Massenet's opera Thais is famous for the violin solo Meditation that serves as an entr'acte between Acts 2 and 3. It was written in 1893 and is set in ancient Egypt, based on a novel that combines religious fervour with erotic passions. Unusually, the libretto is written in prose rather than poetry but it elicits some of Massenet's most lyrical vocal writing. The opera was first performed at the Paris Opera on 16 March 1894.
The plot concerns the young monk Athanael, and his noble attempts to save the famous actress Thais, while wrestling with his own carnal passions. The famous Meditation is expressive of Thais's thoughts as her conscience is awakened and she is converted. The opera ends as Thais lies dying. She sees angels prepared to welcome her, and Athanael must finally admit his love for her. Other highlights of this intimate opera include Thais's Dis-moi que je suis belle et que je seari belle eternellement (Tell me that I am beautiful and shall be beautiful for ever) as she looks in the mirror, and Athanael's Helas! Enfant encore (Alas! Still a child).
Jules Massenet, born on 12 May 1842, entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eleven, and by 1863 had won the Prix de Rome for his cantata David Rizzio. During the resultant stay at the Villa Medici in Rome, where he spent some of the happiest years of his life and enjoyed all the refined spiritual pleasures of a true artist, he made the acquaintance of many talented musicians, including Liszt. Returning to France, Massenet found himself defending Paris during the siege of 1870, before settling down to teach at the Conservatoire, writing operas and enjoying his popularity. He died on 13 August 1912, mourned by many.
Initial success came with the one-act opera La Grand' Tante (1867), followed by Don César de Bazan (1872) and Marie-Magdeleine (1873). His greatest successes though were Le Roi de Lahore (1877), Manon (1884), Le Cid (1885), Werther (1892), The Juggler of Notre Dame (1902), and Don Quichotte (1910) - from a total of twenty-seven operas. Although thought of mainly as a composer of operas, Massenet also wrote ballets, orchestral and choral music, a piano concerto, cantatas, a cello fantasy, and some 200 songs.
For many years Massenet held a dominant position in French opera, although Debussy began to steal the limelight when his Pelléas et Mélisande was shown in 1902 (a work that owed a lot to Massenet). Massenet's style is very melodic, quite light, its singability no doubt a factor in its huge popularity at the time.