Pittsburgh Opera honors executed nuns

By Larissa Gula

“Dialogues of the Carmelites”

April 30 – May 8

Directed by Eric Einhorn

Benedum… “Dialogues of the Carmelites”

April 30 – May 8

Directed by Eric Einhorn

Benedum Center




“Dialogues of the Carmelites” might have been written in 1957, but its story goes back to 1794.

Next weekend, the Pittsburgh Opera will present its final show of the season: a three-hour long French opera created by Francis Poulenc. The story takes place during the French Revolution and focuses on the Martyrs of Compiègne, the 16 nuns who were guillotined in 1794 during the final days of the Reign of Terror in France.

Taking part in the show is Amanda Majeski, who plays the character Blanche. Blanche leaves her wealthy family to go to a convent, dreaming of taking control of her life and making a difference in the world. Soon, however, a series of events destroys the relationships Blanche forms at the convent, leading to the dramatic conclusion when the remaining nuns decide how much of a sacrifice they’re willing to make for their faith.

Although Blanche experiences a seemingly unending series of traumatic events, Majeski enjoys playing the character.

“She goes from a child rebelling to an adult in three hours,” Majeski said. “It’s a dramatic story tied up in beautiful music.”

Nevertheless, the role is an exhausting one: The singing is a challenge even for someone trained in opera, Majeski said.

“It’s much more disciplined singing,” Majeski said. “It takes a lifetime of practice and you have to make a beautiful sound while being dramatically interesting.”

Though operas have translator scripts that flash above or beside the stage, Majeski’s job is to act in a way that will allow people to know how a character feels without necessarily needing to read anything.

“I’m sure if you didn’t look at the supertitles, what we do with our voices and action would speak through,” she said. “But you do want to know the details.”

All of the cast currently spends a minimum of six hours a day in rehearsal, under the eyes of multiple directors, including William Powers, director of administration and artistic operations. Powers has the job of overseeing rehearsals to watch for problems that others might miss, such as script mistakes. He also checks in with the cast to make sure everyone is comfortable and understands their role.

So far, Powers said his job has been relatively easy.

“Every time I go in though, they’re discovering another layer and bringing the story alive,” he said. “It’s also a fascinating story. The drama and the actual story this is based on is remarkable and hardly told.”

The history of the opera is something taken into constant consideration, by the French conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud as well as by Powers.

“I asked him how well these nuns are known [in France], but he said they aren’t very well-known,” Powers said. “They’re really buried in a mass grave. There is no dignity to that. But the dignity comes alive in this opera and its acting. This opera asks hard questions. What do you believe in? How firmly do you believe? What will you give up for your beliefs?”

In Powers’ experience, most people think of older operas from different musical periods when they imagine what these shows sound like. Although “Dialogues” was heavily influenced by artists of the past, this opera has its own distinct style.

“The musical medium is different from, say, Mozart,” Powers said. “We are able to explore the breadth of the repertoire. It’s a different musical medium. Here’s a medium that should be heard that draws upon the composers of the past and even revolted against them.”

Planning for the show began as early as January 2010 at the Pittsburgh Opera, said Debra Bell, director of marketing and communications. One issue the Pittsburgh Opera dealt with is the fact that “Dialogues” is not as well known as other operas.

“It sounds so different from Italian in the language and the style,” she said. “This opera is an opera but it’s small, intimate and thought-provoking.”

The Pittsburgh Opera has made a point to emphasize that this is a serious show with strong religious themes and what they consider a fantastic and inspirational ending, Bell said.

Even the cast received some help getting into character from the Pittsburgh Opera: They received study guides exploring the history of the events behind the show at one of their first meetings in the beginning of April.

“This is a show that just hits you,” Bell said. “We say this is a show that may change your life. Opera has definitely changed my life. I’ve wept like a baby at shows. They can bring issues of all kinds to a personal level.”