Obituary: Mary Thomas

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The Independent Online
Many singers enjoy rewarding careers in classical music but it is given to few to push forward musical boundaries in the way Mary Thomas did so successfully.

At 10 years old, she was entertaining Swansea audiences by playing the piano, and regular paragraphs in the local press announced yet another exam passed with distinction. Her mother Polly, a stalwart of the chapel choir, encouraged her musical child to sing and dance and take part in all the festivals and eisteddfods which South Wales had to offer.

After matriculating, Mary won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, though when she began studying it had still not been decided whether she would become a singer or a pianist. Gradually however the warmth and quality of her voice made a career as a soprano inevitable. The academy awarded her the coveted oral prize, the first time it had been given to a singer, and, after a singing debut as a student in Mendel-ssohn's St Paul, she was in demand for oratorio before graduating.

At a time when serious young musicians did not, or dared not, cross over the barriers between classical, light music and jazz, Thomas happily disregarded such stuffy boundaries. She enjoyed and actively participated in every kind of music. Her mastery of her craft was indisputable, so when she chose to tour with Perry Como or Guy Mitchell, or when her distinctive voice was heard in jingles for InterCity rail and fizzy drinks, eyebrows may have been raised but it did no harm to her career.

She had a wicked and somewhat risque sense of humour and at the backing and jingle sessions was very much one of the lads. Sharing a house with her, I used to wait eagerly for her return to be regaled with the latest jokes doing the rounds. In early days when money was rather short, we formed a "sisters act" at the piano and appeared in cabaret at Rotary dinners where we slipped in the more suitable of the jokes.

Singing the standard soprano oratorio and lieder repertoire, Thomas quickly became a popular and frequent broadcaster. She sang the annual BBC Messiah, appeared in the Proms at the Albert Hall and was booked for the series Friday Night is Music Night and Land of Song. She often featured as the singer with the Nash Ensemble and the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble but it was when she joined the avant-garde group the Fires of London and became the muse of their conductor Peter Maxwell Davies that musical frontiers were extended.

Maxwell Davies became enchanted by her ability. "Without Mary Thomas," he said, "most of the music I wrote for the Fires just wouldn't have been in existence. She was a wonderful inspiration and I will be for ever grateful for her unique lyrical and dramatic qualities which always excited me to create works for her special artistry."

The first of several juicy works he wrote for her was Miss Donnithorne's Maggot (1974), a solo musical version of the sad Australian bride's story. Jilted on her wedding day, she lived thereafter in her wedding dress among the disintegrating remains of the wedding feast. The critics of the London broadsheets were unanimous in their praise. "A devastating singer and actress", "a superb soprano who is as good an actress", "an extraordinary vocal, musical and histrionic performance".

The most demanding piece Maxwell Davies conceived for Thomas was The Medium (1981), a 45-minute unaccompanied musical theatre drama during which the audience is left to decide whether the medium is hearing voices or whether she is the mistress who murdered her child. "Mary Thomas raved, pleaded, imagined, chanted, shouted, crawled and sang with incredible concentration and conviction . . . unquestionably one of the great vocal virtuosi of the day," wrote Time Out.

On one occasion, after bringing the house down with a performance of The Medium in New York, Thomas went on to a party with Leonard Bernstein who had been in the audience and he and "La Thomas", as he called her, played jazz duets at the piano until the small hours.

Mary Thomas shared her ability and knowledge. Her warmth and friendliness made her a popular teacher. She was a professor at the Royal Academy of Music but had also for many years taught actors and actresses how to put across a number. She coached many stars including Twiggy for the The Boy Friend (1971), Elizabeth Seal for The Pyjama Game, and, more recently, Honor Blackman.

The cellist Edward Holmes, also from Swansea, was Thomas's lifelong partner and they had a house in Swansea as well as London. If one thing apart from her talent marked Mary Thomas out, it was that success changed her not a jot. She continued to play the organ in church every Sunday and kept her strong Welsh accent and sense of fun to the end.

Lynn ten Kate

Averil Mary Thomas, singer: born Swansea 2 August 1932; married Edward Holmes; died London 17 April 1997.

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