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Russell Thomas' Personal Story in "Fire and Blue Sky"

Posted on: May 24, 2024

The acclaimed Russell Thomas has been gracing our stage in multiple productions since 2015 and serving as our Artist in Residence since 2021. Sadly, his residency is concluding at the end of the season. But before his residency ends, Thomas has an upcoming performance that tells a story he’s been waiting years to tell, a major new concert piece by composer Joel Thompson and librettist Imani Tolliver. The orchestral song cycle Fire and Blue Sky will premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on June 6, in a concert featuring Resident Conductor Lina González -Granados leading the LA Opera Orchestra. It tells a story that’s deeply personal both for Thomas and Tolliver, who worked closely together to bring it to life. Fire and Blue Sky is a powerful piece of music that deals with themes of sexual abuse and trauma. If you find this subject matter triggering, we suggest continuing at your own discretion.  

Fire and Blue Sky follows a mother and child as they struggle to navigate the upsetting circumstances of the child’s birth. The mother, a survivor of a sexual assault, conceived a child from the traumatizing experience and chose to bring the child into the world and raise him. The boy’s perception of his life is turned upside down the moment he learns the shattering truth of his origins. Now, both mother and son must learn how to heal together as they reflect on painful memories and try to carve a path forward.  

Russell Thomas is that child. When planning for this song cycle, he wanted to bring this personal story to life without reveling in the trauma. Imani Tolliver knew just how to do that, as a survivor of childhood sexual violence herself. While it is Russell Thomas’ story being told, it is Tolliver’s experience and skill as a writer that draws out the empathy and nuance needed for a story like this. A true collaboration between two highly acclaimed and award-winning artists creating a profound piece of art. 

Brought on to write the music is Emmy Award winner Joel Thompson, a composer lauded for his ability to incorporate a wide range of influences in his music such as:  

  • Afro-Caribbean rhythms 
  • Black American jazz 
  • gospel 
  • and blues. 

His first opera, The Snowy Day, is an acclaimed adaptation of the barrier-breaking children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats. A suite of orchestral music from the opera, which is a celebration of childhood innocence, will be played alongside Fire and Blue Sky. This creates a strong contrast with Russell Thomas’ harrowing experience.  

Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel, who recently made her LAO debut as Aunt Lou in Highway 1, USA, will return to share the stage with Thomas, singing the role of his mother. 

With all these extraordinary artists coming together to create something new, the June 6 concert will present an intimate and honest portrayal of a family working through their difficulties. We hope to see you at this special night, the culmination of Thomas’ LA Opera residency.