OGDEN — In 1794, at the height of the French Revolution in Paris, 16 Carmelite nuns were beheaded for refusing to renounce their vocation.
That story is the basis for Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” being presented this week at Weber State University.
Karen Bruestle, director of both the opera program and vocal performance area at Weber State University, is heading up this student-acted performance of “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” She has sung in the opera twice herself, and admits she’s always loved the Poulenc work.
“It’s dark, heavy, tragic — but with beautiful music,” Bruestle said. “It’s definitely heavy subject matter, but beautifully done. And it’s visually stunning as well, with all the Catholic symbolism, stained glass and crosses.”
Bruestle says she chose “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” which plays Thursday through Saturday in the Browning Center, for several reasons. First, although she’s performed in the opera before, she’s never had a chance to produce it herself.
Also, the fact that it’s being offered in the center’s Allred Theater — which is a much smaller venue than the Austad Auditorium where many of the larger performances are staged — is another selling point, according to Bruestle. The venue makes the piece a little more intimate, which is ideal for this opera, she said.
Adding to that intimate feeling, Bruestle said they’re using just three musicians — piano, flute and strings — rather than a full orchestra, which is typical for most operas.
“The score and music fits wonderfully with this small group, and that’s really lovely,” she said. “And, we put the three musicians right up there on stage, and that makes it really interesting.”
Speaking as the opera’s director, Bruestle said she also has the right student makeup to pull it off this year.
“I have this incredible body of women — they really are incredible — and this opera is made up mostly of women,” Bruestle said. “And so their beautiful female voices are perfect for this.”
And finally, Bruestle says October is a fitting time to present an opera about 16 nuns being marched off to the guillotine.
“It’s the perfect time of year with Halloween, because it’s something on the morbid, tragic side,” she said. “It has that really macabre element with all these incredible nuns who were all beheaded — 16 of them.”
Bruestle said the nuns were all given sainthood in 1907.
“Dialogues of the Carmelites” won’t feature familiar songs like those in “La Boehme” or “The Magic Flute,” but Bruestle still thinks the opera is a good introduction to the art form.
With some of the traditional cuts to the original the opera “isn’t terribly long,” according to Bruestle. Plus, she’s made some additional cuts to it, bringing the production down to 2 ½ hours with intermission.
“Plus, it’s in English — which is nice, and makes it accessible to all,” Bruestle said.