In Hong Kong, where Thomas Stumpf grew up, there was little or no opera in the 1950's and early 60's. So opera always held a special fascination for him, and his love for the genre was sealed in 1958 when he saw his first opera (Weber's Der Freischütz) at the Nationaltheater in Mannheim, Germany. The passionate relationship was further consolidated when he saw Mozart's Così fan tutte under Karl Böhm with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig and Verdi's Il Trovatore under Karajan with Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli at the 1962 Salzburg Festival. His deep and abiding love for the art-song repertoire began when he saw the Lieder recital of Schwarzkopf and Gerald Moore at that same festival.
The collection of opera recordings he acquired during his teenage years and another visit to the Salzburg Festival in 1965 acquainted him with the greatest operatic stars of the time and he was a particular fan of such diverse luminaries as Price, Sutherland, Jurinac, Wunderlich, Björling, Fischer-Dieskau, and Ghiaurov, among many others. At the same time, the many performances he attended at the Mannheimer Nationaltheater taught him to love the concept of the Ensembletheater: singer/actors performing with each other night after night in many different roles, small and large, in repertoire ranging from Handel and Mozart to Verdi and Wagner and Richard Strauss. The extraordinary work of such artists as Jean Cox and Franz Mazura under the musical direction of Horst Stein made an indelible impression on him.
At the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Stumpf concentrated on his solo piano studies, but took classes in Lieder interpretation with Paul von Schilhawsky and worked with many voice students. After graduating, it was as a pianist in the art-song repertoire that he began his career. He spent two months in the Far East with mezzo-soprano Hanna Ludwig, playing for her courses at the University of the Philippines in Manila and at the Goethe Institute in Hong Kong as well as for her recitals in those cities. He performed at the 1973 Edinburgh international Festival with the internationally renowned Swiss soprano Edith Mathis. In the two years that followed he played for numerous recitals and radio and TV recordings of Rita Streich, one of the great coloratura sopranos of the mid-20th century.
While Stumpf appeared to be headed for an international career, the lifestyle could not have suited him less. He considered his piano playing to be suffering, and the personal difficulties of working with Streich finally found him moving to the U.S. At the New England Conservatory in Boston he once again concentrated on his solo piano work and avoided singers assiduously. However, this avoidance had no chance of lasting. Once he met the soprano Joan Heller at Boston University (where she was Chair of the Voice Department) and began his collaboration with her, he found himself drawn again into the world of singers.
In 1990 he became Chair of the Collaborative Piano Department at Boston University's School of Music and work with singers was central to his professional activity for the next 7 years. He collaborated with many students and some of the voice teachers in recitals, and he sat through - and learned much from - innumerable voice lessons in the studios of such greats as Phyllis Curtin, Susan Ormont and Richard Cassilly as well as Joan Heller. He also played for the masterclasses of Carlo Bergonzi, Régine Crespin, Nico Castel and Phyllis Curtin.
In 1995 Stumpf fulfilled a childhood dream: he and tenor/music administrator Arthur Rishi founded Prism Opera, which music critic Lloyd Schwartz came to describe as " a game little chamber opera outfit that ... has offered impressive and imaginative performances of important but neglected works." The company was founded on the principles of ensemble theater which Stumpf had come to admire so much in Mannheim: principles that Rishi shared completely.
The first productions took place at St. Paul's Church in Brookline, and were performed essentially with piano: Mozart's The Magic Flute (in Stumpf's own translation) played to a full house and a standing ovation, followed by the first Boston performance of Barber's Vanessa and four sold-out performances of Menotti's ever-popular Amahl and the Night Visitors.
In 1999 Prism took the major step of performing with orchestra. Stumpf conducted, directed and designed Britten's The Rape of Lucretia. The remarkable cast consisted of Pamela Dellal, Pamela Murray, Kamala Soparkar, Candace Zaiden, Philip Lima, Arthur Rishi, Paul Guttry and Emery Stephens.
This success was followed by the 2000 production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw which featured another superb cast of singers regularly associated with Prism: Deborah van Renterghem, Susan Trout, Pamela Murray, Candace Zaiden and Gerald Gray. In 2002, the company moved to a real theater with an orchestra pit: Ellsworth Hall at Pine Manor College. There Stumpf conducted, directed and designed a double bill of Holst's Savitri (with van Renterghem, Rishi and Guttry) and Vaughan Williams' Riders to the Sea (with Dellal, van Renterghem, Murray and Guttry). Prism also put on a number of concerts: a highlight was an evening of Mozart concert arias at the Harvard Business School Chapel.
