Jules Massenet – Thaïs, Version 1898
(b. Montand, May 12, 1842 – d. Paris, August 13, 1912)
Foreword by Christian Biskup, 2020
Jules Massenet – womanizer, plagiarist, darling of the public. As controversial as the composer of the operas Manon (1884), Werther (1892) and Thaïs (1894) was in the eyes of his contemporaries, it was he however, who succeeded Bizet and Gounod in France and achieved great success.
Born in the provincial Montaud near Saint-Étienne, he attended the Paris Conservatory at the age of eleven. There he became a student of Gounod and Thomas and finally won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1863, which enabled him to spend three years at the Villa Medice in Rome on a scholarship. As was customary in France at the time, a composer could only make a living writing operas, and Massenet wanted to become one of those celebrated opera composers. In 1867 he published his first stage work, La grand’tante. But he had to wait another 10 years until his opera Le roi de Lahore, which premiered in 1877, was really successful. His international breakthrough came in 1884 with Manon, which has since been in the repertoire of numerous opera houses. By this time Massenet had already followed his teachers and was himself appointed professor at the Paris Conservatory. Among his students were George Enescu and Gustav Charpentier. But in addition to his teaching, Massenet continued to compose for the stage.
When the novel Thaïs by the later Nobel Prize winner Anatole France (1844-1924) was published in 1890, Massenet’s librettist Louis Gallet (1835-1898) and his publisher Henri George Heugel (1844-1916) were passionate about the book. Although the plot goes back to the drama Pafnutius by Hrotsvit von Gandersheim from the 10th century, the text with its lascivious and exotic atmosphere is ideal for contemporary theater. In his autobiographical memories, Massenet recalls the genesis: “Louis Gallet and Heugel proposed to me a work on Anatole France’s admirable romance ‚Thais’. I was immediately carried away by the idea. I could see Sanderson in the role of Thais. She belonged to the Opera-Comique so I would do the work for that house.“
Massenet was extremely addicted to the charms of the American soprano Sybil Sanderson (1865-1903), which is why the prospect of writing the – thoroughly erotic – role of Thaïs for her probably motivated him. The libretto was provided by Louis Gallet, who had inspired Massenet to write the opera. Begun in 1892, Massenet completed the work in the spring of 1893, sitting in the bed of his apartment in Rue du General Foy by the fireplace. The composer spent the following winter with numerous rehearsals for his new work, which – now that Mrs. Sanderson moved to the Opéra Garnier – was premiered in France’s major opera house. …
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