Mignon, written in 1866, is the most popular of Thomas' operas.
The last twenty years have witnessed a considerable revival of interest in the works of one of the leading figures in late 19th century French opera, Ambroise Thomas. In particular, his two operatic masterpieces, Mignon and Hamlet, have been produced by major opera companies in France, the UK and the US, and his Shakesperean Le songe d'une nuit d'été was revived to mark the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994.
Thomas was born into a musical family on 5 August 1811, and was already an accomplished violinist and pianist at the age of 10. After the death of his father, a respected music teacher and publisher of pedagogical works, the young Ambroise joined his elder brother Charles in Paris and entered the Conservatoire. Having won premiers prix in piano and harmony and counterpoint in 1829 and 1830, and known for his fine performances of Chopin, Thomas became a composition pupil of Lesueur and, in 1832, won the coveted Prix de Rome with his cantata Hermann et Ketty.
During his stay in Rome, as part of the conditions of the prize, he met Berlioz, composed a number of piano works, songs, chamber works, and a Requiem. In 1835 Thomas returned to Paris to begin a career writing for the stage. Between 1837 and 1843, a remarkable eight of Thomas's operas were performed, including La double échelle which garnered the praise of Berlioz and was an international success, and Le Caïd, performed 362 times at the Opéra-Comique by the time of the composer's death.
In 1851, Thomas was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in preference to Félicien David and Berlioz, and later became a professor of composition at the Conservatoire. Thomas's masterpiece, Mignon, dates from 1866. Its success was matched by Hamlet in 1868, cementing Thomas's reputation and leading to his appointment as director of the Paris Conservatoire in 1871. Aged nearly 60, Thomas also volunteered for service in the Garde Nationale when the Franco-Prussian war broke out, all of which left him little time for composition.
In later years, Thomas saw himself as a defender of French music from the Germanic influence of Wagner, and was an enemy of César Franck as a result. He failed, however, to prevent Franck's professorial appointment at the Conservatoire in 1872, but organised a boycott of the premiere of his Symphony. Ambroise Thomas died in Paris on 12 February 1896 at the age of 84.
Thomas's position at the forefront of French opera in the late 19th century was largely forgotten for many years, and it is only recently that his innovative contributions to the expansion of the opera orchestra have been fully acknowledged. The continued popularity of Mignon since its revival ensures that Thomas's works will not slip out of the repertory so easily again.