In the summer of 1794, Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, a period of violence against those opposing the French Revolution, claimed the lives of sixteen Carmelite nuns. The Martyrs of Compiègne, who were guillotined in Paris, are memorialized in Francis Poulenc’s opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”
The University of Louisville’s School of Music Opera Theatre will stage a production this weekend in the Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theatre. The production stars graduate vocal music student Claire DiVizio (soprano) as Blanche de la Force, a young noble woman who retreats into cloistered life with the religious order against her family’s wishes.
Blanche’s refuge crumbles when the revolution begins and nuns are no safer than royals.
“Revolutionaries break into the convent and say you must be disbanded immediately,” says DiVizio. “Part of the libretto, and part of the belief, was religious societies are conspiring in their seclusion against the government. They had to be disbanded, they had to become a productive part of society.”
“Ultimately, it’s implied that the nuns refused to do this,” she adds.
The opera is legendary for its powerful ending, in which the condemned nuns march single file, singing, to the guillotine.
“Just rehearsing that scene is emotionally draining,” says DiVizio, who says the guillotine’s slice is simulated by the orchestra’s percussion section. “It’s a very striking sound.”
Divizio was a semifinalist in this year’s Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in the Great Lakes region. Opera is her passion, and she recently founded a new company, Thompson Street Opera Company, which is focused on staging work by living composers.
“I decided when I was 12 that I was going to become an opera singer,” she says with a laugh. “When I got to undergrad, I discovered arts administration.”
A stint on the board of producers of the University of Michigan’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society had her hooked.
“It’s become such a passion of mine, that you can create a production from nothing. Just from your own will to make an opera happen, it can happen,” she says.
At the University of Michigan, she also developed relationships with young composers. Thompson Street staged its first production in Ann Arbor in 2011, a premiere of a new one-act chamber adaptation of “Antigone.”
“I realized there are so many people who are alive now who are still writing operas that are just not being produced, partly because larger companies need to make money, they need to sell tickets, and if someone sees ‘La Boheme‘ on the ticket — which is a great show, don’t get me wrong — people will come to see it,” she says. “If they see a title they don’t recognize, they’re more likely to make that the [show] they don’t include in their subscription.”
Thompson Street has productions planned for this summer in Louisville — seven new musical dramas, including two one-act operas, “Ile” by Ezra Donner (based on the Eugene O’Neill play) and “Dust of the Road” by Marcus Maroney. Performances are slated for May 24-June 2. The company is currently seeking performance space.