Opera as Training for Human Rights Advocacy (and at video from last night’s performance!)

I tend to get a certain question–“Opera? How does that fit?”–a lot, particularly when marketing myself to potential employers. I usually explain that singing opera gives me a unique opportunity to get comfortable performing, engage with texts in half a dozen languages, and teaches me about effective management (because if there has ever been an unmanageable group, it is opera singers). But those answers all leave out the most important reason why my opera training helps me be a more effective advocate for human rights: because opera is about human rights.

I’ll use the opera I am in (go here to see the webcast). Dialogues of the Carmelites by Poulenc is about the lives of the nuns who were massacred in 1794 in France near the end of the revolution. More to the point, it is about human rights in a time of revolution.

  1. Religious persecution

    In the opera, the Carmelites were a reflective order. As the Mother Superior says: “we are nothing but a house of prayer”. However, because they are perceived by agents of the revolution (a cadre of soldiers in this case) to be representatives of the Pope, they are treated as traitors and publicly stripped )in the final scene of Act 2 (in our version, the soldiers also attempt to steal the sacramental cup). The anti-Catholic actions of the soldiers are put into context by the captain of the guard who tells Mother Marie “In the church at home, I served two years as Sacristan. Our noble priest, I loved him like a brother–but I’ve no choice but to howl with all the wolves”. Whether motivated by fear of the mob or hatred of the church, the soldiers are engaging in religious oppression.

  2. State-sponsored violence

    The soldiers are also agents of state-sponsored violence. As representatives of the revolution, they feel empowered to harass and humiliate the nuns. When the nuns are imprisoned, the jailer (also a representative of the revolution) taunts them and accuses them of being in “correspondence with our enemies”, when they were really imprisoned for having mass illegally. Even more tellingly, as the nuns are herded into a government office where they must sign their names to receive “the benefits of liberty” (access to food and housing?), a soldier tells them they will continue to be “under the watchful eye of the law”–as he says this in our production, he leers at Sister Constance (a novice) and stalks her as she rushes to sign her name. The opera shows the evils of power without accountability and how it can become state-sponsored violence.

  3. Judicial corruption

    In the opera, the nuns are sentenced to death and executed without a trial by their peers, essentially murdered by committee. Before that, just before they are stripped, they are informed they have been expelled from their home “in the name of the Republic”–that is, an undemocratically elected group who used the church as a symbol of the opulence and aristocracy they hated (in this case, ignoring the willing poverty in which the nuns lived to cast them as agents of the Pope).

  4. Violence against women

    While some of the nuns fight back (yours truly tries to take a soldier out when he starts to strip a friend) the opera is a story of men attacking a women’s community. The most peaceful scenes (1.3 where we are all spinning and sewing, 2.2 where we meet the new Mother Superior) are occupied solely by women. The opera makes the case that women can create their own self-sufficient communities which men (with the exception of the priest, who is allied with the women because he is celibate) see as threatening to their power and feel they must use violence to  destroy (whether by banning them as the soldiers do, or trying to force women to leave them, as Blanche’s brother does).

  5. Casualties of progress

    The nuns did represent orthodoxy–as a largely sequestered order, they had an allegiance to the monarchical system which had supported them for hundreds of years. The french revolution, for all of its blood and terror, eventually brought about one of our world’s great democratic nations. But good opera, like all good history, does not lend itself to easy categories like good and bad. For me, the joy of opera is the complexity of the picture is presents. In the end, the women in the convent were restricted by their vows to a life I would never choose as a modern woman. But their life is also not one I would deny to a women who chose it freely. As Madame Lidoine reminds us as the sisters await their sentence in prison: “How could they deprive us of liberty, which we so long ago surrendered of our free will?”

Finally, here is our execution scene from last night, via a bootleg (I’m the one of the far right, who walks to the guillotine holding my sister’s hand):

Inspirational Quote:

“The arts is a life of faith, its pure faith.
People preach about faith, who have no idea what faith is.

But artists know. Artists are the lilies of the field that Jesus preached about in the Sermon of the Mount.

‘Consider the Lilies, don’t worry about what you are going to eat or wear. Consider the lilies. They toil not and spin not, and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’

The life of the artist is pure, pure faith.”

September 19, 2009. The News from Lake Wobegone, with Garrison Keillor


  1. Jessie,

    Couldn’t a perfectly good answer to the question “Why Opera?” just be “I like it. I enjoy singing and like the working together to put on a grand production.”? Give yourself some slack. Not EVERYTHING needs to be about human rights!

Get in touch

%d bloggers like this: