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'Thelma', by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

A world première at Croydon

It's not often that a company has the opportunity to stage the World Première of an opera but such an opportunity has come the way of Surrey Opera and, as a company in Croydon where Coleridge-Taylor lived and worked, what other more fitting company should take up this exciting and enormously worthwhile challenge?

SC-T, as he is often affectionately known, had not prior to Thelma really tackled a full operatic work and it is curious that for his first venture into the genre he should choose to write the libretto himself – we have no evidence that to prove that it is by anyone else.

Sadly, this may have been the opera's initial downfall as, when Thelma was presented to the renowned Carl Rosa company for consideration, its text may have been the very reason for them not agreeing to stage the opera; this and, of course, SC-T's untimely death at the tragically young age of 37. Were he to have lived longer, he, like so many other composers, would surely have revised the work. However Surrey Opera's Associate Artistic Director and Thelma's Director, Chris Cowell, has discreetly edited the text, bringing it more up to date and aiding its scansion. As many WAM readers may know, Chris is a highly successful and prolific translator of opera libretti as well as having numerous acclaimed directorial credits to his name.

So why was SC-T enticed into writing a stage work at all when his 'bread and butter' seems to have been oratorio? Just think of the Hiawatha trilogy, although Hiawatha's Wedding Feast itself, though making him famous almost overnight, famously earned him pitifully little as he sold the work outright to the music publisher Novello. A decision he was to bitterly regret.

There are all the obvious reasons for SC-T not embarking on a stage work such as lack of time – he was a very busy man – conducting, teaching and adjudicating, let alone finding time to honour all his endless composition commissions. But he may have fallen in love with the whole business of 'the theatre' when he met and consequently wrote incidental music for the productions of the great and eccentric actor/manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Tree was very enamoured with SC-T's music and engaged him to write music for a number of his West End productions, most notably Shakespeare's Othello and Stephen Phillip's play Nero.

In case there should be any confusion, Surrey Opera's production will be fully staged with chorus and orchestra and an impressive line-up of soloists including Joanna Weeks in the title role. It will be performed in SC-T's original scoring transcribed from his manuscripts by Stephen Anthony Brown and with stage set and costume designs by Bridget Kimak. The production will be conducted by Jonathan Butcher.
Coleridge-Taylor wrote Thelma between approximately 1907 and 1909 and the only part of the opera that has ever been heard before is its brief 'Prelude', which was performed in March 1910 by the New London Orchestra conducted by Landon Ronald.

The opportunity for Surrey Opera to stage Thelma in the Centenary of the composer's death is, quite frankly, thrilling and interest in this World Première Production on the 9th, 10th and 11th February 2012 is already attracting an enormous amount of media interest.

Jonathan Butcher
Published in Words and Music, Jan/Feb 2012