Last night, in the intermission during a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff, in which I was singing the role of the mischievous Alice, I was scrolling aimlessly through facebook, squirming in my uncomfortable and too hot renaissance dress and silently mouthing some of my lines for the upcoming act, when I saw a post on a friend’s wall alerting me to the death of Cliff Thomson.
I held my breath, did a brief query to verify that it was true, and then thought about how the first time I had heard Verdi was in his classroom, and said to myself, tonight’s show is for him.
I’ve written about Cliff Thomson in this space before, or “Mr. Thomson,” as I knew him, or just “Thomson,” or occasionally “Cliffo.” He taught choir and drama at my high school. He put on an annual Broadway Review, in which I had some of my first solo performances. One year he did away with the Broadway part, and just did a pastiche of music from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In my senior year, he taught a music theory class, without which I might have been hopelessly lost as a freshman in conservatory.
The way he taught high school choir was, I would discover later when comparing my experiences with friends’, unorthodox. We never went near choral arrangements of pop songs or show tunes, and I don’t think I ever saw anything by Eric Whitacre. Instead we learned Bach cantatas, Palestrina, the Fauré requiem, the Mozart requiem, the Schubert Mass in G. We sang through, but never performed, the VERDI requiem, the Brahms Deutches Requiem. We sang big, ambitious classical choral works, and we often sang them badly. But that was ok. The emphasis wasn’t on creating a pristine choral blend, it was more about developing an intimate relationship with this glorious music, and having fun. (Well, I had fun. I’m sure many teenage choir singers would have preferred show tunes.)
I also credit Thomson with introducing me to the love of my life: opera. He sang in the Washington National Opera chorus, a gig that I thought was so glamorous at the time. He would often talk about the star singers with whom he shared the stage. He played us video recordings of operas, Otello with Placido Domingo in the title role, the Verdi Requiem conducted by Leonard Bernstein, with Leontyne Price as the soprano soloist. This was the first time I heard real operatic singing and I wanted more.
His drama class began the same way every year. Each student was to memorize and perform the same Shakespearean monologue: the seven ages of man from As You Like It. I think I probably still have it memorized. Once again, the emphasis was on the classical, rather than the popular.
Thomson had a tempestuous personality that rubbed some people the wrong way. His mood could change on a dime from joking and laughing, to shouting, spitting, and storming out of the room. The joke was always that it was just time for his cigarette break and he’d be back to normal once he got his fix. Yes, he was the only teacher I knew who made no effort to conceal his habit, on our “tobacco free campus.”
In the last few years I would occasionally search google, or ask friends if anyone had any contact info for him. I felt this need to tell him what an enormous influence he had on me. It’s funny, I often feel like I was this special student of his, like he took me under his wing as this special voice protegé. But it occurs to me that there are probably hundreds of former students of his that feel that way. Isn’t that the mark of a good teacher? That each student feels like they are getting special treatment?
When I was making plans to go to college to study music, I came to him for advice. I couldn’t decide whether to major in music theater or opera, and I’ll never forget what he said to me then: “If you can do music theater, then you can do music theater. If you can do opera, you can do anything.”
At the time I took it to mean that if you have training in opera, you can do any kind of theater. But now I realize that what he meant is that opera is such a complex and difficult artform that if you can master it, then anything else you attempt is a piece of cake.
Goodbye Mr. Thomson. I hope you knew what a difference you made.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with a good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.