People in the News

New Artist of the Month: Bass William Thomas

December 1, 2023 | By Clive Paget, Musical America

LONDON—Making your La Scala debut and opening the show at the same time must be about as nerve-wracking as it gets, but on the first night of Robert Carsen’s new Peter Grimes, William Thomas took it in his stride. Not only did he manage to turn Hobson—the local carter whose job it is to tell everyone else at the inquest to shut up—into a fully rounded character, his rich, stentorian voice came across the footlights loud and clear (which wasn’t always the case with everyone in the cast).

Vocal heft was a factor too when choosing between being an opera soloist and a chorister. “I think it was pretty obvious, because I’m just too loud for choirs,” he says with a laugh in a recent interview. “I had a job at the Temple Church [in London] for three years and was constantly asked to be quiet.”

It was a good call. The 28-year-old British bass has been making waves ever since he won the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2018.

Thomas grew up in Harpenden, a commuter town within striking distance of London. Although the family wasn’t a particularly musical one, both he and his brother Jamie, a pianist and jazz drummer, clearly caught the bug. At age seven, Thomas put his hand up to join the church choir singing treble until his voice broke around the age of 13. Four years later, an inspirational teacher helped him get work experience at English National Opera where he fell in love with an artform that had left him cold until then. “I went to the opera once as a kid,” he confesses. “We saw The Barber of Seville at Covent Garden, but my brother fell asleep, and we left at the interval.”

Deciding on a music degree, he was accepted by London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama where he studied for seven years. While working for his Masters, he earned a place in the Glyndebourne Chorus. As one of their Jerwood Young Artists he landed a small role in Barber’s Vanessa before returning to Guildhall for the opera course. The Glyndebourne connection, however, paid dividends with Thomas being invited to sing Colline in La Bohème on tour and some significant plans ahead.

Credit where due

Thomas credits John Evans, his long-time teacher at Guildhall, as helping with theatricality and getting into character. “As a regular guy from a rugby-playing school, you don’t necessarily know how to do that,” he says.

The Ferrier Award was an important milestone—when he joined the Glyndebourne chorus everyone knew him as “Mr. Ferrier.” At 23 he was the competition’s youngest ever winner. “Bryn Terfel also won it at 23, but I looked up when he was born and he’s a bit older than me,” he smiles. The win boosted recital and concert bookings and meant that he was heard on BBC Radio Three. He was also signed by Askonas Holt, which has carefully nurtured his career to date.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at Vienna State Opera (2019). L to R: Thomas Ebenstein (Snout), Clemens Unterreiner (Starveling), KS Wolfgang Bankl (Quince), William Thomas (Snug), Peter Rose (Bottom/Zettel), Benjamin Hulett (Flute/Flaut)

His international debut came in October 2019 when he sang Snug in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Vienna State Opera conducted by Simone Young. That led to his being invited to sing one of the Grail Knights in Parsifal under Young at Opéra National de Paris. This year’s Peter Grimes was again under the Australian conductor’s baton.

Thomas is also passionate about song. In 2020 he was recruited as part of a crack team of young British singers to record the complete songs of Samuel Barber, a release that garnered outstanding notices. His interpretation of lyrics like “With rue my heart is laden,” and the heart-breaking “Bessie Bobtail” reveal a beautiful legato and a real empathy for poetry.

Another leg up was becoming a BBC New Generation Artist from 2021 until 2023. “Because I joined in the COVID year, there weren’t so many opportunities to do concert repertoire, but I got to make lots of recordings,” he says. “They recorded Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, a Mozart Requiem, and broadcast Dvorák’s Stabat Mater from King’s College, Cambridge, this year, which was very special.”

On the concert platform, he has sung Messiah with Academy of Ancient Music under Laurence Cummings, Bach’s St. John Passion with Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Les Troyens at the Edinburgh Festival, and Schubert with the London Symphony Orchestra under François-Xavier Roth. Recently he took three roles in concert performances of The Cunning Little Vixen with Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

ROH debut next month

In January he makes his Royal Opera House debut as Colline before traveling to Scotland for a series of Verdi Requiems with Ryan Wigglesworth. Meanwhile he’s preparing the role of the vengeful Jacopo Fiesco in the original version of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra for a planned 2024 recording under Sir Mark Elder for Opera Rara.

Of course, professional life can be tricky when the majority of plum bass roles are unhinged, elderly monarchs—especially when the old trick of applying ten tons of stage makeup is less of an option these days. Thomas shares that frustration. “I never believed people when they said your biggest struggle is going to be patience, and even though I’m approaching 30, I’m still in that young bass category. It’s hard waiting like this.”

During downtime, he’s a tennis fanatic who unwinds playing piano, spending time with his mum’s dog Flossy (named for the Rhinemaiden), and attempting to replicate his favorite Japanese cuisine. “I love ramen, but making the broth is insanely hard,” he admits.

As far as roles are concerned, Mozart’s Figaro and Leporello are clearly on his wish list, and as for the future, who knows? “I’m not saying this is what I might become, but I have friends who started out a bass but ended up in the Heldenbaritone repertoire. Your voice might get higher as you get older, and often those roles are more interesting.”

Down the line, he’d love to sing Gurnemanz in Parsifal and Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier. “But my dream role is John Claggart in Billy Budd,” he enthuses. Watch this space.


Photo: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn




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