Early life and studies
Ambroise Thomas was born in Metz, France on 5 August 1811. Thomas's parents were music teachers. By the age of 10, he was already an experienced pianist and violinist. In 1828, he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Jean-François Le Sueur (who also taught Berlioz) while at the same time taking piano lessons privately from the famous virtuoso Frédéric Kalkbrenner.
In 1832, his cantata Hermann et Ketty won the Conservatory's prestigious composition prize, the Grand Prix de Rome, which allowed him to travel to and study in that city for three years. He took with him a love for Mozart and Beethoven; but once in Rome, he became an ardent admirer of the Italian cantilena and melodic tradition. It was during his Italian sojourn that he wrote all of his chamber music: namely, a piano trio, a string quintet and a string quartet.
The first opera Thomas composed, La double échelle (1837), was produced at the Opéra Comique and subsequently received 247 performances. Le caïd (1849), did still better, and achieved over 400 performances. For the next quarter of a century Thomas's productivity was incessant, and several of his operas (he wrote 24 altogether) enjoyed a considerable, if ephemeral, popularity. The questionable quality of their libretti hampers them, but a few have been revived now and then as historic curiosities or recorded as vehicles for bel canto singers, such as Le songe d'une nuit d'été (1850; not based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but rather an English fantasy with Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare himself, and Shakespeare's fictional character Falstaff) or Psyché (1857). The overture to Raymond (1851) has also been given the occasional modern performance.
To his theatrical successes, Thomas added administrative achievements. In 1856 he acquired a professorship at the Conservatoire, where he taught, among others, Jules Massenet, one of the few French composers of the younger generation whose music interested him. See: List of music students by teacher: T to Z#Ambroise Thomas. He succeeded Auber as director of the Conservatoire in 1871. Baffled by the musical unconventionality of César Franck, Gabriel Fauré, and certain other Conservatoire colleagues, he nevertheless was rather well liked as a man, even by those who found his output old-fashioned.
With Mignon (premiered at the Opéra Comique in 1866), Thomas achieved his first great acclaim outside, as well as within, France. Goethe's celebrated Wilhelm Meister had provided inspiration for a highly sentimentalized libretto; Célestine Galli-Marié (1840–1905), it was said, "had modelled her conception of the part upon the well-known picture by Ary Scheffer". Mignon was a success all over Europe, to audiences who had embraced Charles Gounod's indirectly Goethe-inspired  It is still heard sometimes today, more often in the form of extracts for concert use, or in recordings, than in complete stagings. One of its arias, "Connais-tu le pays", was for generations among the most famous operatic excerpts by any composer.
Thomas turned to Shakespeare again for his Hamlet (Paris Opera, 1868), with a libretto by the seasoned team of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. This opera has a strong, dramatic libretto, although it closes with a traditional (and, surprising for Hamlet) happy ending. It enjoyed a long vogue, and like Mignon it continues to have a certain following; during 2010 it was heard at New York's Metropolitan Opera.
His last opera, Françoise de Rimini (Paris Opéra, 1882) based on a passage from Dante's Inferno, failed to stay in the repertoire. Seven years later La tempête, a ballet (and yet another treatment of a Shakespeare play, this time The Tempest), was produced at the Opéra, again with little effect. He died in 1896. Massenet had hopes of succeeding him in the job of Conservatoire director, abandoning this plan only when told by the government that the post would no longer carry lifelong tenure. The man who got the job was not Massenet but, rather, organist-composer Théodore Dubois. Thomas was the first musician to ever be awarded the Grand-Croix de la Légion d'honneur (which he received in May 1894).
"There is good music, there is bad music, and then there is Ambroise Thomas."
- Emmanuel Chabrier