A scene from Jules Massenet and Anatole France’s classic opera Thaïs, opening tomorrow at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Thaïs opens tomorrow at Minnesota Opera. The opera features some of the most beautiful music ever written, notably the famous Meditation (see below) – a perennial high roller on any “25 Most Beautiful Pieces of Classical Music”-type list. Much of the opera’s drama – and the occasions for its musical beauty – come from the tensions between religion and desire.
In today’s climate of religious and atheistic pluralism, it is easy to overlook the importance of religious politics in the opera’s creation and reception. One of the great debates of late-19th-century France was about Catholic religious practices, with religious schools and institutions such as convents and monasteries sometimes forcibly closed following an election, only to be reopened after the next party took control. It was, in many ways, the kind of political meddling with religion (and vice versa) that some political rhetoric threatened in the last U.S. general election.
The famous monks of Solesmes, who ushered in much of the 20th century’s Gregorian Chant revival, are an illustrative case. In 1790, with the French Revolution underway, the National Constituent Assembly decided to ban all religious vows. The next year, the monastery at Solesmes was forcibly closed, with the monks who still remained either imprisoned or deported. Three years later, a political commissar decided to burn the monastery archives in a civic event; it would be another four decades – and 18 years after the Restoration – before the monastery was allowed to reopen.
Even after the Restoration placed Louis XVIII on the throne and reversed many of the reforms of the French Revolution, the French state had a conflicted and often-strained relationship with Catholicism. The Solesmes monastery was sold by the state in 1825, and then partly demolished; the congregation was only able to restore after a private buyer purchased the remaining property in 1833 and donated it. This was not the end of the state interventions: successive French governments forced the monastery’s closure in 1880, 1882, 1883, and 1901; the last closure lasted until 1922, during which the monks were exiled to the Isle of Wight.
Why did the French government intervene so directly in the affairs of a private religious establishment? To begin with, the French Revolution had uncovered a large current of French society that saw organized religion as a backwards influence that constrained the country’s growth and vigor. Although the government vacillated between different forms of democracy, monarchy, and empire over the intervening decades, that voice could nevermore be fully restrained – and in many years was a dominant one in the coalition cabinets and parliamentary blocks needed to pass legislation. In that respect, the situation was not dissimilar from how Evangelicalism is a major voice in the present Republican party.
What France did not have was a strict and enshrined separation between church and state – and, as the government funded religious schools and owned most church buildings, intervening and regulating religious matters was an active concern. After the country’s disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, many blamed the country’s largest religious block – Catholics – as the source of a “backwards weakness” that contributed to their battlefield defeat. (This position conveniently abdicated the armed forces’ leadership of culpability.) It is amidst this background of a wave of anti-religious sentiment that Thaïs premiered in Paris on March 14, 1894.
1894 was the same year as the infamous Dreyfous trial, in which the French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason and sent to an overseas prison notorious for its inmates dying of tropical diseases. As with anti-Catholic sentiment, many in French politics condemned Judaism as a “backwards” religion, and in a twisted predecessor of post-World War I Germany’s “backstabbing” theory blamed alleged Catholic and Jewish turncoats for their country’s defeat in 1870-1871.
The libretto for Thaïs was written by the journalist and novelist Anatole France, and reflects both the religious-political currents of the time and the author’s own skepticism towards religion. The central narrative of Thaïs follows the monk Athanaël and his attempts to convince the courtesan Thaïs to convert to Catholicism and become a nun. He succeeds, but falls madly in love or lust with Thaïs in the process; this being a 19th-century opera, she of course promptly dies. The opera’s finale sets the music of the Meditation as a brilliant and exquisite duet, with Athanaël’s music capturing the turbulence of his agony while Thaïs’s melody shows how at peace she is with her fate.
Anatole himself was a life-long atheist, and wrote many pithy quotes about religion. Two of the most interesting in this context are “Of all the sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest,” and “Religion has done love a great service by making it a sin.” To him, celibacy was an unnatural state of affairs; Athanaël (played by baritone Lucas Meachem in the Minnesota Opera production) is set up to fail from the beginning. He cannot resist the seductive Thaïs (played by soprano Kelly Kaduce) not just because she is the most beautiful and infamous courtesan in the land, but because doing so goes against his own sexual nature – no matter how much he might try to suppress or sublimate it.
The specific religious views of Jules Massenet, the opera’s composer, are less clear than those of Anatole France, but several of his works show a sort of musical fascination with the spectacle of religious rituals – what his contemporary Vincent d’Indy called “a discreet and semi-religious eroticism” in his works for the stage and the church. In Thaïs, Massenet latched onto the threads of Athanaël’s own conflicted sexuality in the first act, thoughts that are initially sublimated in the plan to convert Thaïs to Catholicism. (Even though Catholicism wouldn’t emerge as a distinct branch of Christianity for many centuries after the events of the opera, the audience at its premiere would have recognized the monastic themes as a distinctly Catholic strain.) Act I is thus the slowest of the opera: Athanaël does not truly realize what his own motivations are, and seizes at his sense of control. As events pick up speed, the control is increasingly illusory.
The first cracks in the facade are not, surprisingly, Athanaël’s. Thaïs rebuffs him at a decadent party (for which Minnesota Opera has engaged a stilt-dancer to raise the roof, among others), avowing hedonism over the nebulous “eternal beauty in heaven” that he promises. That evening, however, Thaïs prepares for bed and sings the enchanting mirror aria “Dis-moi que je suis belle” (“Tell me that I’m beautiful”) – and for the first time, sees a sign of age and starts to fear for her own mortality.
The music that follows is, at last, the famous Meditation. What most classical music listeners do not know – but which people of the opera do – is that the piece is not about relaxation. The Meditation paints the courtesan’s inner turmoil as she lays down to bed and tries to sleep. Her thoughts are turbulent, filled with anxiety battling against the gentler current of repose. Some of her last thoughts as she tosses and turns and finally slips away into sleep are of a disturbance so profound that, in the morning, she casts off all of her possessions and vows to become a nun.
The details of what follows are best enjoyed within the opera, but suffice it to say that the conversion of Thaïs does little for Athanaël’s own peace of mind. In the original version of the opera, voices from heaven condemn Athanaël for his lust and hypocrisy; Massenet removed the scene so that the monk’s greatest critic is himself. His facade of control and chastity starts to crumble as he humiliates Thaïs in a grueling walk across the desert. By the time that the monk can finally admit his love to himself and to Thaïs, she is already dying – killed, very likely, by his repressed affection, even as he shouts that his religious beliefs were a lie and that she needs to live for love. Now that’s drama and tragedy in the same bed, set to one of the most beautiful soundtracks ever written.
Minnesota Opera’s Thaïs opens May 12 and continues May 15, 17, 19, and 20 at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.