About the Opera

How does Dialogues of the Carmelites rank in the opera repertoire? Evan Stults, Vashon Opera’s rehearsal and performance pianist, calls it his all-time favorite opera. Musically compelling and complex, Evan says. Most important, “It’s about something.”

Indeed it is. Unlike the fictional plots of most operas, fascinating though the stories may be, Francis Poulenc’s work is based on a well-documented event in the waning days of the French Revolution. This was the death by guillotine on July 17, 1794, of 16 nuns and lay sisters from the Carmelite convent of Compiègne. Multiple sources from the time vouch for the accuracy of the opera’s chilling finale — that the nuns sang continually from the time they were marched from prison to the moment of their death. That the nuns willingly chose their fate was the justification for their being canonized by Pope Pius X in 1906.

Two accounts carried the story forward. Sister Marie of the Incarnation was the sole Carmelite spared death. She wrote of her experience years later. Then in 1931, a Prussian baroness and Catholic convert, Gertrud von Le Fort, wrote a novella based on the Carmelites’ execution. She introduced the character of the timid young novice, Blanche de la Force. And she gave Sister Marie the pivotal role of Mother Marie, Blanche’s confidante.

Le Fort’s novella was to be the basis for a movie. Albert Camus declined the offer to write the screenplay, suggesting instead, George Bernanos, a noted Catholic novelist. Bernanos was taken with the Carmelites’ crisis of faith in prison and their collective decision to meet the revolution’s anti-clerical fervor with non-violent martyrdom. Bernanos died and the movie wasn’t made until years later but the screenplay became the basis for Poulenc’s opera when the composer stumbled across a copy in a Rome bookstore. He was immediately captivated.

“I can see myself in a café on the Piazza Navona, on a bright morning in March of 1953,” he wrote later, “devouring Bernanos’s drama and telling myself at the end of each scene, 'But obviously, it’s made for me! It’s made for me!'" Poulenc, at this point, had written only one opera, an odd postwar comedy about sex change called, in translation, “The Breasts of Tiresias.” Since then, his life had taken a serious turn and he was riveted by the nuns’ story. The fact that Poulenc’s lover was dying only compounded the composer’s emotional involvement. “Within two hours I had wired M. Valcarenghi, (a Milan publisher) that I would write ‘Les Dialogues’.”

The opera was finished in three years with Poulenc dedicating the score to four composers: Debussy, Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, and Verdi. It debuted at La Scala in January, 1957. Performances in Paris, Vienna, London and San Francisco followed. With artists such as Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price, Dorothy Kirsten and Régine Crespin in the early casts, Dialogues of the Carmelites was quickly anointed a 20th century masterpiece.

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson