Redemption, on stage and off


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After 18 years of writing and rewriting, workshops and more work, composer Edward Thomas’s opera, “Anna Christie,” premieres later this month


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  • Nancy Rhodes, the founding artistic director of Encompass New Opera Theatre, and the composer Edward Thomas. Rhodes is directing “Anna Christie," an opera, based on Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, for which Thomas wrote the music. Photo: Harold Levine. 




BY MARK NIMAR

Edward Thomas was not yet 20 when he and the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division landed in Sicily during World War II and saw heavy combat.

“A lot of friends were hit with machine gun fire,” Thomas recounted recently. “I was lucky.”

He would return home, to Chisholm, Minnesota, in the fall of 1945. Thomas, already an accomplished guitarist, would stay but three weeks in his hometown, pop. about 7,000, before embarking for New York City, determined to pursue his musical passion. He hasn’t stopped composing.

Over the course of those seven-plus decades, Thomas would sing on recordings by eminent jazz musicians Hank Jones, Milt Hinton and Clark Terry, appear on TV alongside Jackie Gleason, Arthur Godfrey and Ernie Kovacs, write commercial jingles for TWA, Campbell’s Soup and U.S. Steel, and receive seven gold records for his work with luminaries such as Leonytne Price, Roberta Peters and Julie Andrews.

But among his most cherished milestones is his opera “Anna Christie,” which will have its world premiere at Encompass New Opera Theatre October 4.

Adapted from Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, “Anna Christie” follows the story of its eponymous heroine, who, after surviving years of sexual abuse and prostitution, reunites with her sea-barge captain father, and then falls in love with a merchant sailor who is taken aboard ship after having survived a shipwreck in the Atlantic.

Like the opera itself, getting this work to the stage was an odyssey. It took Thomas and librettist Joe Masteroff (the book writer for “Cabaret” and “She Loves Me”) 18 years of writing, rewriting, workshops and readings to get the show under the footlights. And it was after a chance encounter that, after many years of hard work, Thomas and Masteroff would get the chance to stage their creation. About five years ago, Encompass’s founding artistic director, Nancy Rhodes happened to be in the audience for another one of Thomas’s shows at the York Theatre. Rhodes was impressed with what she saw and heard, and asked Thomas if he had anything else he was working on. Thomas sent Rhodes the score for “Anna Christie,” and she fell in love with not only the music, but also the bravery and strength of the opera’s leading lady.

“I love her fierce survival, her vulnerability within that, and her passion for life. For living,” says Rhodes. “Anna suffered severe hardships, but she [didn’t] let it stop her from becoming the authentic person she was meant to be, and to go on in her life in a positive manner.... Eugene O’Neill was very far ahead of his time. He was one of the first American dramatists to write so deeply and authentically about these people he actually knew in his life. He was recognized for understanding the backstory of what caused her to go into prostitution. He wrote in such a way that was truly authentic, and real and passionate. The story resonates particularly today with the #MeToo Movement, and what women have suffered with throughout history.”

Rhodes would eventually come to direct Thomas’s opera, currently in rehearsal.

“The music-drama is on a barge. We are creating water around the barge. There’s this feeling of floating, so we have the presence of the sea constantly.... [we’re] just putting all that together,” says Rhodes.

If you have never been to an opera before, “Anna Christie” is the perfect place to start, Rhodes insists. “It has music that’s very singable,” she says. “It has these jazz elements. But it’s very lyrical, and it’s dramatic, because there are a lot of confrontational scenes. It can appeal to sophisticated musical lovers and musical theater people. It will attract both ends of the spectrum.”

The story is a charged, powerful drama perfectly suited for the grandness of the operatic stage. The wide-ranging style of the score is owed to its composer’s rich and varied career in the music world.

After the show’s October 7 matinee, Thomas will celebrate his 94th birthday with the show’s cast and audience. “I don’t even believe it’s happening. It’s weird. I can’t even explain it,” says Thomas.

Peering back, Thomas takes everything in stride. “The most important thing looking back,” he says, “is basically being happy, and accepting that you could do what you could do when you could do it. It’s the doing that’s more important than the fame and the money.... A philosopher said ‘never too late to be what you might have been.’ You keep doing what you need to do and want to do. And whatever will be will be. It’s hard work,” Thomas admits.

Thomas finds his personal philosophy reflected in his opera. The story of Anna Christie “proves that it’s never too late to get what you hope for,” he says. “Because she ended up being a prostitute, and she meets [the sailor], and they’re gonna get married.... You get the feeling they’re gonna be happy together, and she has something real.... She has found someone. And strangely, in these times, relationships are hard to create and remain substantively.... I think that’s the main statement. All the rest is drama preceding.”





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