Thaïs is “a great star,” says Renée Fleming, who spoke to the Met’s Matt Dobkin ahead of bringing Massenet’s beguiling heroine to the Met stage in 2008.
You’re known as one of the great interpreters of Thaïs. What draws you to this character?
Thaïs is one of the iconic roles in the entire soprano literature and the most musically glamorous role I sing. This opera uses every single vocal mechanism in the entire soprano lexicon, from full-bodied lyricism to high pianissimo singing ... Every three pages, there’s some effect that sounds terrifying and risky and difficult—and it is—but it’s worthwhile, and the role fits me in terms of vocal weight and tessitura. The best roles are the ones that are interesting and challenging dramatically as well. Thaïs is one of perhaps four roles in my entire repertoire that could have been written for me.
What makes it such a good fit?
It’s the tessitura. Thaïs is high-flying, but the general tessitura is very much middle-voice. That’s the key for me. The Massenet roles really want a full lyric voice in addition to lighter qualities. Anything heavier, for me, weighs the voice too much, which is also very much dependent on the orchestration.
Thaïs is not just a vocal showpiece. From an acting standpoint, it’s an interesting psychological study as well.
She is such a modern figure. One of the things that’s important to understand is that the word “courtesan,” particularly in the time that Massenet was writing, had completely different—and much more positive—connotations than it does today, more kept woman than prostitute. There’s a fantastic book by Joanna Richardson called The Courtesans: The Demi-Monde in 19th Century France. It’s a profile of all of the top courtesans of that time, and what you realize is each of these women, if they were lucky and financially savvy and healthy, then they had fascinating lives. They were completely independent, unlike married women, and could surround themselves with the greatest artists and minds of the day. Thaïs is also a great actress and performer, a star, which is precisely why Athanaël wants to convert her. So she is a wonderful character to play both in her outward confidence and in the way she uses her seductive gifts to rule her world. But she is also incredibly lonely. She sees very much in her future that once her beauty fades, she will have no value anymore in society, and she’s desperately looking for more. That quest for a spiritual life beyond passing physical beauty relates to us today—it has related to people in all times.
Thaïs has not been heard at the Met since Beverly Sills starred in the title role in 1978. Why?
It’s rarely performed because it’s impossible to cast. If my role is difficult, Athanaël is twice as hard. It’s long, it’s heavy—extremely challenging. And then there’s the legend going back to the original Thaïs, Sybil Sanderson, experiencing a costume malfunction in her dress rehearsal, when her top fell off—which may or may not have been planned. There have been other recent productions where the scandal of what somebody wears—or more importantly doesn’t wear—becomes more of a focus than the actual theatrical or musical values of the show. So Thaïs has some baggage.
Do you enjoy doing research into the history of a piece?
I love it! I wish I could do more, because it really does teach you a lot. The history of Sanderson and Massenet is so interesting. I have the first edition of this opera, and the vocal writing is completely different. It’s quite staid and simple and not very high. But Massenet fell in love with Sanderson—or was infatuated with her, obsessed with her—and she helped him forge a much more agile, exciting vocal line in what became a completely different score. She was his muse. What’s interesting is when Sanderson made her debut at the Met in Manon, it was an absolute disaster. The reviews were all terrible. The critics said, “How on earth was she famous?” They thought her voice was too small, it had no color, her acting was fake. But she’s this historic figure who actually inspired several roles I sing. She completely changed the way Massenet wrote for the voice. It’s fascinating to read about these collaborations.
Sills, Sanderson—are you inspired by legendary singers?
I connect very much to singers of the past. It makes me feel that I belong to a tradition. I don’t think one could get decades of pleasure doing what I do if you didn’t really want to be connected to this network of great singers who’ve come before.
Matt Dobkin is the Met’s Creative Director, Content and Strategy.