ArtsWatch guest post: Katie Taylor on PSU’s Dialogues of the Carmelites

For our latest guest contribution from a Portland artist with special insights into another institution’s work, ArtsWatch asked former Opera Theater Oregon artistic director Katie Taylor to preview Portland State University’s new production of the great 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc’s searing 1953 opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, which opens tonight, April 27, at Lincoln Performance Hall on the PSU campus.


End of scene by Jeff Johnson (JeffJohnson1) on

PSU's Dialogues of the Carmelites/Photo Jeff Johnson

By Katie Taylor

Never one to shy away from a challenge, PSU Opera director Christine Meadows and her vocal staff chose Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites as this year’s vehicle for the program’s talented students. Dialogues is a tight, cerebral French drama from the ‘50s with gorgeous and very demanding music ably prepared by Meadows, principal opera coach Doug Schneider and PSU Orchestra conductor Ken Selden.

Carmelites is one of a number of notable ‘50s dramas based on past tragedies resulting from rigid, paranoid politics. Forbidden by French Revolutionary authorities to practice their religion, the nuns of the Carmelite order at Compiegne vow martyrdom, setting off a series of events that ends in tragedy.

“[The story is] more relevant today than ever with the self-immolation protests happening in the Middle and Far East,” says soprano May Picard, who is double cast in the leading role of Blanche de la Force with soprano Rachael Buckholt. “The fact that these are Catholic nuns in France is incidental. These were people who stood up for their beliefs and sacrificed themselves for the good of mankind. They symbolize the opposition to oppression everywhere.”

Carmelites is based on a true story. Before coming to Portland to start staging with the students, director David Edwards took a trip to Compiegne and Paris to learn about the real-life martyrs. He brought back photos, artifacts and books for the cast to look at and absorb.

“He is a wonderful person, and an even better director,” says Picard. “He is very good at helping us peel away the layers of our characters and their relationships.”

London-born Edwards is this year’s Jeannine B. Cowles Distinguished Visiting Professor of Opera. A former staff director at the Royal Opera Covent Garden, Edwards now enjoys a successful international career as a freelance opera director with credits at La Scala, Milan, Staatsoper Vienna and San Francisco Opera, among others.

Picard was delighted with the choice of Carmelites for this year’s mainstage production and plans to keep the role of Blanche in her repertoire.

“This is definitely the most challenging role I’ve encountered, emotionally and vocally,” she says. “You must be something of a detective, combing through the score searching for clues that indicate different subtleties in your character’s personality. When I sang the role of Rose in Street Scene last year, there weren’t too many interpretations of her lines. ‘What good would the moon be unless the right one shared its beams? What good would dreams come true be if love wasn’t in those dreams?’ — relatively straightforward when compared to Blanche’s mystical outbursts.”

Last time I worked with May, she was wearing a bikini and standing in a crab shack as Fricka in Opera Theater Oregon’s production of ‘Baywatch/Das Rheingold.’ I’m looking forward to catching her flip side as a timid but super-tough nun.

Katie Taylor served as artistic director of Opera Theater Oregon from 2006-2011. Dialogues of the Carmelites opens tonight, Friday, April 27 at 7:30 pm at Lincoln Performance Hall (SW Broadway and Market). Additional performances follow on May 1, 4 and 5 at 7:30 pm, with a matinee on April 29 at 3pm. Tickets are available through PSU Box Office, 503-725-3307, or at any Ticketmaster.

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