The basement of Cahn was filled with nuns. Black-robed nuns annotating novels, white-hooded nuns typing on laptops, nuns rushing to reapply age makeup before their next cue. Everything was French-Revolution-meets-2017 at the final dress rehearsal for Dialogues of the Carmelites, a Bienen opera going up Feb. 23-26 at Cahn Auditorium.
Composed by Francis Poulenc and based on a true story, the production follows would-be nun Blanche de la Force through the Reign of Terror during the 1789 French Revolution. Blanche’s life is dictated by her anxiety, and when she decides to become a nun, her fear comes with her. The revolution constrains the rights of her Carmelite convent, and her sister nuns vow to become martyrs. Blanche is faced with a choice: join them together in death or live alone in fear?
As a Weinberg freshman in Carmelites’ chorus, Jessie Bolger, who’s studying biochemistry, was a unique figure backstage. Bolger didn’t know of any other cast or crew members who were not Bienen majors. The Bienen community also tends to make up the majority of audiences.
“A lot of the people in the other schools – you know, either math or engineering or sciences students … this might not be on their radar as something they should come to see or make time for, especially when midterms are happening,” Bolger said.
For busy STEM-oriented students, going to the opera can be a refreshing change from problem sets and an exposure to new facets of campus life farther south. Other students who haven’t entered the Arts Circle yet could equally benefit from the novel experience of opera. Dialogues of the Carmelites in particular is an easy first production for new audience members.
For one thing, there won’t be a language barrier: Carmelites will be performed in English, since its French composer requested every production be done in the local vernacular. According to Bahareh Poureslami, the Bienen second-year graduate student who plays Blanche Friday and Sunday, the director vetoed the use of subtitle screens as too distracting, but the cast members have been polishing their enunciation. (Watch the soloists’ lips. It helps, I’ve found.)
Fans of musical theater and even movies might find this opera more accessible than others, with a stream-of-consciousness plot structure that avoids unnecessarily stylistic vocal displays.
“There aren’t the usual defined [moments] like, ‘This is clearly an aria, where this person’s showing off,’” Bolger said. “It’s more like, ‘This person is expressing something not only to the world, but to the other people around them.’ And then the other person reacts to it.”
But don’t expect miracles, Broadway superfans. Carmelites is not splashy, self-aware or “campy” like many musicals, Bolger said, and has typical opera characteristics like a large orchestra and “little to no dialogue.”
Poureslami argued that the best reason to go is the show’s relevance. She found parallels between the Trump administration’s recent Muslim ban and the Carmelites’ situation. Both groups were “being punished for certain individuals and having to conform to other people and there being no way out,” she said. “And I think it’s very interesting to come and see this opera and see how history repeats itself time and time again.”
Apparently, 18th-century nuns swiping through Facebook in the basement of Cahn isn’t as weird as it seems.
Dialogues of the Carmelites runs Feb. 23-25 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 26 at 3 p.m. The show is at Cahn Auditorium and student tickets are $8.