Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” and the Grip of the Absurd

It is hard to explain to people the power of opera if they just haven’t… you know… had one of “those” moments.

Opera people will know what I’m talking about.

It’s one of those moments when, by no conscious effort of your own, your incredulity is suspended enough, and the realities of the characters and the actions on stage merge with your own reality. And though there are a million things that separate you from the world of the stage (time, distance, the fact that everyone just seems to agree that singing about your feelings in public is normal human behavior), you feel submersed in their acute pain.

I believe the first time I had one of “those” moments was when I went to see Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” when a mother sang of the last interaction she had with her daughter before she was murdered. Her voice is heavy with sorrow as she sings the last words she said to her daughter: “Shut the door.”

And I suddenly realized I was crying.

Opera, of course, has the power to evoke many different feelings. Surely, it can entertain, it can make people laugh. It can induce awe, either through spectacle or sound. I even think one can watch an opera the way some people watch sports, like a competition to see who can sing the loudest, the fastest, the highest.

But I think to truly begin to understand opera, you need to experience one of “those” moments, where the veil between your world and the opera is so thin, you could wear it like a second skin and walk around in its beauty for a little while.


This, of course, is one of the main reasons I wanted to come to the Harrower Summer Opera Workshop this year. I wanted to be involved in their production of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” an opera that has fascinated me and eluded me since I was first introduced to it a couple years ago. Too long have I been meaning to sit with the score and study it, and to be involved in this production would finally be the chance to take it apart and hold little bits of it up to the light and examine.

But of course, there is always something a little clinical about the rehearsal process: Repeating the French over and over again until you don’t forget the words, walking the staging again and again until your feet feel compelled to move without your thoughts, and of course, listening to the sound of your own voice carefully and critically to produce every little necessary overtone. And with all of this work, and eventually with costumes, lights, and an audience, slowly and surely you come to realize that you’re walking around in the new world you meant to visit.

Part of the rehearsal process.


The world of “Dialogues,” I think, is a kind of strange world to visit. For one, Poulenc’s harmonic language is one of obscure, shifting tonalities and lush dissonance. It is not always as straightforward as it first appears, and as a singer, it makes you wonder if the ground you walk on is a solid one, or if it is secretly quicksand.

In fact, the whole opera might secretly be quicksand.

Here’s what I mean:

In a world where everyone walks on solid ground, the actions and consequences of those actions are fairly simple to predict. Stepping forward will propel the characters to their desired destination, while a misstep will lead to their fall.

But in quicksand, like Poulenc’s opera, characters might fall regardless of their actions, some might survive, and there is never any assurance that an action will produce the equal and opposite reaction we’ve come expect.

In short, for an opera about nuns, God’s punishment and God’s mercy are surprisingly missing.

Instead, we are left with the tight grip of the Absurd.

The opera follows the main character, Blanche, a fearful, young, aristocratic woman who decides to enter the order of the Carmelite nuns just as the darkest moment of the French Revolution begins to heat up. There, she meets a young, talkative nun, Constance, witnesses the death of the old prioress, watches as the French rebels forcefully try to dispel the order, and participates in a vote in which the nuns decide whether or not they are to be martyrs. In the end, although she agreed to be martyred, her immense fear causes her to run away from the order, until she returns to her sisters as they are being executed one-by-one at the guillotine, and dies herself.

On the surface, this is a story about the strength of faith, and about women who choose to die rather than compromise their devotion to God. However, by that reading of the story, all kinds of anomalies appear.

For example, when the old prioress dies, she does not go easily. She has a long, painful death, that stretches on long enough to make those of us who are waiting backstage for our entrance wonder “Shouldn’t she be dead by now?” She sings of how God has forsaken her, even after a lifetime of service and devotion to Him. And then suddenly, she is gone. Constance remarks afterwards that the prioress’s death must have been a mistake, the way the coatroom attendant may mistake one guest’s coat for another, and some other person who deserved a painful death instead got the peaceful, easy death the prioress had deserved.

It begs the question, can an omnipotent God truly mistake people so easily? Can His gifts or punishments really be shuffled around like coats in a coatroom? Already, we are beginning to understand that Poulenc’s world is not one where consequences are doled out fairly, and though some characters may always behave rightly, the quicksand pulls them down anyway.


