The Man behind Mignon
Two men, outwardly similar. One wrote Broadway musicals, the other popular opera. Both enjoyed big successes in the theater world. Both had parents who were musicians. One of them—Andrew Lloyd Webber, creator of the musicals Cats and Phantom of the Opera—is known worldwide. Yet the other, Ambroise Thomas of France, is obscure. What’s the difference?
Maybe just time. In 130 years, people might say, “Andrew Lloyd who?” when they hear Webber’s name. After all, 130 years ago, Ambroise Thomas, too, was known worldwide.
Some artists struggle to find direction in life. Thomas’ career followed a perfect arc: from a musical family to music school at the Paris Conservatory; from first prize in a composition contest to his first opera in 1837; then from opera to opera for three decades until, as an respected success, he returned to the Conservatory as a teacher. His career came full circle when became the Conservatory’s director, a job he held for nearly 25 years until his death. Late in life, he opposed the music of younger composers like Gabriel Fauré and César Franck, to whom Thomas seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. He died at age 84.
The contest that Thomas won as a young man—the Conservatory’s prestigious Prix de Rome—had a lasting effect. Its prize was a year’s study in Rome, where he fell in love with a smooth, sweet, melodic style of singing called bel canto. Back in Paris, he staged his operas in this style at the Opéra Comique, but Thomas was not famous outside France until his big success, Mignon, in 1866. Over the next decades, that work saw more than a thousand performances across Europe. He followed up with another success, an opera version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
For Mignon, Thomas adapted the story of another great writer, Goethe, whose works have inspired music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Wagner and others. It tells of a young woman, Mignon, stolen from her family as a child by a group of traveling dancers. The hero, Wilhelm, rescues her; the two fall in love; and Mignon rediscovers her home and family. For later audiences, the tale seems too neat and sentimental, the melodies sound pleasant but forgettable. Though Mignon is rarely performed today in full, some of its songs still show up in recitals of the bel canto style. Fauré and Franck, meanwhile, remain well known. And Lloyd Webber? Check back in a century.
© Andrew Campbell