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Jules Massenet (born Montaud, Loire, 12 May 1842; died Paris, 13 August 1912)


Louis Gallet.


Novel (1890) by Anatole France (Anatole-François Thibault 1844-1924).



First performance: Paris (Opéra), 16 March 1894, rev. 13 April 1898.

First UK performance: London (Covent Garden), 18 July 1911.

First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Usher Hall), 18 August 2011 (concert).

Scottish Opera première: N/A.



Massenet’s opera has been deeply unfashionable in recent decades, but there seems to be evidence of its returning popularity, with recent revivals in a number of major houses, including the New York Met. The nearest any British company has come to staging it in recent decades was a proposal for a production to be shared between ENO and Covent Garden, with Valerie Masterson singing in English and Kiri Te Kanawa in French. The plans fell through, but indicate the difficulty of casting the title role. The Paris premiere starred the beautiful American soprano Sybil Sanderson, who was extremely popular in Paris at the time. She became a mentor to the young Scottish-born soprano Mary Garden, and it was Garden who gave the first performance in New York in 1907.


Main Characters

Thaïs, a courtesan (soprano)

Athanaël, a young Cenobite monk (baritone)

Palémon, an old Cenobite monk (bass):

Nicias, a wealthy young Alexandrian (tenor)


Plot Summary

The opera is set in and near Alexandria in the 4th century. Athanaël, a young monk renowned for his holiness, returns to his monastery on the banks of the Nile to tell his colleagues that Thaïs, a childhood acquaintance, is now leading a notorious life n the city. He has resolved to return to the fleshpots to restore her to a proper lifestyle. He meets her at the palatial home of his old school friend Nicias, one of her clients – indeed he has almost bankrupted himself in paying for her services. She puts on a more lurid act even than usual, in an attempt to seduce Athanaël. He is horrified, but not put off, and visits her, by invitation, at her own home. She is beginning to feel pangs of conscience, so when Nicias and his friends arrive to resume their revelry, since he has restored his fortunes by gambling, they are appalled to find her soberly dressed and disinclined to join in. She agrees to enter a convent and it is arranged that Athanaël will escort her there, since it is located in the desert and the journey will be very taxing. Athanaël then returns to his own community, but can no longer get thoughts of Thaïs out of his head. His dreams become increasingly lurid, and, having dreamt that she was dying, he returns to the desert to confess his desires to her. But she has not recovered from the rigours of her journey, and dies looking forward to a blessed hereafter.

The Cast

 an abbess
 a young Cenobite monk
 a dancer
 a slave
 a slave
 a wealthy young Alexandrian
 an old Cenobite monk
 of Nicias
 a courtesan

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