Interview: Soprano Indra Thomas on A Child of Our Time at the Barbican

'Tippett shows us that you must not lose hope even if the situation is dire'

4 December 2007

Barry Douglas - interview

African-American soprano Indra Thomas is fast becoming one of the leading Verdi sopranos of her generation, having sung Aida, Leonora in both Il trovatore and La forza del Destino, and Amelia in Un ballo in maschera in leading houses around the world. Although she has yet to sing at Covent Garden, Thomas has appeared at the Proms in Tippett's A Child of Our Time, a piece to which she returns next week with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis at the Barbican. I caught up with her to discuss her approach to this piece and her plans for the future.

The soprano shows as keen an interest in the themes which Tippett was trying to deal with as in the music itself. 'I think the central message of A Child of Our Time is that all war - even necessary wars like the Civil War and World War II - bring with them heartache and despair', she says. 'But by contrasting Herschel Grynszpan's ordeal in Nazi Germany with Negro Spirituals, Tippett shows us that you must not lose hope even if the situation is dire.'

Last time she was in London, Indra Thomas sang the same piece, A Child of Our Time, at the First Night of the Proms in 2005, only a few days after the July bomb attacks. Evidently, to perform this anti-war oratorio in such a context was unusually apt. 'This was a very serene experience for me. I had been in one of the stations that was bombed one week prior to the incident. So to return to London in the aftermath was a bit daunting.  But when we came to the performance, I was so inspired by the attendance of the public. There were thousands of people there.  It seemed the bombing had not dampened the spirit of the festival. It was almost as if they needed the release the music brought.'

Tippett refers to Negro Spirituals in this score, and as an African-American singer Thomas clearly feels a special affinity with it. 'When I began working on this piece I was intrigued by the thought of blending very modern sounds with traditional Negro spirituals - I was very pleased with how he wove the two together. This music depicts the parallel struggles the Jews faced in Germany and the Blacks faced in America; every time I sing this piece I am moved emotionally and spiritually.'

These performances of A Child of Our Time reunite the singer with Colin Davis, with whom she performed it a couple of years ago. 'Sir Colin and I worked together on this very piece with the Boston Symphony, and it was my debut with the orchestra.  The one thing I find important in a conductor is the ability to tell the message of the piece without losing its fluidity. This is what makes Maestro Davis such a powerful conductor.'

Barry Douglas - interview

Thomas explains that there 'is not a big difference between my concert performances and my opera performances. Because I am an emotional singer, I try to convey the meaning of the text through my singing.  Whether it is oratorio, opera, or art songs, I find if it is done this way it keeps the audience interested and me as well!'

The performances of A Child of Our Time in early December are being recorded for the LSO's award-winning in-house label, LSO Live, which has recently brought us a new recording of Handel's Messiah. Indra Thomas evidently relishes the recording process. 'I love the fact that posterity will have a document of my work', she says. 'I like to record whether it is in a studio or live.  However, making live recordings for me is better because I think the listener can hear your true instrument. For me, live recordings are much more exciting to listen to. Also, from a tutorial standpoint, the listener can get a sense of the piece in a live situation and what is involved in singing any piece live.'

At the moment, Thomas isn't scheduled to return to London after these Tippett concerts, though she says she'd 'love to return to your fair city again and again'. But in the past few years she's been steadily making house debuts across Europe - Hamburg, Florence, Genoa - and will perform Amelia in Un ballo in maschera in Madrid and Vienna. 'I am very pleased with the progress I am making in Europe and I appreciate the support I am getting from all the opera companies and orchestras from these countries, as well as Japan.  I look forward to singing again in these countries with the possibility of adding even more in the future. Debuting in European opera houses is a great addition to my career.'

When I ask her about her personal career highlights, she answers: 'I have so many! But my most memorable so far, is giving the world premiere in concert of Le Dernier Jour d'un condamné, an opera by David Alagna (brother of Roberto Alagna), at the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris with the prospect of performing it with several opera house in the future.'

The composer with whom Indra Thomas is most associated is Verdi. She recently made her debut at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence as Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, a role which will also serve for her Madrid and Vienna State Opera debuts in coming seasons; she also sang it for her Italian debut in Genoa and in Hamburg last year. Both the Leonoras, Aida and the Requiem are also staple ingredients of her repertoire. 'As I stated earlier, I am a singer that sings with my emotions; in my opinion, Verdi composed with his emotions.  So with that said, I feel we are suited quite nicely to each other', she says. 'If you listen to his music you will find a great deal of range.  Sometimes his music starts with joy and absolute beauty in the line then in an instant it can turn to frantic outbursts of emotion and yet in the very next moment you find yourself exposed and weeping.  I think this is why so many people relate to his music - it's because it reflects the human nature.  We are not beings of one emotion; we have several emotions and we show them on a daily basis.  You can be sure if you attend a Verdi opera he will tap into several of those emotions before the curtain falls. This is why we love to hear it and that is why I love to sing it.'

Barry Douglas - interview

While Thomas hopes to continue singing Verdi through her career, she also has ambitions to branch out in other directions.  'I would like to sing some Puccini (Manon Lescaut or Tosca), Mozart (Don Giovanni or Le nozze di Figaro) and Strauss (Ariadne auf Naxos)', she says. 'And eventually some Wagner - Tannhäuser or Lohengrin.' Aside from this, she wants to use her personal experiences to help others. 'I believe in the support of young and gifted singers so I would eventually like to start either a scholarship competition for young singers or a 6 week intensive study programme for young singers.  Though of course, this will be some years from now.'

When Indra Thomas was a teenager, she made perhaps her most famous vocal appearance, though few people probably realise it. In the funeral scene of the Oscar-winning film Driving Miss Daisy, she sang 'What a Friend we have in Jesus'. She explains that 'being on the set of Driving Miss Daisy was definitely different from being on stage in an opera.  When you are in front of the camera, you get to do several takes from different angles and you can edit out all the bad takes.  On an opera stage you only have one shot at getting it right and when you mess up there are no 'do-overs'.  Of course, that is the beauty of live theatre!' Would she like to appear in front of the cameras again? 'Yes! I would love to do an opera film.  Perhaps Aida!'

By Dominic McHugh

Indra Thomas sings the soprano soloists in Tippett's A Child of Our Time on 16 and 18 December at the Barbican. More information can be found on the LSO's website.

Read other recent interviews with singers such as Ian Bostridge, Petra Lang, Rebecca Evans, Ann Murray, Claire Rutter, John Hudson, Susan Graham, Sally Burgess, Rosalind Plowright and Marcello Giordani here.