Jules Massenet's Thaïs: the story of a Courtesan and the Monk Who Loves Her

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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."

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Monique Jones