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Divas, Divos, & Opera Queens (HSOW Part 1): Poulenc

Posted by Wayves Volunteer 11/08/2013

By Hugo Dann

In the climactic moment of his film Milk, Gus Van Sant shows the dying Harvey Milk (both an opera lover and himself the subject of an opera, by David Wallace) gazing out a City Hall window to the San Francisco Opera House and a banner of Puccini’s Tosca. Since its creation in 17th Century Venice, with its larger than life emotions and personalities, its playing with gender norms and subversive political messaging, opera has always played a significant role in the development of queer culture.

GLBTQ, an online encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture, describes opera as “an eclectic synthesis of voice, drama, music, costume, visual arts and spectacle, … [intermingling] the sublime and the absurd, [opera] has embraced unabashedly high artifice, unfettered emotion, melodrama and improbable, convoluted plots, it shares many of the qualities that define queer sensibility, through a combination of idealistic romantic identification and camp travesty.”

Since 2005, the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop (HSOW) has been quenching the dry season thirst of Haligonian opera lovers, presenting talented young artists in a series of workshop productions of opera classics, from the baroque to the modern.

HSOW offers singers (especially university undergrads, Masters’ students and young professionals) an opportunity to learn roles in the context of performing an entire, fully-staged opera. Operas are double-cast as much as possible, with each participant receiving at least two public performances in a well-equipped theatre. Masterclasses in dramatic and musical interpretation and auditioning are also a part of the process. The operas are presented with piano or small orchestra accompaniment in a festival scenario. True devotees can see two different casts performing the same work, and on matinee days, see two different operas in one day.

Much to the delight of local queer divas, divos, and Queens alike, HSOW has consistently offered works by LGB composers. Past seasons have highlighted the work of 20th C. queers Gian Carlo Menotti and Mark Blitzstein, as well as the (possibly) gay composer of Messiah, Georg Friedrich Händel.

This year is no exception; in addition to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro they are presenting Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and Francis Poulenc’s masterpiece, Dialogues des carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites).

Francis Poulenc (1899 - 1963) is often cited as the first openly gay composer. He lived in Paris and at his family’s estate, Noizay, moving in Parisian queer artistic circles, he was friends with both poet Andre Gide and the multi-talented Jean Cocteau.

During the Nazi occupation, he joined the Comité de Front National des Musiciens, part of the resistance movement organized by the French Communist Party. He wove French patriotic themes into his scores composed for the theatre and ballet under the nose of Occupation forces.

Dialogues des carmélites, set during the French Revolution, as a convent of Carmelite nuns await arrest and execution at the hands of revolutionaries, has been linked by some critics to the troubles of post-war France. Poulenc himself identified the fate of the soprano lead, Blanche de la Force, to the long suffering of his partner, Lucien Roubert, who died of pleurisy in 1955, on the very day Poulenc completed the piano version of the Dialogues.

Despite his openness about his homosexuality, Poulenc was deeply committed to his Catholic faith. His struggles to reconcile these apparently contradictory elements of his life are perhaps reflected in the conflict between the novice Blance and the acting mother Superior of the convent, Marie de l’Incarnation. Spirituality and mortality are intertwined in the opera's finale, bravely singing the Salve Regina, the nuns are led off one by one to their death as the crash of the guillotine viciously punctuates the score.

Following the completion of the opera and his lover’s painful death, Poulenc plunged into a deep depression during which he found it impossible to compose. However, in 1957, he met his last love, Louis Gautier, and entered on a priod of great creativity, including his operatic setting of Cocteau’s one-act tragedy, La Voix Humaine (1958), and Gloria (1961), commissioned by Leonard Bernstein.

Like Dialogues des carmélites, Gloria reveals Poulenc’s deep spiritual sensibilities, a spirituality that transcends any one creed, that is indelibly a part of human existence and experience. Poulenc died of a sudden heart attack in Paris on January 30, 1963, one of the most celebrated of modern composers.

Dialogues des carmélites by Francis Poulenc is being performed in the original French at the Neptune Studio Theatre on the following dates: