My appreciation for opera started in college with a mandatory music class. That semester, there was no Intro to Music, rather an Intro to Opera. The music, themes and the production intrigued me. Other than attending “La Bohème” at The Met in college, I have watched them broadcast to movie theaters, especially through The Met Live in HD.
During the last mad dash to the end of the semester, the Met emailed me about an upcoming May 11 broadcast of their production of “Dialogues des Carmélites.” This 1957 opera by Francis Poulenc recounts the martyrdom of the Carmelite nuns in the French Revolution. Initially, my studies prevented me from attending the Saturday broadcast. But I remembered that there is an encore presentation the following Wednesday.
I invited my religious brothers to join me, but I went by myself to the theater on May 15. The opera blew me away.
The stage design captured the ascetic aspect of the Carmelites and the somber mood of the opera. Props were minimal to give enough to describe the scene. But the cross was ever present. When the curtains were raised, the nuns were prostrated in the shape of the cross.
The music made the traditional Latin chants work in an operatic production. This was so telling in the climatic scene of the nuns’ execution. They were singing the “Salve Regina.”
What struck me was the characters’ prescient words for today’s world. In the scene below, the protagonist, Blanche, is visited by her brother to persuade her to leave the convent because of hostile revolutionary atmosphere.
Her brother, aware of Blanche’s lifelong fearfulness, said, “Real courage requires taking the risk.” She would live out that courage in the final scene.
Reflecting on the death of the mother superior, Sister Constance tells Blanche: “We don’t die alone. We die for one another. Of if not for one another …” Or maybe something bigger. Later in the opera, the nuns would offer their lives for the preservation of the religious order and the welfare of France. They imitated their spouse, Jesus, who died for each one of us for our sins and for our eternal happiness.
When the chaplain was expelled from his ministry by the revolutionary government, one nun complained about the failure of the Frenchmen to stand up for the priests. The mother superior replied, “Fewer priests mean that there are more martyrs. Therefore, grace is restored.” It made me wonder about the decreasing number of priests and increasing number of martyrs today. Grace is restored in the world.
The irony of the opera was that Mother Marie of the Incarnation, second in charge, persuaded the nuns to take an oath of martyrdom before the government’s closure of the convent. She, who advocated for martyrdom, was not caught in the roundup. She had to deal with survivor’s guilt.
If you have a chance to watch or attend this opera, please do. It speaks to the heart, mind and soul in so many ways. Here is a scene of the sisters singing the “Ave Maria.” May Mary, Mother of Persecuted Christians, strengthen all Christians suffering persecution to persevere always.