

An artist might think that a certain way of playing a role will continue to be successful if they replicate it in another staging of the same opera. However, the director observes, “the chemistry changes” between one production and another, and repetition may well not work in the new context.

“You get into a much more interesting area,” Allen says, “if you allow yourself to be free, let it happen and see where it takes you.”

This will (appropriately enough) be music to the ears of Scottish Opera audiences who – whilst they might remember designer Simon Higlett’s sets, which recreate the streets of 17th-century Venice – can expect a production that is quite distinct from its 2013 incarnation. That is especially true of the lead role, which will be taken up, alternately, by Roland Wood (who was superb as the eponymous lead in last year’s Scottish Opera production of Falstaff, directed by Sir David McVicar) and Jonathan McGovern (Demetrius in Dominic Hill’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier this year).

The production will be refreshed, not only by the cast changes between 2013 and today, but also because, the director says with a laugh, “I can’t remember what the hell we did nine years ago.

“These things do change. I’m nine years older than I was then.

“Almost a new generation of singers has come along. I think most of the singers involved in [the 2022 production] I probably wouldn’t have known nine years ago.”

Of course, Allen adds, his revival will “refer back to the original design”. Higlett’s vision for the piece will, the director continues, “dictate a certain amount” of what happens on stage. “After that,” he says, “it’s free range time, really.”

Given the sheer number of Don Giovannis Allen has performed over the years, I wonder if that experience leads to a particular intensity when it comes to directing Wood and McGovern in the role. “I have to be very careful,” the director says.

“There’s a 35-year-old inside me who wants to get up and do it,” he acknowledges, with admirable candour. “I have to stem that flow.

“I tell myself every day in rehearsal to try not to go down the route of saying, ‘what I did was such-and-such’. This is the difficulty for a singer-turned-director or an actor-turned-director.

“If Judy Dench was directing Lady Macbeth, she might well have to warn herself about falling into that particular trap … It’s a question of asking yourself, ‘is there an alternative’, and of exploring all the alternatives.” Only then, he adds, does one “dip into one’s own experience.”

There is a real richness in this way of contemplating the possibilities, not only of Mozart’s music and Da Ponte’s libretto, but also of the abilities and characteristics of individual opera singers. It’s a richness, indeed, that is reflected both in Allen’s famous singing voice and in his speech, which carries the mellifluous tones of his youth in County Durham.

Given the decades he has dedicated to opera, both as singer and director, it is hardly surprising that Allen has developed an understanding of the art form that is both philosophical and practical. Take, for example, the way in which he conceives of opera singers as artists.

“The difficulty with [opera] singers is that you’re dealing with mongrels, you see,” he comments. “You’re not dealing with an actor and you’re not dealing with a concert singer. You’re dealing with a mixture of the two.”

Indeed, he continues, the business of working with opera singers is further complicated by the fact that what he calls “the proportions” of actor and concert singer within each individual opera performer varies from one to the other. Whereas one singer might “grimace on stage every time the note isn’t exactly where he or she would like it,” another opera performer might say, “I couldn’t give a damn what the note sounds like. I’m playing this role, in this manner, and the sound that comes out you’ll just have to accept, because that’s what goes with this character.” Allen would, he says, “much rather go” in the latter direction, placing the emphasis on the personality, emotions and psychology of the character in any given moment. “Flair and imagination” are, he says, “much more interesting” than prioritising “purity of voice the entire time.”

This outlook has particular significance in the case of Don Giovanni. As Allen points out, the action of the opera takes place over the course of a day or so.

“It’s a very intense period of time. The changes you go through in that period are enormous ...

“There’s a quest [due to Giovanni’s crimes] for some kind of retribution, coming from somewhere. Right from the very start of my acquaintance with this piece, there was a challenge going on with some other being, an aspect of faith or religion, whatever it might be.”

This powerful, spiritual dimension is “deeply within” Mozart’s opera, Allen believes. “There’s a challenge with God himself throughout the piece. Giovanni’s on the verge of being struck by a thunderbolt on several occasions.”

This transcendental aspect to the opera is down, not only to Mozart’s sublime music, says the director, but also to Da Ponte’s libretto. “The three Da Ponte operas [The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte] are immensely important.”

He remembers being asked, after a performance of Figaro in the United States, how he “dealt with the boredom” of playing so many performances of the same opera. He laughs.

“I don’t think I’m an obsessive, but there’s never any boredom. The libretto you’re dealing with is just brilliant.

“It shows a paucity of imagination if you think you’re ever going to get bored. It’s not just what’s written on the page, it’s what’s between the lines as well.” This fruitful artistry, of both music and text, is as true of Don Giovanni as it is of The Marriage of Figaro, says Allen.

It is obvious from our conversation that the director’s fascination about, and passion for, Don Giovanni is undimmed – a fact that bodes very well for Scottish Opera’s expectant audience.