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Thais: Gateway to Heaven

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The opera Thais, currently being performed at the Broward Center in Ft. Lauderdale, is the final offering of the season by the Florida Grand Opera.

Stylistically it is not as well known as Massenet’s famous opera Manon. Indeed, most of his operas fell into total obscurity after his death in 1912, but Thais has undergone a revival since the 1970s. In the lobby of the Broward Center the FGO was offering for sale a CD of the 1976 performance of Thais by two great stars of the 20th century, Beverly Sills and Sherrill Milnes.

They both had powerful voices, which was the main element lacking in the principals of the current production. This is not just my opinion but that of three other opera experts I consulted during and after the performance. The role of Thais quite rightly strikes terror into the heart of sopranos, as it is famously difficult and only the most gifted, such as Sills, have been able to deliver it properly.

The lead role of the priestess of Venus, Thais, is played here by soprano Eglise Gutierrez. The other main character, the fanatic monk Athanael, is Kristopher Irmiter from South Carolina. This is their first time performing in this particular opera, but Irmiter has been seen at FGO productions since 2001. Rounding out the main characters is Nicias, a childhood friend of Athanael, played by Martin Nusspaumer, a tenor from Uruguay who had his FGO debut in 2011.

The famous Meditation in Act 2, which has no singing part, gave the orchestra an opportunity to shine. It was the highlight of that middle act, far overshadowing the vocals. While originally done with just a violin and harp, modern audiences expect a bit more, and the orchestra delivered it just right, with a delicate touch. The fine set design which featured a raised platform was inspired as it gave the impression of Thais herself reaching out to Heaven.

The first Act was really just exposition, and generated little excitement among the audience. Overall, the opera represents the eternal flight between religion and worldliness. But many members of the audience viewed it in somewhat less lofty terms.

The monk’s attempt to lure Thais away from her devotion to the goddess Venus to a Christian God was viewed with contempt. “He was on a crusade to take the Mother of the henhouse away – or was that a whorehouse?” “If the opera was about Jesus and Mary Magdalene they would have lived happily ever after.” This probably reflects the changing attitudes towards the subject since Massenet created the opera in 1894.

Athanael insists Thais burn her palace and give up her riches so that she may live in a tiny cell of a monastery and await the touch of God. “He was obviously not a Republican,” whispered the person beside me.

While some in the audience were pleased with the plot (“I like the story, I thought it was going to be cheesy,” said one young woman) the concept of turning pagans into Christians does not resonate with many people in the 21st century. “The city is given over to sin” wails one cast member early in the opera. Not the best religious statement to make in Ft. Lauderdale, the most notable gay community in the country.

Despite issues, I commend the FGO once again for staging an opera few have ever seen. This season has been a breath of fresh air under the new Director, Susan T. Danis. Next season will feature Madame Butterfly, Cosi Fan Tutte, The Pearl Fishers and The Consul.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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