Habits of Thought

An operatic convent confronts grace, idealism and the French Revolution.

Without swordplay, love scenes, vengeful bluster or exotic dances, Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites must be mounted without opera's usual toolkit. This doesn't mean that stage director Anne Ewers is poorly equipped to bring the work to life for Arizona Opera this week. For instance, she has her trusty oversized paper cutter. When you put a microphone next to it and slam the blade down on a melon, it sounds just like the guillotine that lops off the heads of more than a dozen nuns in the opera's finale.

Beyond that, Ewers has experience. She's an old hand at the operatic art form, currently serving as general director of Utah Opera. She also has five or six productions of Dialogues of the Carmelites behind her. "I've done it so much I'm known as the Carmelites Queen," she said last week between rehearsals. She wore a long tan skirt with an overall top that gave the vague impression of a modern nun's habit.

"I adore this piece. It was my master's thesis; I designed the lights, the sets, the costumes--the only thing I didn't do was sing."

Poulenc's 1956 opera is the last to have gained a secure place in the international repertory. This will be Arizona Opera's first production of it, but not its local premiere; the University of Arizona accomplished that five years ago.

Take the title's first word, "dialogues," seriously. This is mostly a series of musical conversations, sung speech, not a string of show-stopping arias and duets. "The text is so central that the music is there to support it, not to overshadow it," Ewers said. "Sometimes you might get three measures of exquisite melody, and then it's gone--but this is not honk and squeak music."

No, it is lucid, subtle, flowing and conservative for its time, almost an homage to Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande.

With the words taking so much importance, you would expect this to be a stage director's dream. Yet Ewers' dreams may have been unsettled the first time she was involved in the work. For one thing, most of the characters wear habits, leaving only the singers' hands and faces available to convey anything physically. For another, the story revolves around feelings and ideas that could become too abstract for the stage: fear, faith, grace.

The opera revolves around Blanche, a young woman whose mother died in childbirth and who has been raised by an overprotective father and brother. She lives in constant, generalized fear, although she maintains that her terror gives her a more realistic understanding of the world.

That is the world of the French Revolution, and noble families like Blanche's are about to be purged from the new, secular working-class society--as will be religious orders. Blanche has no way of knowing this as the opera begins and she resolves to join a Carmelite convent, where the nuns spend all day isolated in prayer.

The dying prioress who admits Blanche to the order is intimidating, but immediately develops a fondness for the novice. The prioress soon dies in agony, and another young nun, Constance, speculates that because she didn't get the quiet death she deserved, she must have suffered so that someone else may find peace at the end. And the end soon comes for them all.

"The French Revolution and this convent are only the backdrop for what this opera is really about," Ewers insisted. "It really focuses on 20th-century Catholicism, and the obsessions of Poulenc and [librettist Georges] Bernanos. They were both devout Catholics, and they both had an extreme fear of death, so they used this piece as a vehicle to deal with their own issues.

"One of the strongest themes here is the transference of grace, the idea that people can so completely give their will to God that they become some sort of vessel. The old prioress takes on the death Blanche should have experienced." Then Blanche is able to go to her death voluntarily and radiantly, "giving over her will to God."

Ewers usually gives over her cast to a cloistered convent during the rehearsal period, so the singers can find out exactly what such nuns face in daily life. She was disappointed not to find the right kind of convent within 150 miles of Tucson, but this turned out not to be too critical.

"There is an amazing bonding among the cast members," she said. "During the first few days of rehearsal here, everyone wept. They need to have that connection with each other so they can pull off the walk to the guillotine."

That walk, by the way, will be more difficult than in any of Ewers' previous productions. Instead of "cheating" by walking up a ramp, the nuns will have to climb 26 steps to the scaffold, minding their long skirts and facing a blinding light. Meanwhile, said Ewers, "You have to see in their eyes that they are going to God--this is what they want, and they're already in another world."

Oh, yes, and they have to sing at the same time.

In the end, said Ewers, "it's an extremely personal piece. It just grabs people. I've never seen an audience that's not overwhelmed by it."

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