MIDDLEBURY — On Friday, the Opera Company of Middlebury opens its ninth season with a production of “Thaïs by the renowned French composer Jules Massenet.
Originally set in the fourth century AD, “Thaïs” tells the story of an alluring prostitute who has steered her society into an age of hedonism and decadence. She encounters a monk, Athanaël, who convinces her to join a convent. But as Athanaël falls in love with this fascinating woman and begins to question his own faith, the story moves into provocative territory, exploring the push and pull between religion and sin.
Sound controversial? Director Doug Anderson hopes so.
“’Thaïs’ won our hearts because of its sublime score and very challenging story,” he said. “It explores the tension between the sacred and profane, and seems to me to be intensely contemporary.”
Anderson set his production of “Thaïs” in the present, noting that our society has an over-saturation of decadence, materialism and overtly sexualized media — at the same time that it is experiencing a religious revival. During the rehearsal process, he challenged his performers to look for those tensions within themselves.
“I treat an opera as if I’m directing a play by Tennessee Williams,” Anderson explained. “I ask for honesty and directness and a lack of artifice. Opera singers aren’t often asked for that, and they really grow as performers in this environment. It also makes for some startling theater.”
Under Anderson’s direction, the Opera Company of Middlebury has gained a reputation not only for delivering stellar performances, but also for taking incredible risks.
When selecting an opera for this season, Anderson was advised to stick to what he calls the “warhorses,” the limited number of operas that companies tend to produce frequently and are already known to most audiences.
“Several New York agents told me we were nuts to try to do ‘Thaïs,’” Anderson said. “But we’ve made a decision as a company to explore lesser-known operas that are works of genius, but for some reason are produced less often.”
Though Anderson has, in previous seasons, directed the classics like “Carmen” and “La Bohème,” three years ago the OCM began its foray into operas its audience was unlikely to be familiar with. They performed Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” in 2010, and “La Rondine” (“the Puccini opera few people have seen”) last summer.
“It was a risk to do these lesser-known works, but they were huge hits for us,” Anderson said. “For me, I love the idea of telling stories that people don’t know. If you see another Carmen, you know pretty much what’s going to happen. But if you’re seeing ‘Thaïs’ or ‘La Rondine’ for the first time, you have the great experience of suspense that you get when you’re wrapped up in a tale you don’t know, and the great experience of hearing a gorgeous piece of music for the first time.”
“Thaïs” will be performed at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury on June 8, 14, 15, and 16 at 8 p.m. and June 10 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at 382-9222, www.townhalltheater.org, or at THT box office.