Tuesday 12 November 2019

From Eugene O'Neill play to American folk opera: I chat to composer Edward Thomas about his opera 'Anna Christie'

Edward Thomas
Edward Thomas
The American composer Edward Thomas has worked in a wide variety of genres, jazz, theatre, commercial, concert music and opera. He studied originally with the Hungarian-American composer Tibor Serly, and has had a career as a guitarist, songwriter and composer. His opera Anna Christie, based on the Eugene O'Neill play, was premiered in October 2018 by Encompass New Opera Theatre at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York and is now available on disc.  

Anna Christie is Edward's third opera, and his second based on a Eugene O'Neill play (he has also made an opera of Desire under the Elms).
Both operas have librettos by Joe Masteroff (who unfortunately died a week before the premiere of Anna Christie). Masteroff is perhaps best known for writing the book to the musical Cabaret. Masteroff and Thomas's collaborations go back some considerable time.  It was Edward who had the idea for and opera based on Eugene O'Neill's Desire under the Elms in the 1970s and contacted Masteroff, who was interested. They wrote it over the period of a year, but it was not until 1989 that they finally got a premiere. But their collaboration went beyond opera, and they collaborated on the musical Six Wives, based on the life of Henry VIII.

Mat Burke (Jonathan Estabrooks) and Anna Christie (Melanie Long) in Anna Christie, Encompass New Opera Theatre, 2018. Photo: Steven Pisano.
Edward Thomas: Anna Christie - Mat Burke (Jonathan Estabrooks), Anna Christie (Melanie Long)
Encompass New Opera Theatre, 2018. Photo: Steven Pisano.
Edward is now over 90 and we had a lively conversation over Skype which ranged widely over a number of parts of his diverse career. Early in his career he played guitar as a session musician, playing with quite a lot of the jazz greats, and later on had a jazz vocal group, the Eddie Thomas Singers whose first release was on Saga Records. His score for the musical Mata Hari, with lyrics by Martin Charnin and book by Jerome Coopersmith, was originally produced by David Merrick in Washington D.C., and subsequently staged in New York. He is entertaining company, and has a number of funny stories about Mata Hari, generally involving audience laughter at inappropriate times. And at one point in our conversation he has trouble remembering a name and comments that 'this grey matter is very petulant'!

Edward had first started playing music in the Army during World War Two, and after the war he developed his guitar playing so that he could become a session musician and support his family. A talent for writing jingles led him to a 30-year career in the advertising industry. But serious music was always his passion, which is how he came to study with Tibor Serly (a pupil of Bartok, who completed Bartok's Viola Concerto which was left unfinished at Bartok's death), finally writing his first orchestral piece after six years with Serly. Much of Edward's creative surge has come after he retired.

Edward Thomas: Mata Hari - PosterDesire under the Elms was finally recorded in 2002, with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Manahan with soloists including Jerry Hadley and James Morris, and released in Naxos American Opera Classics series. A couple of years later, Masteroff called Edward to talk about O'Neill's play Anna Christie and ask whether Edward might be interested in an opera. Edward read the play and rented a DVD of the film, which starred Greta Garbo. He wasn't sure, and hummed and hawed for a week but decided that as he wasn't doing anything at the time, he would give it a go.

There were a number of readings of the piece, at various stages of its development but eight years ago Masteroff said that he had done all he could do on the libretto, and Edward put the work aside.  Then his musical Six Wives was revived as a one-off memorial event, and there Edward met Nancy Rhodes from Encompass New Opera Theatre, who had helped with Desire Under the Elms, and he told her about Anna Christie and she was interested.

Masteroff's final comment regarding the libretto, 'do whatever you want', liberated Edward and he put dialogue back that Masteroff had removed, and moved sections around to create a trio and duets.  It had taken Edward a year creating sketches to get really into the piece, and it needed the freedom given him by Joe Masteroff to liberate him.

Nancy Rose and her musical director got back to Edward and said that they wanted to perform the opera 'Next May'. In fact, he still needed to do the orchestration and it was two years of work before Anna Christie was ready for the premiere. What Edward describes as 'every composer's dream'.

George Manahan was due to conduct the premier, but his schedule prevented it. The conductor Julian Wachner, musical director of Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York, took on the performances, and the church contributed to the recording of the opera. When we spoke, the recording had been submitted for a Grammy though Edward commented that he 'wasn't holding his breath'. But the recording has got to number six on Billboard. Edward describes the piece as a light opera, as cross-over between theatre and opera, but there is a substantial amount of sung dialogue.

Edward Thomas
Edward Thomas
When I ask him what is favourite work is, he names his Fantasy for two clarinets which was premiered by the New York Virtuosi with soloists Stanley and Naomi Drucker (Stanley Drucker was first clarinet chair with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and Naomi his wife, also a clarinettist). Years before, Edward had written a work for clarinet and orchestra which he tried to get Stanley Drucker to premiere, unfortunately Drucker was out of town but he recommended another clarinettist. And it was Drucker who came back to ask Edward to write the Fantasy. It was recorded in 2011 by Stanley and Naomi Drucker with the American Composers Orchestra conducted by George Manahan.

You can find out more about Edward's music from his website. His music is available on disc:

  • Anna Christie: Edward Thomas/Joe Masteroff - Joy Hermalyn, Frank Basile, Melanie Long, Jonathan Estabrooks, Mike Pirozzi, Encompass New Opera Theatre, Julian Wachner - available from Amazon
  • Desire Under the Elms: Edward Thomas/Joe Masteroff - Jerry Hadley, James Morris, Victoria Livengood, Mel Urich, Jeffrey Lenz, London Symphony Orchestra, George Manahan - Naxos American Opera Classics - available from Amazon
  • Mata Hari: Edward Thomas/Jerome Coopersmith/Martin Charnin - available from Amazon.com
Elsewhere on this blog
  • Gems and discoveries: Piano Quartets from the Rossetti Ensemble at Conway Hall  (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Come into the Garden: Samling Artist Showcase 2019 at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bringing to the community something which it would not otherwise see: I chat to festival director Anthony Wilkinson about the Wimbledon International Music Festival - interview
  • Engagingly youthful: Mozart's Cosi fan tutte from Ian Page and the Mozartists (★★★★) - opera review
  • Beethoven Transformed: volume 1 of Boxwood & Brass' new project  (★★★★) - Cd review
  • A final farewell: the Hilliard Ensemble & Jan Garbarek captured live on their final tour, Remember me, my dear (★★★) - CD review
  • A distinct voice: Emergence, Nadine Benjamin & Nicole Panizza in settings of Emily Dickinson (★★★½) - CD review
  • The Exiled Outsiders: music by Hans Gál, Max Kowalski, Peter Gellhorn at London Song Festival  (★★★★) - concert review
  • An artist should be careful not to put themselves in a box: I chat to tenor Leonardo Capalbo about the challenges of singing the title role in Verdi's Don Carlos - interview
  • Kiandra Howarth takes first prize at the Grange Festival International Singing Competition - my article
  • 'The first great example of British exceptionalism': Purcell's King Arthur re-thought in an engaging performance and accompany CDs from Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli  (★★★★★)  - CD & Opera review
  • A ravishing and heart-rending evening: Massenet's Manon from the Met, Live in HD (★★★★) - opera review
  • A remarkable reinvention: Verdi's Don Carlos in French in Flanders (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Home

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