Opera tells story of divine inspiration

Laura Bayard

What is worse: Fear of life or fear of death? Blanche, the main character in the first production of Evanston’s new student-run opera company, fears both.

Operatunities will present Francis Poulenc’s tragic opera “The Dialogues of the Carmelites,” based on a true story set in Paris during the French Revolution. Blanche de la Force is an aristocrat who becomes a Carmelite nun in 1789 to escape both the revolutionaries and her life. By 1794, after Blanche has spent almost five years in the secluded convent, the Reign of Terror is at its height. Threatened by a mob of angry townspeople, the nuns make a pact to enter into martyrdom together when arrested. Blanche, fearing the guillotine, chooses to run away in hopes of avoiding an inevitable death.

“Blanche went into the convent to get away from life and ended up walking to her death,” said Tracy Rhyne a second-year graduate student who plays the aristocrat-turned-nun. “She is scared of death, but at the same time she dies and she is happy.”

Operatunities developed after Juliet Petrus, the original director, and Meghan Dibble, who plays Mother Marie and produces the show, discussed their interest in Poulenc’s opera. After starting to produce the opera, they realized it would be easier to proceed as a company.

“The opera company actually came out of the desire to do this piece,” Dibble said. “The desire to have this company was more of a necessity after we got started.”

As with any new venture, the company had a few small problems, including a switch in directors halfway through the rehearsal process. After rehearsals began in November, Petrus was accepted to a young artist program in Florida and learned she would not be able to return to Chicago until April. She hurried to finish staging and blocking the show and passed on her notes to her replacement Kelli Morgan, who was on a United Service Organizations tour until December.

“I walked right into it,” Morgan, a Music graduate student, said of the show’s “biggest stumbling block.”

The company of 55 people, including three elementary students, worked with a small budget, creating simple yet dramatic set designs. All of the action takes place in front of a large French flag. According to Morgan, each color symbolizes a different social group. Red represents the angry mob, the revolution, the blood and the death. White represents holiness and the nuns. Blue is royalty. Each group’s action takes place primarily in front of their respective colors. For example, the opera opens in front of the blue section of the flag with a discussion between the Marquis de la Force (Mathew Lake) and his son (Music senior Matthew Leisy).

Because of the high costs of royalties, Operatunities will not charge for the play. Dibble said the company hopes more people will come see the show if they do not have to worry about cost.

“We really want to get this out to Chicago and the suburbs. I think it is a great strategy to offer a free performance to show our skill,” said Lake, who is also in charge of the company’s publicity. “We really want to get as many people to see it as possible.”

Morgan said the company provides an opportunity for underclassmen to get involved with a larger scale production. To give all cast members a rounded learning experience, everyone worked on at least one aspect of production, whether it was marketing, development and fund raising, or technical aspects such as costumes and makeup.

“I hope the audience realizes it is a student production,” said Morgan. “The only reason it worked is because so many people went above the call of duty.”

Poulenc began writing “The Dialogues of the Carmelites,” his second of three operas, in 1953 during a religious period of his life. He was touched by the story of the nuns’ suffering, devotion to God and belief that their sacrifice would end the war. Ironically, the Reign of Terror ended only nine days after their death. Now candidates for sainthood, the nuns were convicted for singing religious songs.

The company will sing “The Dialogues of the Carmelites” in English. Poulenc requested that his opera always be presented in the native language of the country where it is performed so that audiences can fully appreciate the story.

“It is a beautiful story and the nuns are so heroic. The nuns didn’t even do anything, but they were still victims and thoughtlessly killed,” said Morgan. “In light of what is happening right now — people being killed mercilessly for religion — it is very timely.” nyou