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Vashon Opera Performs Dialogues des Carmelites

Dialogues des Carmelites, by Francis Poulenc, stands essentially alone in the catalogue of operas performed by major opera companies. It’s almost completely devoid of standard operatic plot devices—romance, betrayal, intrigue, infidelity. In their stead are a series of life-or-death decisions forced on several young women, set amid the last few weeks of the Reign of Terror, the most brutal months of the French Revolution.  

One of the chief aims of the revolution was to forcibly rid France of the influence of the aristocracy, and with it, the Roman Catholic Church. Royalty were beheaded. Mobs ransacked the apartments and attacked the carriages of the wealthy. Church property was confiscated. Priests, nuns and religious were executed for the crime of refusing to renounce their faith.

In Dialogues des Carmelites, a young woman formally enters a Carmelite monastery, seeking escape from the crazed crush of anti-aristocratic violence, but instead of finding cloistered protection, she finds that she’s asked to defend the monastery against the bellowing revolutionaries outside. Obedience and defiance, fear and acceptance, selfishness and altruism mark the many twists of plot and subplot, until in the final scene, chanting the Salve Regina, the nuns submit stoically to the guillotine, given its own ghastly arrhythmic solo by Poulenc.   

Divided into 12 tableaus with orchestral interludes, it is perhaps Poulenc’s most exquisite opera. Much of the music is ostensibly based on plainchant, yet Poulenc’s sinuous melodies owe as much to the frank sensuality of Satie and Milhaud as they do to Gregorian chant. Yet these are not pastiche, franken-melodies; they arise whole out of a uniquely Parisian experience, steeped in Roman Catholicism and the hedonistic cafe society of the twenties and thirties. Two seemingly opposite polarities, intertwined like twisted helix.    

Poulenc lived in Paris as an openly gay man. Two halves of the same, he had never lost his love of Christ, nor had he ever left the Roman Church. After decades spent lamenting the deaths of several long-term lovers, and finding solace in the work that took final form as Dialogues des Carmelites, he recommitted to his Roman Catholic faith, while continuing to live in Paris as an openly gay man. Dialogues des Carmelites, arguably his operatic masterpiece, is one of the few operas of the period that has never lost its place in the international repertory. It premiered at La Scala (in Italian) in 1957.

Vashon Opera, founded in 2008, is staging an ambitious production of Dialogues des Carmelites at Katherine A. White Hall, at the Vashon Center for the Arts;  Friday, September 16th at 7:30PM, and a Sunday matinee, September 18th at 2:30PM.

The company is mounting the full production, with all 16 singing roles, string orchestra and full chorus. “We’re focused on revealing this gorgeous opera through talented artistry, “says Jennifer Krikawa, Vashon Opera’s Artistic Director, “and we’ve gathered a dedicated and brilliant team.”

Many of the cast are veterans of previous Vashon Opera productions, uniformly praised for their musicality, solid professionalism and uncanny ability to bring to life top-quality opera in an intimate setting. Jim Brown serves as music and stage director as well as conductor, while Joe Farmer leads the chorus. The opera is in French with English supertitles. Vashon Center for the Arts is located at 19600 Vashon Highway SW, on Vashon Island. Tickets are at