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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Richard Thompson Richard Thompson

So Suite: Music Professor’s Work Gets the Royal Treatment

Composer Richard Thompson found a particularly personal location for the world premiere of his chamber opera.
By Aleah Jarin

As a schoolboy growing up in Aberdeen, Scotland, Richard Thompson would go to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) the first Tuesday of every month.

“It was the only opportunity we had to hear a live orchestra,” said Thompson, an associate professor of music in San Diego State University’s School of Music and Dance. “We got a chance to hear live pieces that we listened to on records in our music classes. I remember being particularly excited to hear Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, after reading the program notes.”

“Of course, I never imagined that one day they would play a piece written by me,” he said.

That’s exactly what happened in January when the orchestra performed the world premiere of Thompson’s “The Mask in the Mirror” Suite as part of their COVID-19 impacted online concert series.

“The Mask in the Mirror a Chamber Opera: The tragic romance of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the First Black Poet, & Alice Ruth Moore” follows the life of one of the most prominent Black poets of the early 20th century.

The performance, inspired by hundreds of letters exchanged between Dunbar and his wife, Alice Ruth Moore, removes the masks of fame and social identity to investigate the psychological realities of the people underneath.

The chamber opera follows the arc of Dunbar and Moore’s relationship, from their courtship through letters, secret engagement, and marriage, to their final estrangement and Dunbar’s death from alcoholism and tuberculosis at age 33.

Thompson said he knew in fall 2020 that the RSNO was going to premiere his suite, which was a particular honor for him.

“I was looking forward to the performance a lot and I really wanted to hear the piece played by a fairly large ensemble,” Thompson said.

Due to the pandemic, Thompson was unable to hear the performance in person. “I watched the concert with my daughter, Khalayla, and had a glass of wine,” he said. “The orchestra played very well and I was very pleased.” 

Thompson is originally from Aberdeen and is a performer and composer whose work resists a single stylistic category. His compositions combine European and African-American styles.

Learn more about Thompson on his website.