AN important, large-scale British opera penned over 100 years ago which posterity is calling Thelma, gets its long overdue world premiere in early February, albeit not locally but as a result of local tenacity.
Thought lost or destroyed, a simmering, not to say tantalising interest remained in it as it is by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (of Hiawatha fame), the centenary of whose death occurs this year.
And it came to pass that Sheffield musician, teacher and academic Catherine Carr discovered the three-act work in 2003 after embarking on a part time PhD on the life and work of Coleridge-Taylor at Durham University, having completed an MPhil degree at Sheffield University in 1996.
“I became intrigued when I was researching the history and development of Jamaican reggae with reference to Bob Marley’s music for my MPhil and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s name kept cropping up,” explains the one-time Hunter’s Bar and High Storrs schools pupil.
“Marley died when he was 36 and Coleridge-Taylor when he was 37. To be such a great musician and to die at that age, that’s really why I started delving into his music, but didn’t want to look at it from the angle of race or gender – important though the African aspect is.
“There seemed to be a lacuna in examining his work as a composer just through the music itself, not the black cultural element, so I was looking at structure and tonality, style, influence, all that sort of thing within the larger framework of then-contemporary Britain.
“I was quite a way in to the degree, examining his music output, when I realised that the opera was important. I thought, crikey! It’s a huge work, which he regarded as his greatest achievement, so I made it my mission to track it down.
“I knew it hadn’t been destroyed because I had seen a letter, written to Coleridge-Taylor’s wife Jessica in 1913 (the year after his death) mentioning the opera, performing rights and so on.
“Then I found it, analysed it – Coleridge-Taylor’s scrawly handwriting meant it took time!
“I went through it all and completely analysed the whole opera and it became the fulcrum of my thesis. I had loads and loads of examples typeset so that it could be seen clearly.
“It’s really interesting stuff!”
It also took time for her to find it, scouring libraries where Coleridge-Taylor’s manuscripts had been deposited and eventually found it in the British Library but not catalogued.
“There were boxes of stuff that had printouts of catalogue numbers but no names attached to them so, literally, you had to go through a box of sheets and manuscripts one by one which is why I think nobody else had found it.”
Assembling the various, separately filed parts, Catherine found she had both the full score and short score of the opera.
She made a typewritten copy of the libretto, almost certainly by the composer himself, did her scrupulous analysis of the score and confesses to have being “blown away by the fact that it had been hidden away until I found it.
“I was amazed at the quality of the music. The opera shows us a completely different side to Coleridge-Taylor. It’s top-drawer stuff, the arias, the way he juxtaposes relationships, thematic ideas, use of the chorus.
“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!”
Such was her belief in the work that after receiving her PhD degree in 2006 she approached UK opera companies with a view to getting it performed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the opera’s completion in 1909.
“I rang and wrote but I’m not a businesswoman and I couldn’t rouse any interest in it. I’m so thrilled now; absolutely delighted that’s going to be put on.”
Marie Corelli fans should not get excited, however. Coleridge-Taylor’s Thelma is not her hugely popular 1887 romantic novel (reprinted countless times) although it had a tenuous, indirect influence.
“Lots of people have said, and sources misinformed, that he chose that novel,” says Catherine, revealing that Coleridge-Taylor liked his wife to read books out loud to him while he was scoring music.
Aspects of Corelli’s novel stuck: the title character with a father called Olaf, the setting in Norway, and calling it Thelma with an alternative title, The Amulet, when he began work on the opera.
Realising that it might be construed as an operatic version of Corelli’s novel, he changed Thelma to Freda upon completing it, although 21st-century editors of the work have opted to retain Thelma.
So what’s it all about, you ask?
It’s a sort of swords and sorcery tale set in Norway related in wonderful Anna Russell-like style by Catherine Carr by way of a 670-word ‘nutshell’ plot which must, however, be reduced to 160 as a summation.
Eric and Carl love Thelma (who loves Eric), daughter of King Olaf (who wants her to marry Carl), who sets them the task of recovering a gold cup lost in a maelstrom to sort out the en passé.
A fairy godmother-like character gives Eric a magic amulet to protect him. A demon/ devil tells Carl about this who says he will do anything to be successful – “and we all know what that means.”
Gudrun (“the real heroine”), who loves Carl, overhears the plot and is then involved in various scenes where the amulet changes hands before ending up in hers.
Confident in Eric’s failure, Carl tells Olaf he is dead. Rather than marry Carl, Thelma informs Gudrun she is going to kill herself. Then Eric arrives and presents the gold cup to Olaf.
None too happy, Carl lunges at Eric with his sword but Gudrun gets in the way and is killed. Carl is repentant – too late! The devil drags him away!
It sounds a trifle Wagnerian; is it musically?
“In a way. He does use different themes for different characters but it’s really in the manner of post-Wagnerian operas” – after which the answer gets technical: leitmotifs, key relationship and symbolism, interrelationships and so on, but all dramatically convincing and cohesive.
“It’s a fantastic piece of work; ultimately, in the guise of late 19th-century Italian opera (i.e. late Verdi) and Puccini,” concludes Catherine.
She will be giving pre-performance talks on the opera at its premiere outings on February 9, 10 and 11 in a Surrey Opera production with professional soloists and orchestraat the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon where Coleridge-Taylor lived and spent his life.
Later this year, the multi-racial touring company Pegasus Opera will be staging it as a contribution to Black History Month.