In 1794, a group of Carmelite nuns and lay sisters were guillotined in Paris for refusing to renounce their order and its monastic vows. Their story became the basis for a novel, a play, and finally an opera: Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, which l'Opera de Montréal is presenting in a new production that opens Saturday at Place des Arts.
Poulenc was a devout Catholic, and his 1956 opera deals with an episode of cruelty and repression as a test of faith and character. This is a timeless theme, and like many timeless things, can easily be related to current conditions, including political events.
We live at a time when religious women who wear other kinds of form-concealing clothes are expected to justify their faith, their community and their deviation from secular norms. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President has given power to a part of the American political spectrum that sees a threat in all visible manifestations of Islam.
If the link between 18th-century nuns and present-day Muslim women seems tenuous, consider an act of terrorism carried out against French-Canadian nuns near Boston. It happened in 1834, during a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment, and not many years after the Carmelites went to the scaffold in Paris.
A group of Ursuline nuns had gone from Quebec to Massachusetts in 1820, to found a convent and school. By 1834, they had a building in Charlestown (now part of Boston) that was big enough to house 12 nuns and 57 female students, including one girl from Quebec. On the night of Aug. 11, about 50 men, roused by rumours that one woman was being held captive in the convent, lit barrels of tar near the building and told the nuns to get out. "All, or nearly all, the Nuns swooned," according to a contemporary account, "and were not aroused to a sense of their dangerous situation, until the heralds of destruction reiterated their mission, with threats of burning the Nuns with the building."
The nuns and students escaped with the clothes they wore; everything else they owned was destroyed, along with the building, the surrounding gardens and orchards and even a small crypt. A large crowd prevented firefighters from reaching the blaze.
No one in the mob cared that a local councillor had told the attackers that he and other officials had been through the building two days earlier, and had found no one there against their will. "The institution was in its very nature unpopular, and a strong feeling existed against it," as one observer wrote, so the place was torched.
The feeling was not universal. The next day, the mayor of Boston called a public meeting at Faneuil Hall, where a resolution condemned the attack as "a base and cowardly act," and called on citizens "to unite with our Catholic brethren in protecting their persons, their property, and their civil and religious rights." The governor of Massachusetts posted a reward of $500 for information that might identify the perpetrators, but no one was ever found responsible.
The irony was that three-quarters of the students at the Charlestown school were Protestant. The nuns did not give those girls Catholic religious instruction unless their parents allowed it. The girls were obliged to go to Mass, but they could read their own Bibles throughout the service, contrary to Catholic practice at the time. Far from being a house of Catholic indoctrination, the Charlestown school was remarkably ecumenical.
An inventory of what its students lost in the fire included many musical instruments, mostly pianos and guitars. The urge to destroy had left no room to distinguish between the trappings of popery, as the attackers might have said, and the means for playing a song or sonata.
A couple of decades later, nuns became saintly figures in the American popular imagination, thanks to a series of novels exalting them as pure and faithful women. A century after that, the United States elected a Catholic, John Kennedy, as its president.
Now, when mosques have been burned in Florida and Washington State, when a Muslim can be removed from a plane for reading or speaking in Arabic, when a registry for U.S. Muslims is being discussed as a real possibility, it's worth looking back at the anti-religious hysterias of earlier times. The intolerance is the same; only the clothes and the book are different.
At the start of Dialogues des Carmélites, the novice Blanche expresses her terror at the sounds and reports of revolutionary disturbances in the street. By the end of the opera, she has overcome her fear, even as she waits for execution. Poulenc's opera is one of the few 20th-century works that can always find a stage, thanks to the hymn-like simplicity of its music, and because it's about holding to your truth. It should be seen and heard by everyone moved to moments of terror by the new master of the White House.
L'Opéra de Montréal's new production of Dialogues des Carmélites runs Saturday through Feb. 4 at Place des Arts' Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.