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Opera featuring Martyrs of Compiègne reveal beauty of prayer, sacrifice

Opera Theatre of St. Louis | Ken Howard
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The Discalced Carmelites make a profession of four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure.

But for a group of 16 Carmelite nuns who lived during the French Revolution in the 18th century, a fifth vow of martyrdom, professed privately within their community, became a necessity.

The Martyrs of Compiègne, France, met their fate at the hands of those responsible for the Reign of Terror. At the time, Catholic convents and monasteries were being suppressed. It was a period of anti-clericalism, with the Revolutionary regime fearful that religious groups were harboring Royalist sympathies. With their lives dedicated to God in prayer, the Carmelites refused to denounce their faith and were guillotined in Paris in 1794. The Reign of Terror ended shortly after that.

Never did these martyrs expect to become such storied examples of martyrdom in the life of the Church, witnesses to the importance of religious freedom and sacrifice for the sake of God and others.

They became the subjects of Francis Poulenc's 1956 opera, "Dialogues of the Carmelites," the partly fictionalized story of their lives and executions. An English translation of Poulenc's work opened last week at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and will be performed through June 28.

As part of the local performance, a group of understudies visited the Discalced Carmelite convent chapel in Ladue earlier this month for a sing-through rehearsal. Reverend Mother Mary Joseph of the local community described the performance as "inspiring and moving," adding that " the martyrs "were willing to lay down their lives — and they were inspired by God to ... sacrifice their lives for the good of others."

"I doubt these nuns ever dreamed that their lives would be portrayed in a beautiful opera, " she said. "They would never, because Carmelites are hidden, so to speak, from the world, to give their lives in prayer and sacrifice for others. It is a true story of this community, who wanted to give their lives to God but truly gave all in the end."

The fictional part of Poulenc's work features Blanche de la Force, a young aristocrat who, fearful of the realities of the world, decides to profess her vows as a Carmelite. As Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, she is warned by the prioress that the convent is not a place of refuge, but a house of prayer. Her fear of life later turns to a fear of death, as she flees the convent when the community learns its fate. She eventually reunites with her fellow sisters in Christ to take the vow of martyrdom for the salvation of their land.

In preparing for her role as Madame Lidoine, the community's new prioress, lead soprano Christine Brewer said she was most inspired by the "profound faith of these brave women." In the true story of the martyrs, Madame Lidoine went to the scaffold last, offering her blessing to each nun and a small terra cotta Madonna to kiss before moving to the guillotine; in Poulenc's tale, she goes first, which Brewer said is "certainly more dramatic to the story, but I held in my mind the strength of Lidoine to see each of her daughters being executed before her and that gave me strength."

Brewer, a Methodist who lives in Lebanon, Ill., has played the role of a nun on three occasions this past year — also Sister Aloysius in Doug Cuomo's "Doubt," at the Minnesota Opera; and Mother Abbess in "The Sound of Music" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She said she has been inspired in her faith through studying the lives of these women.

"I asked myself many times during this preparation, 'Would I be able to give my life in that way?' I don't know the answer, but I admire those who have given their lives in service of the Church very much," she said.

Reverend Mother Mary Joseph of the Carmelites said the martyrs' story is an example of the need to turn to God and seek truth in our lives. "And if we really want to live that truth, there may come a time where we have to make a decision like that," she said. "If you truly believe in God and the truth ... you have to be ready to stand by the truth just as the saints and the martyrs have done through the ages." 

Dialogues of the Carmelites

WHERE: Opera Theatre of St. Louis at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves

WHEN: Remaining performances are 7 p.m. Sunday, June 22; 8 p.m. Thursday, June 26; and 8 p.m. Saturday, June 28. The performance is three hours, including an intermission.

TICKETS: For ticket information and pricing, call (314) 961-0644 or visit 

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