23 Apr 2024

Thaïs Online CourseThe story of the opera

by Dr. Carol Anderson


A group of Cenobite monks gather with their leader Palémon to share a simple meal and pray for their absent brother Athanaël who soon returns from the desert, tired, hungry and parched. He refuses refreshment as he is tormented by the sinful state of the city of Alexandria, in particular, the licentious behavior of the courtesan Thaïs. Before taking his monastic vows he was attracted to Thaïs, but is now committed to saving her soul. Palémon advises Athanaël not to concern himself with the matters of the world, and the brothers pray before dispersing to their cells for the night. Athanaël’s rest is disturbed by a vision of the alluring Thaïs entertaining a crowded theater to loud acclamation. He awakens and commits to return to Alexandria to bring Thaïs to salvation, and the brothers pray for his mission.

Athanaël arrives at the mansion of his childhood friend, Nicias. Filthy and disheveled, he is initially rebuffed by the steward, but asks to see Nicias. As he waits, he muses on his former life in Alexandria which he now disdains.

Nicias appears and welcomes Athanaël, who requests an introduction to the famous courtesan Thaïs. Nicias has in fact recently liquidated much of his wealth to purchase a week with her, and feels it’s been worth every penny. Athanaël expresses his desire to bring Thaïs back to religious devotion, and requests attire appropriate for an Alexandrian soiree. The servant girls Myrtale and Crobyle dress him in sumptuous garments as they comment on his attractiveness underneath his monastic rags.

A crowd gathers to welcome Thaïs after her most recent theatrical performance, as she arrives to spend her last evening with Nicias. She asks after the stranger, and Nicias tells her Athanaël has come to convert her to his gospel of self-denial. Thaïs scoffs, as she only believes in the power of love. She challenges Athanaël’s beliefs, but he resists her flirtations and plans to visit her palace later that evening. She dares him to defy the power of Venus with his religious devotion.


Alone in her elegant chambers, Thaïs despairs at the emptiness of her life. She asks her faithful mirror to promise that her beauty will never fade.

Athanaël enters, calling upon God to veil Thaïs’ beauty from him so that his message of redemption may prevail. He vows his love to her, but it is a pure love of spirit, not of flesh. He entreats her to yield to this holy and eternal love but she mocks him. Athanaël curses the death that he believes awaits Thaïs, and her fear of death causes her heart to soften toward the message of eternal life. As she begins to feel the stirrings of a different life, the voice of Nicias is heard, begging for more time with her. She sends Athanaël to rebuff Nicias, and he vows to stand vigil at her door until she yields to God’s love. She dismisses him and dissolves into bitter laughter that turns to sobs of despair.

During the long night, Thaïs meditates on the words of Athanaël.

At daybreak she finds him asleep on her threshold and tells him her heart has changed—what must she do to follow his God? Athanaël will take her to a monastery where she will be confined to a small cell to await the anointing of God’s spirit. Before departing, he commands her to burn her palace and all the trappings of her former life. She asks only to take with her a small statue of Eros as a reminder of the true meaning of love, but Athanaël insists that everything must burn.

Nicias arrives at Thaïs’ palace with a group of merry-makers, having gambled and won enough money to purchase more time with Thaïs. A beautiful entertainer appears and sings an enticing and sensual tune, followed by a whirlwind, passionate dance.

Athanaël re-enters and declares that Thaïs is now the bride of God.  Thaïs, dressed in a simple garment, begins to leave with Athanaël, but the crowd arises against him. As they drive themselves into a frenzy to prevent her departure, Nicias recognizes the sincerity of Thaïs’ choice. He throws his gambling winnings into the crowd to distract them so the religious pair may make their escape.


Thaïs and Athanaël reach an oasis, having traversed the scorching desert. The monastery of Albine and her nuns is seen in the distance. Overcome by heat and exhaustion, Thaïs begs for a moment of rest but Athanaël refuses, insisting that her suffering is part of her new life. He insists that she continue their journey but she collapses. Athanaël relents, realizing that her feet are bloody from her efforts. She takes shelter under a palm tree as Athanaël goes to obtain water and fruit. As he offers refreshment to Thaïs, she again entrusts herself to him and her life to God.

Albine and her nuns are heard praying as they approach the oasis. Athanaël greets Albine and consigns Thaïs to her care, as a lamb who has returned to the fold.  Thaïs weeps with gratitude for Athanaël’s care and bids him farewell until they meet once again at the gates of heaven. Athanaël watches her depart with the sisters, and realizes, too late, that he will never see her again.

Some days later, as the Cenobites complete their evening meal, they watch the sky with alarm, fearing the approach of a storm. One of the brothers asks after Athanaël, who has not eaten or drunk in days. Athanaël takes Palémon aside and confesses that since returning from Alexandria he has been tormented by visions of Thaïs. Palémon reminds him that he warned him at the beginning not to mix with worldly society and prays that God may help him find peace. Left alone, Athanaël prays silently and fervently, and gives in to his exhaustion. While asleep, he dreams of Thaïs, dressed in her former courtesan’s robes and seducing him with her charms. The vision dissipates and is replaced by voices that proclaim that Thaïs is dying. Athanaël awakens and realizes he must hurry to her side and declare his passion for her.

At the monastery, the nuns pray for the soul of Thaïs, who is close to death. Athanaël arrives and is welcomed by Albine, who believes he is there to bless Thaïs as she departs this world.  Thaïs remembers gratefully his words of spiritual guidance as Athanaël confesses his love for her. His realization comes too late as Thaïs departs the earth into eternal salvation and Athanaël remains, to live without her forever.