Opera in Two Acts
Camille Claudel was a brilliant French sculptor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her younger brother was the famous French poet and diplomat, Paul Claudel. In 1882, at the age of 18, Camille worked as an apprentice in Auguste Rodin’s sculpture atelier. She became Rodin’s model, his lover and his muse. Rodin was 42.
Camille began destroying her sculptures in 1905, a practice she continued until 1913 when she was institutionalized for mental illness. For the next thirty years, until her death in 1943, Camille lived in a mental hospital. The last new work she completed without destroying it was a bust of her brother Paul in 1905.
It would be a mistake to assume that Camille’s Claudel’s reputation has survived simply because of her association with Rodin. She was described by the critics of the time as: “a revolt against nature: a woman genius”. Many reviewers have since found Claudel’s work to surpass Rodin’s in its lyricism, grace and sensuality.
PROMISE explores questions surrounding an artist who shows great “promise”. Are her artistic gifts promised to society, to a divine power, or are they hers, alone? The opera examines Camille’s inner life, focusing on her relationships with her brother Paul, with her parents, with the art critics and with Rodin. In particular, the opera probes into Camille’s relationship with art, itself.
The story is told in two acts, centering on a month’s vacation by the sea that Camille and Paul spend together in 1905. Paul has been summoned home from his diplomatic post in China to try to temper Camille’s destructiveness, both towards her sculptures and towards herself..
From this setting, scenes flash back to the siblings’ village childhood outside Paris, to Camille’s relationship with Rodin and her subsequent abortion, and to the Claudel parents’ split reactions towards her struggles. We learn how the critics and the public viewed Camille both as a sculptor and as Rodin’s lover. We hear about Paul’s devout Catholicism and about Camille’s atheism and her growing paranoia regarding Rodin. These flashbacks reach their climax in a scene where she destroys her sculptures.
At the end of their vacation, Camille realizes the depth of love and support she has with her brother, and she promises him that she will not harm herself. She creates one final bust of Paul that she does not destroy. The cost of this effort draws her down a path of apparent mental breakdown, which convinces Paul and their parents to remove her to a mental hospital in the south of France. In the final scene, which functions as an epilogue, we witness Camille’s spiritual transformation shortly before her death.
Theresa Koon’s parents were neighbors to the Claudels in France, where she met with the family while doing her research for the opera. François and Violaine Claudel were enormously helpful during the creation of this work. Through a private grant, PROMISE received a workshop at Nautilus Music Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2003. A concert production of the opera was performed in 2004, in Portland, Oregon. In 2006, a concert version of PROMISE was presented at the Detroit Institute of Art as part of a Claudel/Rodin retrospective exhibition. That same year, an excerpted version of the opera was produced at the National Opera Association Conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 2012 a fully-staged workshop production was performed in Portland, Oregon. Theresa Koon has received grants from the Oregon Arts Commission, the Regional Arts and Culture Council and many private individuals and foundations in support of this work.