An interview with OperaUpClose's Artistic Director, Robin Norton-Hale, on her new production of Poulenc's La Voix Humaine.
Why did you want to direct La Voix Humaine?
The experience of falling out of love – or of someone falling out of love with you – is a universal one, and the extreme misery of the heroine of the opera is therefore something everyone can relate to. However, there had been moments in previous productions of the opera in which I’d found ‘Elle’ self-pitying and melodramatic; a stereotypical hysterical woman trying to hold on to a man, which I found difficult to identify with. So Sarah [Minns, the soprano] and I wanted to see if we could find a character who was both more sympathetic and perhaps stronger than she’s sometimes been seen – especially as Poulenc himself is known to have identified very deeply with her.
I understand you’ve brought a lot of research about gay – particularly lesbian – Paris of the 20s and 30s into rehearsals. How does that fit in?
It started as a sort of thought experiment: if something I’d found hard to relate to about the piece was the gendered stereotype of hysterical woman trying to hold on to emotionally distant man, what changed if we imagined the person on the other end of the phone (who of course we never see or hear) as a woman? Immediately it was revealing, without changing the character of ‘Elle’ or her ex. ‘Elle’ is both melodramatic and manipulative on occasion, but by thinking of her lover as a woman, those become individual personality traits rather than ‘female’ ones – likewise the things her ex says which are cold or dismissive are then not ‘male’. It also gave us some useful backstories about why the relationship seems to have been relatively clandestine, and why the woman who keeps on cutting in on their conversation might be so nasty, and so on. Ultimately this element is an undercurrent to our production which we have found useful in developing the characters and the story of the relationship, but which we have left open for the audience to find for themselves, or not.
‘Elle’ still refers to her ex using male pronouns, and as Monsieur.
Yes, we have not changed anything in the libretto. In fact, some gay women at the time did refer to themselves by male names and pronouns. Even trousers for women were a very new and daring phenomenon, and there was an (extremely stylish) subculture of lesbians dressing in tailored masculine suits and picking up on those elements of how men were allowed to dress and behave which gave them more freedom. The conversation, relationship and despair ‘Elle’ feels are not changed by the gender of the person on the other end of the line. By imagining the lover as a woman, for me the opera becomes more universal, rather than more specific.
You say, ‘Things her ex says’ but we never hear any of them…
Yes, but of course we have had to decide on everything the ex-lover says to prompt all of the responses – and Sarah has to really ‘hear’ the ex on the other end of the phone, in order to react.
Our understanding of mental health issues and suicide has developed since the opera, and the play it is based on, were written. Do you think this element of the opera is dated?
Not at all. Poulenc writes her emotional state into the music so sensitively, it feels as if he had a very deep understanding of emotional crisis, and specifically of someone suicidal. At one point ‘Elle’ says, “No one ever tries to kill herself twice”, which is sadly far from true – and in fact there are numerous clues through the opera that she is carefully planning another suicide attempt. It is a very acutely observed portrayal of someone who is completely alone and in despair, and it is genuinely tragic.