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VIRGIL THOMSON & THE BEGINNING OF ENCOMPASS
from Nancy Rhodes, Artistic Director of Encompass New Opera Theatre
"American opera is a passionate pursuit"
There are some things one never forgets. For me it was meeting Virgil Thomson at the Chelsea Hotel in 1974. I remember he swung open the door of his apartment and we both stood there gazing at each other, then simultaneously the two of us broke into gales of laughter. No wonder. I was in my bohemian phase and wore an outfit mildly reminiscent of Alice B. Toklas; while his witty eyes blazed out at me from a pink, cherub face, and in a somewhat squeaky voice, he ushered me inside. There was a huge bay window at the far end of the room, and as I sat down on a velvet settee, I noticed Matisse and Picasso paintings on the wall.
We got right to it. "Mr. Thomson, I'm going to be directing your opera, The Mother of Us All, and I wanted to tell you some of my ideas." "Oh good," he bellowed. It didn't matter that I was 22 and he was 82. We had a ball that day. We hit it off you might say. He leaped up and ran over to the piano and began singing "Angel More, more, more, Angel More, can you hear me." I clapped and he sang the duet between Joe the Loiterer and Indiana Elliot. I told him how deeply I felt about Susan B. Anthony's struggle, asked him lots of questions about Gertrude Stein, Paris, and the salon. He offered me a nice glass of sherry and we talked and talked.
Sometimes we met over dinner at the El Quixote Restaurant next door to the Chelsea. I had my first Flan with Virgil, something he heartily recommended. He introduced me to the aesthetics and the music of the era between the wars. He talked about Paul and Jane Bowles, Aaron Copland, his friend, the painter Maurice Grosser, George Antheil, Marc Blitzstein, Nadia Boulanger, and of course Gertrude and Alice B. He told me it wasn't easy for American opera composers to get their work performed in major American opera houses. With this production of The Mother of Us All I unwittingly became the respository for all things Steinian and Thomson-esque.
And so, Encompass New Opera Theatre was born, inspired by Virgil. In fact, he invited me to share a speaking engagement with him, and afterwards, said to me, "I'm turning the mantle of American opera over to you now." For better or worse I've tried to keep my promise to him, for in the Encompass history we've created, developed and produced over 55 American operas with orchestra and over 150 readings of new works from jazz and cabaret to musicals and operas.