Another anomaly appears in the disagreement between the new prioress, Madame Lidoine, and the sub-prioress Mother Marie. It was assumed that, as sub-prioress, Mother Marie would take the place of the old prioress when she died, but Madame Lidoine (character who we have not seen or heard from until she assumes her new role) is chosen anyway. The two women disagree on how best to react to the revolution. Mother Marie believes that the nuns must make a vow to die rather than abandon their religion, but Madame Lidoine disagrees, saying that it is not up to mortals to choose who gets to be martyred. When the new prioress is away, Marie proposes that the nuns take a secret vote to see if they will take a vow of martyrdom.

The only vote against the proposal is Constance, who immediately rescinds her decision, saying that she truly does want to be martyred. Meanwhile, Blanche, who agreed to the proposal, runs away in fear. Both of their votes do not reflect their true desires, they are instead switched up like coats in a coatroom by the invisible hand of the absurd. And that hand is tightening. Soon, the characters are so gripped by the absurd, that there is no room to escape it, not even room to question it.

This is the moment when Constance explains that her vote was contrary to her beliefs about taking the vow of martyrdom.

The last question the opera asks is, what makes a martyr? Surely, one would assume, that having voted to be martyred, the nun’s death would result from the steadfastness of their faith, that they would choose to go to their death. Instead, they are first told that they will be saved, that the rebels have no desire to kill them or have them abandon their religion, just to see them rejoin society and not be cloistered. This all changes when the nuns sit in prison, and a great voice emerges from below. This is not the voice of God providing them with their sentence, just the voice of a man, acting as a God, telling them they are to be killed regardless.

All of the nuns that are present are sentenced to death, including the new prioress, Madame Lidoine, who of course was absent at the time of the vote. Meanwhile, due to her chance absence, Mother Marie, the instigator of the vote, was not sentenced. It seems to be that what makes a martyr is not the strength of one’s faith, but pure random chance. The death of the nuns does not come about by their own choice, nor by the consequences of their actions, nor by the justice of God, but instead by chance. The hand of the absurd is now gripping.

There is no room to wonder why this is happening as the nuns are shuffled to the guillotine. There is no chance to run away.

The rebels come to the doorstep of the nuns and demand their evacuation.

This is where I always experience one of “those” opera moments. I’ve finally committed enough to my character that I forget where she ends and I begin. And when that voice sentences me to death, and I look around at the devastated faces of my friends, my heart sinks into my stomach and my face involuntarily scrunches up in an effort to push away sobs. This can’t happen. Not to Kayla, who plays Sister Anne. Not to Sandra, who plays Sister Therese. Not to Olivia, or Lindsay, or Brianna, or Sarah, or any one of the friends who I’ve been so fortunate to meet. We’ve all worked hard. We’ve done nothing wrong. And yet, I believe truly that we’ve been sentenced to death, because it makes just about as much sense as any of the nuns being sentenced. We don’t deserve it, but neither do they. The hand of the absurd now reaches out from the stage and begins to grip our own lives.

This is probably why so many of us begin to cry, despite being otherwise very professional. “Count the sniffles,” Sandra whispers to me as we all gather into a final group hug. As it’s true, most of us are trying to clear our eyes as we get ready to sing our final scene.

Here we are in jail, about to be sentenced to death.

I think it’s very telling that, though this opera takes place in the 1790’s, it was written in the 1950’s. This is a post- World War  opera at it’s finest. Poulenc and his contemporaries could not view the world as one where punishment and mercy are doled out fairly, not when so many innocent people were punished due to the squabbles of nations and the men the lead them. And in retelling history, Poulenc had the option to end his opera on a happy note. In real life, the reign of terror ended shortly after the Carmelite’s death, but Poulenc does not give us this glimmer of hope. The opera ends just after the last nun falls. Nothing is resolved. Nothing changes.

I know that when I stand under the guillotine, I won’t really die. But having gone through this experience, can I really say that this situation is improbable? We live in a world where someone else may make a poor decision (ie: a drunk driver, a group of radicalized rebels) and I might have to pay the ultimate price for it. The hand of the absurd grips us, even when it is invisible.

Thank you to all my nun friends! You are all inspirations to me.


I’d like again to thank everyone involved in this production, and everyone at the Harrower Summer Opera Workshop. Your talent, your friendship, and your musicianship inspired me to write this blog post, and I consider myself very lucky to work with these people.Thank you for taking pictures, which I’ve shamelessly stolen from Facebook to be in this blog post. And thank you Dialogues director, Dwight Coleman, and artistic director of the program, Carroll Freeman, for allowing me to get to know this opera so intimately. Until next time!

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