Discovering Thelma

Never heard of “Thelma”? Well now is your chance!

Musical works that have never been performed usually have an interesting story behind them – either they are lousy, unfinished, or the composer felt dissatisfied with it, but none of these reasons apply to “Thelma”.

Written between 1907 and 1909, Samuel Coleridge Taylor clearly expected his opera to be performed, but as Catherine Carr, who discovered the manuscript tucked away in the British Library in 2003, said,

The thing I’ve not been able to understand is why it wasn’t staged. Van Moorden, the artistic director of Carl Rosa Opera, refused to stage it and Coleridge-Taylor was bitterly, bitterly disappointed.

People have said there were insurmountable staging problems. I don’t know. Maybe the technical demands of that time were too problematic to engineer. Certainly it cannot have been the music, the quality is such, it couldn’t have been that!

Some have suggested that after this disappointment, the work was dropped because Coleridge-Taylor was simply too busy.

He travelled widely, received many commissions and, conducted choirs and orchestras, including performances of his most popular work, The Song of Hiawatha. It seems the chain-smoking composer led such a hectic life it is not entirely surprising that his opera never saw the light of day again.

In 1912 he died prematurely, at the age of 37, and his papers remained in Croydon with the family until the early 1990’s when they were eventually given to the British Library.

As part of the 2012 Centenary year celebrations to be held in Croydon, members of Surrey Opera have been grappling with the original hand-written score and the new transcription by Stephen Anthony Brown in readiness for the first ever production of the opera at the Ashcroft Theatre, Fairfield Halls 9-11th February 2012.

Fortunately our well known Director Christopher Cowell is not discouraged by “the insurmountable problems” and brings the additional experience of working in Scandinavia, thus ensuring the work – based upon a Norse legend – reflects a genuine Nordic flavour.

Will “Thelma” appeal to a 21st century audience? Definitely – opera lovers are in for a treat.


As Music Director Jonathan Butcher has commented, “We are explorers without sat nav, maps, or compass”. The excitement of a totally new opera is discovering the melodic paths and interpreting the composer’s hints and signs.

Yet what emerges is a vivid and carefully crafted musical work, fully accessible to a modern audience. Living in the early twentieth century, it is easy to see why Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was Stanford’s star pupil at the Royal College of Music. His orchestrations are stylish whilst supporting the action and singers. Jonathan Butcher also believes that Coleridge-Taylor was strongly influenced by the music of Dvorak whom he greatly admired.

When the production was first mooted, whilst the Company was on tour in Cornwall, Stephen Anthony-Brown bravely offered to undertake the transcription from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “spidery” original hand written text – yet 600 hours later he is still enthusiastic about the work and will be appearing as the Neck King. Surrey Opera is very much in his debt.

The task facing Director Christopher Cowell was in many ways the most daunting. Whilst the music flows smoothly the libretto has needed major re-writing due to the “densely-rhymed and often obscurely-couched Edwardiana” English text. He emphasises that “the plot has been retained exactly as Coleridge-Taylor imagined, and the rhyming pattern has been faithfully observed… It is very similar to the work I do when translating operas for ENO, only this time I am translating from English into — better English.”

The opera “Thelma”, set in the 10th century, basically takes the form of a Norse saga, and it is easy to imagine the tale being recounted by a Viking warrior during the long dark winter months.

Christopher Cowell has cleverly interpreted the action in such a way that the ancient Viking gods and evil spirits co-exist with the embryonic new Christian beliefs. Indeed “Thelma” clearly contrasts the conflict between the Viking belief in physical power and the power of nature (Carl) with the softer selflessness of Christianity (Gudrun).


As Alberto Sousa our Portuguese tenor soloist – playing the part of the hero Eric – has discovered,

The joy of this work is the fact that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor clearly understood the voice and how to use it to greatest effect.

The Plot – set in the 10th century and based upon a Viking Saga, recounts the story of two Viking warriors both competing for the hand of King Olaf’s beautiful daughter Thelma, who needless to say loves the hero Eric. Unable, for political reasons, to chose between the two suitors, King Olaf sets them a seemingly impossible challenge – to recover his ancestor’s gold chalice from the seabed. This twist provides the opportunity to introduce a host of good and evil mystical characters.

Joanna Weeks, playing the sweet voiced heroine Thelma, agrees with Alberto, that the music was written “to encompass the singer’s full range.” However, acquiring the skills of a 10th century Viking princess – “never before have I been required to learn how to spit” – has not been quite so easy!

Håkan Vramsmo, a real Swede, is enjoying his role as the wicked Viking warrior Carl, determined to have Thelma by fair or foul means. Håkan, a baritone, who came to Britain about 12 years ago to study Opera, now teaches singing in London. He plays opposite Rhonda Browne, “a Kiwi”, who spoke for the whole cast when she said,

It is strange and slightly frightening to put on a première without the involvement of its creator.

As Gudrun (mezzo) she probably has the most difficult role – she has embraced Christianity but remains in love with the vindictive pagan Carl.

All other cast members have appeared with Surrey Opera in other productions. Oliver Hunt playing the demon Djaevelen last appeared in The Abduction from the Seraglio (2005): he seems to thrive in malign roles. Tim Baldwin, a Surrey Opera regular recently seen in Albert Herring (2011), plays King Olaf. Patricia Robertson, playing Trolla – the “fairy godmother” was last seen in The Beggar’s Opera (2006) and Stephen Anthony-Brown, the Neck König joined us in Madam Butterfly (2009) and The Bartered Bride (2010).


With only a score and a few scribed margin notes for guidance, Christopher Cowell (Director) and Bridget Kimak (Designer) have had the delight of defining the focus and look of the new Opera.

The centre of the plot is occupied by the Maelstrom – a Viking word, coined to describe the treacherous whirlpool which lies between the Norwegian mainland and the Lofoten Islands. The word was well known to the Victorian public, following the publication of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “A descent into the Maelstrom”.

Inspired by the mystical world of the Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum, Bridget Kimak’s set consists of a series of simple lines suggesting the constant swirling of water, around and in which characters move. The costumes have also been conceived in a visionary style because, apart from a few archaeological remains, nobody really knows how the Vikings actually dressed.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor had obviously done some research about the Viking culture and myths before he wrote the Opera. However, there are a few incongruous details, like the devil Djaevelen sniffing snuff, which has been retained in a desire to remain faithful to the original text.

In the early 1900’s when the Opera was written, it would not have been staged without numerous lavish sets (again this may be another reason why it was originally rejected). Today’s audiences are more accustomed to the use of lighting effects to convey mood and atmosphere and Lighting Designer, Christopher Corner, will be using a full palette to enhance the overall production.With only a score and a few scribed margin notes for guidance, Christopher Cowell (Director) and Bridget Kimak (Designer) have had the delight of defining the focus and look of the new Opera.