La Voix Humaine - An Interview with the Director

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.

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Music & Feeling in La Voix Humaine

To say that La Voix Humaine is an opera for solo voice would be misleading and would be to deny the music its inherent character, or rather characters. In the absence of any physical figures on stage with ‘Elle’, the orchestral music of Poulenc’s opera (in our production the sparser, percussive piano) transforms into an omniscient narrator that both betrays her emotions and feelings, and on occasion acts as her accomplice.

During panicked exchanges with the telephone Operator, the score exposes the heroine’s fear of not reaching her lover. The score becomes angular, quick-paced and erratic, evoking her fraying composure. When ‘Elle’ reminisces about the happier times they spent together, the slower, even sultry tempi are on her side, luring her lover back to those rose-tinted days.

Sarah Minns. OperaUpClose (La Voix Humaine, Kings Place). By Christopher Tribble (1).jpg

The score is equally complicit in painting her fictitious evening with her friend Martha, and pretending to her lover that she is coping. At these points, the score is particularly melodic, presenting the audience with another aural falsehood at odds with the visual reality on stage. This complicity between singer and score functions to create a heightened sense of insecurity.

Uneasiness also stems from the piece’s fluctuating tonality. Her (Elle) speech-like patterns rise chromatically, broadly speaking, whilst the score beneath her jumps from motif to motif. There seems to be neither cohesive key nor melody to put the listener at ease.

An important characteristic of Poulenc’s score, also serving to disarm the audience, is how he switches from the emotional to the physical. The ringing of the telephone penetrates the score seven times, becoming increasingly estranged from Elle’s vocal soundscape. At one point jazz bursts through the telephone, offering us a tangible image of her lover in a crowded bar, further isolating the lone ‘Elle’, with only the telephone connecting her to the outside world.

The musical landscape Poulenc paints is ultimately deceptive. It serves initially to support Elle yet progressively works to destabilise her, leaving her isolated, with the score’s final notes, bare octaves, symbolic of her broken spirit.

Despite expressing reservations about performances of La Voix Humaine with only piano accompaniment, Poulenc himself played the piano version in public on several occasions.

By Olivia Clark

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La Voix Humaine (up close) - Week 3

With less than a week to go before opening night, La Voix Humaine is really starting to come together. As lighting plans, director’s notes, set and publicity all begin to unite and polish the show, what strikes me most is how the libretto and the musicality have been performing a similar balancing act all along. It is fascinating to see (or hear? or both?) the interplay of music and libretto – and how both are as equally important for characterisation. Coming from a classical theatre background, it was my assumption that words are always the primary source of character, but now I am amazed at how a short silence from the piano, between a couple of violent trills, can do as much as a monologue. I can now recognise that the music is both an extension of Elle’s moods and thoughts, as well as constantly mimicking a telephone conversation. It's fascinating to see discussions about character, intention and what the other person is saying on the end of the phone - improvising the scene and then seeing that scene with the music after it's been discussed and analysed. You can really see and hear all the little nuances and character decisions Sarah has made coming through in the performance and it's amazing to see!

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The biggest change to our rehearsal process this week has been marking the layout of the set. The opera takes place within a single flat, and although it is never stated in the libretto, Robin felt that Elle should be wandering around her small apartment throughout. But how to stage that? We cannot have traditional ‘flats’ onstage, as these are large, opaque and ungainly. We cannot build an apartment either, as there would be too much to obscure Sarah, and too much sound-absorbing material. Kate’s fantastic design avoids both pitfalls. The apartment is represented instead by cage-like panels, which form a fractured and geometrical approximation of a home. The set will look industrial, minimalist, and hopefully quite eerie when we combine it with glaring LED lights and a high-gloss floor. The parallels with a prison cell or an inhumane asylum are not lost on any of us. By taping out the layout, this has been useful for Sarah as she can prepare for moving in the space when at King's Place, it also adds more dimensions scenographically. Having an old-fashioned telephone prop also helps – for obvious reasons!

With only six days to go until opening night, and such a strong showing from the design and creative teams this week, it looks poised to be a fantastic evening. The only thing missing is you - see you on Sunday!

By James Osman, Assistant Director on La Voix Humaine. 

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