Shirley J Thompson: Spirit of Independence

Composer and writer Shirley J Thompson explains how she is bringing history to life in modern opera – and finding brand new audiences in the process. Interview by Mark Powell

Sacred Mountain premiered last month on the opening night of Tête à Tête Opera Festival, one of the largest international celebrations of contemporary opera on the circuit. The piece is a colourful psychological drama based around the life and times of an iconic historical figure known as Queen Nanny of the Maroons – a celebrated leader of the many African refugees who fled slavery in the Americas during the late 17th and early 18th century, and therefore widely seen as a kind of Boudicca figure in Jamaican history.

Conceived, composed and written by stellar British composer Shirley J Thompson, it’s a groundbreaking work – the first of its kind to be composed for a female lead in a heroic role – and it marks a significant milestone in Thompson’s already hugely impressive career to date.

‘It’s a pretty big piece for a full orchestra, so writing a score of that depth and intensity has been very challenging,’ says its creator. ‘I feel very happy about the sound world and the orchestral textures that I’ve created, but I think the biggest challenge was probably balancing all that against a single voice.

‘It’s a colossal role for a single person to fill,’ says Thompson, ‘but she’s an amazing musician and performer, a real artist…’ – she’s talking about the soprano Abigail Kelly, who played Queen Nanny to great acclaim in Sacred Mountain, but it occurs to me that Thompson could just as well be summarising her own CV in much the same way. (Not, I suspect, that she’d ever do so: in person, Thompson appears as breezy, likeable, down-to-earth and modest as they come – we spend a good five minutes of our interview swapping notes on driving conditions around IAM’s home city of Manchester.)

To hear of another artistic boundary being shoved firmly aside is almost par for the course when discussing Thompson’s work. Known widely as the first woman in Europe within the last 40 years to have composed and conducted a symphony (performed and recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), she’s also more generally regarded as an all-round creative visionary whose work has driven a huge diversity of critically lauded performances around the globe. One success story is the her score to the Olivier Award-winning contemporary ballet showcase PUSH, with dance by Sylvie Guillem and choreography by Russell Maliphant. PUSH has toured Thompson’s compositions to more than 30 countries worldwide since launching to huge acclaim a decade ago.

Furthermore, Thompson has been named in the London Evening Standard’s ‘Power List of Britain’s Top 100 Most Influential Black People’ in each of its past five annual round-ups.

Kelly, the lead in Sacred Mountain, also played Dido Elizabeth Belle in Thompson’s 2007 work Spirit Songs, retelling the true story of an 18th century African woman born into slavery in the West Indies, later freed and brought back to England to be raised in the custody of aristocrats. In fact, Sacred Mountain concludes a trilogy of works by Thompson written for solo female leads about iconic figures in history, with each piece starting life as a series of smaller vignettes based on flashes of inspiration picked up from a range of seemingly unlikely sources.

The first was The Woman Who Refused to Dance, inspired by a satirical print Thompson saw that depicted a young captive hung for insubordination after defying orders to dance before the crew onboard a slave ship. Scenes from Thompson’s resulting mini-opera were presented at the opening of London’s Westminster Parliamentary exhibition, British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People, in 2007; following that, the composer then built on these little sparks of inspiration, expanding them into full hour-long operatic pieces.

It’s a way of working that, for the past decade, she’s increasingly found herself gravitating towards. ‘I’m very visual, so I’ll find I’m inspired by something I see that sparks an idea for a narrative in my imagination – with The Woman Who Refused to Dance, for example, I knew nothing about her story and there’s very little available in official historical records, so I created the narrative around her and this print image I’d seen. Working that way gives you great freedom, of course, but I also felt this tremendous weight of responsibility: I wanted to turn her into a hero for her courageous act of resistance, rather than someone who’d just been brutally put down and forgotten.’

Thompson also has a background in filmmaking, which makes perfect sense when considered alongside her highly cinematic scores. It might seem unusual, that somebody so powerfully drawn towards visual stimuli has made such a name for herself as a composer and conductor of symphonic music – a medium that, for all its multifaceted complexity, is perhaps the least reliant on visual aesthetics.

Does she feel that this is something that producers of symphonic performances could do better? ‘I think there’s always room for other influences,’ she says, tactfully.

‘I love opera as a medium in itself, but I don’t like a lot of the more traditional narratives and aesthetics around it, which I often find a bit stiff,’ she confides. ‘I do love Mozart’s operas – I find the funny ones very funny, and deep, with frail characters and enticing themes – and I think a lot of what I do is inspired by his sense of narrative, timing and drama.

‘I suppose I’ve taken some cues from Mozart’s approach, and instilled them with a whole range of contemporary influences; my operatic scores include references to hip-hop, reggae, jazz, soul and contemporary classical music. It doesn’t really compare to most contemporary operatic work, which retains the traditional big intervals and high melodrama and so on; mine tend to unfold with fairly smooth lines and develop quite a soulful feel.’

Thompson’s focus on writing scores and lyrics for strong, single female voices in recent years has been something of a departure from her early compositions: as a trained violinist, she initially began composing largely instrumental works, with vocal pieces only beginning to creep in after the establishment of the Shirley Thompson Ensemble in 1995. It was with this boundary-pushing group of instrumentalists, soloists, singers, dancers and visual artists that she began to create groundbreaking compositions which seamlessly integrated contemporary classical orchestration with improvisation, pop music influences and world music styles, as well as incorporating elements of visual art, spoken word and contemporary dance for the concert stage.

With the potential to exercise her full range of creative expressions thus opened up, Thompson quickly rose to become a leading contemporary exponent of theatrical music composition and performance. However, the real impact of her diverse and unapologetically modern approach can most directly be seen in the audiences for her works, which frequently play to sold-out crowds boasting a significantly broader demographic than might typically be expected at generally more traditional opera performances.

‘I think I always wanted to appeal to a broad public, and I still do,’ she says. ‘I’m always compelled to appeal to people who perhaps don’t go to that many classical music performances; I’m not a purist in that way. I want to communicate with people in general, rather than just those people who regularly attend classical or contemporary classical recitals. I find that those established audience groups can often involve a very specific circle, so to speak, and I’m just as interested in appealing to audiences who might resonate more with film, theatre or contemporary dance than just classical music fans.’

This is an excerpt from a full interview. Pick up a full digital/print edition or subscribe to read more – including details of how Thompson’s approach to broadening opera audiences is translating to box office success, allowing her to avoid reliance on public funding for her upcoming projects.

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