Story of martyred Carmelites coming to the San Francisco Opera House
“The Dialogues of the Carmelites” reprises SF premiere in 1957
By Tom Crowe
The sudden sound jumps out up above the orchestra and interrupts the soaring notes of the altos and sopranos.
Thwap! It comes again. Again! And then again. Sixteen times in all, with no rhythm or sense. The sound of mechanical violence jars against the music, which is plaintive, joyous and even triumphant.
With each sudden, grating “thwap!” one of the 16 voices cuts off. A singer ceases singing.
The sound represents the guillotine. And the 16 silenced voices Carmelite nuns. Each is executed in turn. Each went to her death with joy in her heart and the praise of God on her lips. Only the bite of the guillotine blade ceased her singing.
Eventually the final voice is silenced. Then the assembled onlookers and soldiers, silent and horrified by what they witnessed, melt away.
What you have experienced is the arresting, gut-wrenching final scene of Francois Poulenc’s brilliant opera, “The Dialogue of the Carmelites.”
This fall, this scene of holy acceptance overcoming governmental barbarity will grace the stage of War Memorial Opera House.
But this scene of incongruous brutality – who would execute Carmelite nuns? – isn’t this the product of some conspiratorial imagination raving about coming persecution?
No, this really did happen. In Paris, France, in 1794. The nuns who gave their lives rather than abandon the faith are known as the Martyrs of Compiègne.
Nowadays, the place where it happened – the Place de la Nation – is a rather peaceful public space in eastern Paris. The center of the square features a dramatic statue titled “The Triumph of the Republic.” But there is no monument, plaque or other marker to commemorate these 16 women, nor the rest of the 1,306 people executed here in just 44 days of June and July in 1794.
They were priests and religious, nobles and other “enemies of the state,” most of whom were only guilty of being Catholic. In 1794 the Place de la Nation was known as the Place du Trône Renversè, or the Plaza of the Overturned Throne. Even the name bespeaks the reign of disorder and chaos.
And keep in mind: this was not the only site of executions. The 10-month period of the French Revolution known as the “Reign of Terror” saw about 27,000 people die in political violence, 17,000 of them in official executions. That’s 2,700 per month, 600 per week, 86 per day, most of them in Paris.
As can be expected, the government of France isn’t eager to acknowledge such wanton bloodletting, fueled by hatred of the Catholic Church.
Memorials do exist, however. Near the Place de la Nation, Our Lady of Peace Church displays a tablet with the 1,306 names. Our Lady of Peace stands on the grounds of the cemetery where those 1,306 bodies – and heads – were buried in a mass grave.
And then there is “The Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Francois Poulenc, a devout Catholic, published his opera in 1956. He based the libretto on a play by the great Catholic writer George Bernanos.
In 1957, the U.S. premiere of this 20th-century classic happened right here in San Francisco.
This fall, this story of government coercing the consciences of peaceful Catholic nuns returns to the War Memorial Opera House.
The occasion is the 65th anniversary of that U.S. premiere of “The Dialogues.” The timing, however. Well, the timing …
In recent years California has tried to force Catholic hospitals to provide abortions, sex reassignment surgeries and sterilizations. Catholic charities have had to cease adoption services due to state requirements that they place children with same-sex couples. Statues of St. Junipero Serra are coming down all over, and Catholic parishes are targeted for vandalism.
And of course, they have tried, time and again, to require the Little Sisters of the Poor to violate their Catholic faith. The Sisters have stood firm, and, thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed their rights.
But the dominant culture grows ever more hostile to the faith. Leaders in government, particularly here in California, push policy after policy that is antithetical to Catholic belief. This shows no sign of letting up; indeed, growing gender confusion and battles over pronouns only show the problem getting worse.
As the Church stands firm for the dignity of the human person and authentic morality, collisions will occur.
The Martyrs of Compiègne encourage us to remain steadfast in the face of persecution.
Francois Poulenc’s masterful presentation brings their passion to life on the stage.
Hopefully, this staging of “The Dialogues” will awaken in many a new respect for religious liberty, or perhaps even conversion.
Crowe is a freelance writer based in Steubenville, Ohio. He and his wife, Noëlle, co-host the American Catholic History podcast. Learn more at americancatholichistory.org.
The Dialogues of the Carmelites is playing at the San Francisco Opera House October 15 – 30.