Jules Massenet's Thaïs: the story of a Courtesan and the Monk Who Loves Her
Love. Lust. Spirituality. Peace. Thaïs encompasses all of this and then some.
The Florida Grand Opera's (FGO) production of Jules Massenet and Louis Gallet's story of an ancient Egyptian courtesan who finds peace from a troubled monk is set to astound Saturday, May 3, through Sunday, May 10.
The two stars of the production, Kristopher Irmiter and Angela Mortellaro, are ready to bring the power and majesty of the French opera to Miami audiences.
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First, a primer on who's who: Irmiter described his character, Athanaël, as a man who realizes he's not as devoutly sound as he had hoped.
"Athanaël is a monk who lives in the desert, a devout follower of the teaching of Christ," he said, "but he comes from Alexandria, where Thaïs lives, and he knew her when he was younger. In his searching for peace and spiritual redemption, he has rejected all of what he now perceives as the haughtiness and indulgences of [a secular] lifestyle."
Irmiter has spent a good deal of time putting himself in the character's shoes to understand the feelings that drive the monk's actions.
"In my opinion, he has this inner urge that he's not fully aware of," he said. "Rather than staying in the desert, which is what his order calls for--to live separate from the rest of society--he goes back and he finds himself drawn to her. He interprets it as outrage as to how she seems to be leading the charge of ... living for the moment [without] a spiritual focus. There's a gratuity of pleasure and the mortal existence."
Instead of leaving Thaïs alone and going back to his order, he has a dream which he interprets to be his calling from God to save Thaïs. He goes back to Alexandria and completes his mission by delivering her to a convent, but the urge doesn't go away.
"[H]e can not find inner peace because he is completely consumed with her beauty. He realizes, ultimately, that he is in love with her," he said. There's more to the story, but you have to actually go to the performance, don't you?
Mortellaro, on the other hand, describes her character as a woman who finds fulfillment in spirituality.
"(Thaïs) is a courtesan, and she's sort of trapped in that life. She's extremely famous, she's very wealthy, but she's very alone," Mortellaro said. "Throughout the opera, we watch her take this journey from that person who feels trapped in her life, to someone who is completely liberated by the new spirituality she has found. At the end of the opera, she comes to find peace for the first time."
It's Thaïs' beauty that reveals to Athanaël how incomplete his spiritual work actually may be.
"I believe his conversion was earnest," Irmiter said. "I believe his flaws stem from a lack of self-awareness about his inner temptations, and that's why he ultimately loses his way. He hasn't really dealt with himself, and we can all relate to that."
Thaïs is a very important notch in both Irmiter and Mortellaro's careers. The role of Thaïs marks Mortellaro's role debut and debut with the FGO. Irmiter has performed with the FGO many times before, but this the role of Athanaël is Irmiter's role debut. The roles have been learning experiences for both Mortellaro and Irmiter.
"I didn't know anything about this role when I was first asked to learn it, but I was so glad that they did, because I'm just completely blown away by the opera now that I've studied it and learned more about it," Mortellaro said. "I'm just so glad they asked me to do it, because it's been such an incredible experience and an incredible opera. I'm just really glad that it's this role."
"Quite honestly, it was a little daunting at the beginning, but each day has become more and more comforting," Irmiter said. The role of Athanaël is also the biggest role in the opera, which is unusual for a bass-baritone.
"It's a great company and supportive group that I've been able to work with, from the administration all the way down to the young artists that are performing in the program, the stage management, [and] organization," he continued. "That is not always true. Because of that support, the good organization they have, and the good people they have on board, it's been fantastic. I'm only sorry that it can't go on for six months."
In their work to prepare, everything's been about working as a team.
"Working with Kris has been nothing but a pleasure," said Mortellaro. "He's extremely collaborative and also an incredible singer and an incredible physical portrayal of this character. It's extraordinarily demanding role for him, and he handles it beautifully. He's the ultimate professional and is doing an incredible job."
"It's been great," Irmiter echoed. "Actually, Angela and Eglise Gutiérrez are sharing the role of Thaïs, so I've been working with both of them. Gutiérrez is from a Hispanic background and is a little shorter of stature, and it's very interesting because Angela Mortellaro, although she's Italian, she's American-born. Each one brings a different history as to who they are as a person and as a singer, but I find them both engaging. I find that stimulating, when there's more than one take on things. It keeps the activity of the drama, and energy of the performers, just that much more alive. They've both been gems of ladies to work with; I'm fortunate in that regard. Sometimes, our business for better or worse, has stories of difficult colleagues, but this has been a very congenial and supportive group of colleagues, and a great experience."
Mortellaro said the FGO as well has been very supportive of the performers and crew.
"This is a really great group of people," she said. "Everyone is extremely nice and extremely cooperative. Everyone has the common goal of making it an incredible experience for everyone -- for ourselves and foremost for the audience."
If you're new to opera and want to know what Thaïs has in store for you, Irmiter and Mortellaro said that gripping emotion and amazing music will be some of the of the offerings.
"It's a viscerally-engaging production from the perspective of the audience, too. The characters are very real and the connections between one another seem genuine. The moments of transition. Renaud Doucet, who is the stage director, has done a great job with that. That's why I like it. It's genuine singing-acting. It's not singing with a little acting sprinkled on top."
"I think that it's the combination of the transcendent music the character, and the journey that the character takes. It's hard to isolate those two things--it's two things together that makes it such a special role," Mortellaro said. "I think that through music, the story is incredibly touching. Through the opera, we get to know these two main characters really well. There's a lot of pain, but also a lot of peace that comes through it, and I think that story really comes through. I think that's really going to touch people. I think people will be really moved by what they're seeing on stage. I think it's really hard not to be moved by this story."
Irmiter firmly believes everyone, whether or not they are tried and true fans of the opera style, will be pleasantly surprised by what they see.
"Those that answer that curiosity [about opera] and come will be pleasantly surprised," he said. "It's a very colorful production, it's a very vibrant production. The themes and the struggles of these characters which are so genuinely and organically portrayed, I think anyone can relate to in their current daily lives ... I can almost promise them that they won't be disappointed[.]"
Thaïs will be performed at the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County (1300 Biscayne Blvd. Miami). Tickets are available at fgo.org or by calling 800.741.1010
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