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How Dialogues des Carmélites made me an opera fan

For Alexandra Coghlan Dialogues des Carmélites was the opera that started it all...

For OPERA SPECIALIST Alexandra Coghlan Dialogues des Carmélites was the opera that started it all.

It started (as so many things do when you’re a teenage girl) with a boy. We were in that heady not-quite-a-couple-yet stage, when conversations roamed in all directions, mapping shared emotional and cultural terrain, putting down markers. Somewhere along the way he mentioned Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmélites. Did I know it? Wasn’t it just the most overwhelming, most extraordinary thing? To my shame, knowing nothing more of it than the title, I nodded.

The conversation moved on, but I didn’t. The next afternoon in the university music library I thumbed through the card index until I found the right entry. I presented it at the desk and soon found myself in the Listening Lab (a posh name for a cold grey room with a few CD players on one side). Headphones on, ignoring the student ostentatiously air-conducting to Mahler next to me, the hum and flash of the photocopier as someone copied Schubert songs, I pressed play.

That first orchestral entry landed like a body blow, propelling me forward into the march I now know would end, several hours later, on the scaffold. And just as I found my balance two voices cut the orchestra off with an anxious exchange, ‘Où est Blanche?’ This wasn’t stage-conversation, it was the real thing: clipped, jagged, drifting in and out of focus. I wasn’t just listening, I was eavesdropping.

For someone raised on a single tape of Greatest Opera Hits, whose live opera encounters were so far limited to a bit of Mozart and a school trip to The Queen of Spades, it was like stepping into technicolour Oz after black and white Kansas. It was the difference between singing as display and singing as life: music as pure theatre.

And it got better. The women entered – first Blanche and then more and more. And these were women I recognised; they talked about their fears and their ambitions, their happy memories, their families. The eddying currents of hierarchy, loyalty, duty, love and faith are so familiar, so recognisable in their interactions.

One of my favourite scenes – then and now – sees Blanche and Constance in the convent doing their chores: carrying in groceries, folding laundry. It’s the stuff of everyday, but set to music that – like their conversation – leaves the world behind. In Carmélites the characters’ feet are on earth, but their gaze and their song look beyond.

Maybe it’s all those upper voices – four-part ensembles for sopranos and altos that shimmer and glint. Cut free from an anchoring low bass line, the music seems suspended in mid-air, chords clustering in shifting constellations, phrases that share their sweeping, generous arcs with the plainsong that they recall. It’s shiver-down-the-spine stuff – if you don’t believe me just try Act II’s ‘Ave Maria’.

Then there’s that ending. It’s the first thing everyone tells you about Carmélites: the slow procession of nuns; the guillotine blows that crash through the music, written into the score itself; the nuns singing the ‘Salve Regina’ silenced one by one until just a single voice remains. Sitting there next to the photocopier (the conducting student long since gone) I heard it cold, realising in horrifying real time what was going to happen.

I’ve seen a lot more now, spent nearly 20 years in the opera house, and I still believe that there is nothing like it in all the repertoire, no moment so completely, so truly operatic. This is real life – real history – intensified, transformed by music into something mythic.

The boy didn’t last. But Carmélites – that’s for life.

Hear more about Dialogues des Carmélites from director Barrie Kosky

Dialogues des Carmélites is on stage at Festival 2023 from 10 June – 29 July

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