In 2004 Prism scored another great success: Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito. Lloyd Schwartz described Stumpf's involvement thus: "Prism director Stumpf is an operatic Orson Welles. He not only staged and designed the production, and conducted from the fortepiano, he also made his own English translation and replaced the dry recitatives (not composed by Mozart) with spoken dialogue. This helped move the action forward by placing the focus where it belonged, on the music." The cast included Susan Trout, Pamela Dellal, Krista River, Briana Rossi, Arthur Rishi and Paul Guttry; the Sarasa Chamber Ensemble was led by concertmaster Alison Bury, and the bassett horn obbligati were played by Diane Heffner. The production was given a mention in Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer's Best of 2004 (the adjective used: "terrific").
In 2010, Prism Opera had to fold because of lack of financial support. It went out with a bang: a final highly successful concert, reprising many of the greatest moments of its past productions with almost all of the singers who had formed its ensemble, some of whom traveled from as far as New York state and even Missouri for the occasion.
From 1997 to 2016, Stumpf was the director of Gilbert and Sullivan productions performed by the Youth and Junior Choirs of Follen Church (see under Church Musician). In addition he was invited in 2013 to be the Music Director of a production of Guys and Dolls at the Diamond Middle School in Lexington, MA; in 2014 he was invited back to be the Music Director of The Music Man.
Stumpf co-directed the New England Conservatory Summer Opera Program for two years; and in 2012 he became Co-Director of the Tufts University Opera Ensemble. For Tufts he was the Musical Director in April 2012 of two one-act operas by Offenbach and Carlisle Floyd, which were stage-directed by Carol Mastrodomenico and designed by his daughter, Andrea Stumpf. He composed introductory quintets for both operas. In April 2013 the Tufts Opera Ensemble performed the world premiere of a newly commissioned one-acter by composer Vartan Aghababian, The Knave of Hearts, again stage-directed by Carol Mastrodomenico and designed by Andrea Stumpf. In April 2014 his intermezzo No onions nor garlic was premiered by the ensemble; a new work, "Eurydice", was performed in December 2015.
In October 2016, Stumpf was the Music Director and pianist for a performance of his former student Grace Oberhofer's opera "A Doll's House" at the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge, MA.
The Tufts Opera Ensemble undertook a highly successful full production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro in February 2018. The performances were conducted by John Page, who directs Tufts' orchestral program; Stumpf was at the harpsichord. In April 2019 the ensemble performed Massenet's Cendrillon.
In February 2020 the Tufts Opera Ensemble performed the world premiere of Stumpf's own compositions: The Nightingale and the Rose and The Happy Prince, two one-act chamber operas based on stories by Oscar Wilde. Almost full houses greeted both performances with standing ovations.
So the adventure continues...
"Thanks to Thomas Stumpf, conductor and artistic director of the four-year-old Prism Opera, Lucretia, presented at St. Paul's Church in Brookline, takes its place among this decade's small number of Boston operatic successes. ... The (mostly) refined simplicity of Stumpf's stage direction and design allowed you to concentrate on [the score's serious philosophical and psychological] concerns. ... Stumpf's "scenery" consisted of a different symbolic prop placed on the spare church altar for each scene: a man-sized goblet (I mean nearly six feet high) behind the drunken soldiers; spinning wheels for Lucretia and her domestic servants; a bed with a sword planted behind it (mirroring the simple wooden cross hanging above St. Paul's altar -- entirely appropriate, since Britten and librettist Ronald Duncan view the events from an explicitly Christian point of view); and a gigantic blood-red orchid (Collatinus's favorite flower) for the final scene. Stumpf's blocking, too, was unfussy -- pointed and evocative. ... Even the rape was staged tastefully. ... Since Prism's mission is to present "ensemble opera," Stumpf was blessed with a cast of remarkable consistency and effectiveness." - Lloyd Schwartz, Boston Phoenix
"Prism Opera and the Sarasa chamber ensemble collaborated last weekend on a stirring production of an unusual version of the work [Mozart's "La Clemenza d Tito"]. It was heard in a new English translation by Thomas Stumpf, with spoken dialogue replacing the recitatives, which Mozart, pressed for time, did not compose himself. Some of Stumpf's dialogue was elegantly turned ... And one of the extraordinary pleasures of the production was listening to American singers performing and communicating in their own language and that of the audience, without the distraction of supertitles. Stumpf was one of the prime movers of this event, acting as designer and stage director as well as leading the performance from the fortepiano. The scenery was simple and geometric, and so were the unpretentious and emotionally pertinent stage groupings; the cast wore timeless formal dress. The music, heard in a chamber-orchestra version by Tony Burke originally devised for the Welsh National Opera, was exceptionally well-played on original instruments by the all-star Sarasa chamber ensemble ... Stumpf set convincing tempos and was attentive to his singers."
- Richard Dyer, Boston Globe