Famous in operatic circles for their innovative and dazzling stagings, the Montreal-based duo bring their take on the story of a monk trying to convert a courtesan to Christianity in fourth century Egypt during the rise of the Byzantine Empire to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts May 3, 4, 6 and 10 and to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts May 15 and 17.
“When Massenet wrote it, he wrote it for one of his mistresses to sing,” Barbe says. “She had what I guess you would call a ‘Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction’ opening night, and one of her breasts came out. But she was so beautiful that she decided to go with loose clothing every night. That is all part of the mythology of ‘Thais.’ It was that kind of exoticism that served the piece at that time. And I made a little wink at that during certain scenes”
These costumes and sets come from a Barbe and Doucet (they are partners onstage and off CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFO) production of “Thais” commissioned by Opera Theatre of St. Louis 10 years ago. The French opera — first performed 120 years ago in Paris’ Opera Garnier — is famous for its “Meditation,” an intermezzo for solo violin and orchestra that bridges the scenes of Act II and describes the conversion of Thais. The opera is equally famous for the difficulty of playing the title character. Florida Grand Opera sopranos Eglise Gutierrez and Angela Mortellaro will make their debuts as Thais.
Barbe says the tricky part for him as a designer was having the seductive and lavish looks of Thais, who is from Alexandria and a follower of Venus, the goddess of love, juxtaposed against the modest and spare looks of the Cenobite monk Athanael.
“There are two different worlds in ‘Thais,’ ”he explains. “The world of the monks and nuns are achieved by trying to stay with earth colors and sand dunes. The set is really a play on the Nile. Thais being a courtesan, she is looked upon by many of her suitors. She is afraid of losing her beauty, so when she sings to the mirror, the mirror is in the shape of an eye. She is in her lonely bedroom, and all the mirrors are in the shape of an eye. And there is a big arch forming an eye shape. The monks are in black and beige, but when Athanael … arrives in Alexandria, for him, it’s like putting him in Las Vegas or Hollywood, where the fashion is really, really the thing. That’s where people dress in the flavor of the month.”
When the action moves to Alexandria, Barbe drapes Athanael in layered silks with hieroglyphics and dresses the rest of the cast in an explosion of color.
“It’s very bright, very nouveau riche if you want,” Barbe says. “I wanted to make this a world that Thais doesn’t want to go from. She comes to the realization, ‘Is that all there is?’ When he speaks to her about the eternity she could have, it rings a bell, although she fights it when she realizes what he means.”
On a personal level, Barbe says he finds the story “very relevant” to today. “What is our life about? What will there be afterward? There must be something else. At least, there’s the hope that Thais is giving us. I think it’s very touching, and it speaks to me.”
IF YOU GO:
When: 7 p.m. May 3, 2 p.m. May 4 and 8 p.m. May 6 and 10 (Arsht Center); 7:30 p.m. May 15 and 17 (Broward Center)
Where: Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, and Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Cost: $11-$250 in Miami, and $21-$200 in Fort Lauderdale
Contact: 800-741-1010 or FGO.org.