Two Voices juxtaposed by Opera in Concert

The one act play La Voix Humaine was written by Jean Cocteau in 1928. The one act opera La Voix Humaine based on that play was composed by Francis Poulenc in 1958. Each one is a monodrama, presented by a solo performer onstage alone, although the opera also has piano accompaniment.

Voicebox Opera in Concert are currently pairing the two in a unique double-bill as an online presentation. The play is presented in English translation as “The Human Voice” starring Chilina Kennedy as “Elle,” followed by the opera in French starring Miriam Khalil as “Elle” with piano & music direction from Narmina Afandiyeva, three exquisite performances in the two works.

In 1975 Stuart Hamilton, founder & Artistic Director of Opera in Concert, paired Cocteau’s play with Poulenc’s opera, a programming idea that the current Artistic Director Guillermo Silva-Marin is repeating this month, but as an online presentation.

Imagine that the solitary person onstage is only connected to the world through an electronic device…! It sounds very familiar in this year of the pandemic, even though the idea originated almost a hundred years ago with Cocteau. Great Northern Productions created the videography and audio recording of the two shows, that can be accessed at the Opera in Concert website until Feb 19th.

Chilina Kennedy as Elle

When I said “two voices juxtaposed” I could mean the two works or the two different performers. Chilina Kennedy speaks the role in English while Miriam Khalil sings it in French. Each is extraordinary in their own discipline, two different approaches to the same character contrasted as much by their respective disciplines as by the personalities.

Miriam Khalil as Elle

I am especially intrigued by the opportunity presented by that juxtaposition. Have you ever wondered about the differences between an adaptation & its original? We may wonder why a scene or a character was changed. Reading or watching Shakespeare’s Othello we discover a whole act that didn’t make it into Verdi’s Otello just as the operatic Carmen differs in several ways from Merimée’s novella. But the chance to study a play and its operatic adaptation side by side on the same bill? That’s a particular rarity indeed.

The 1975 pairing is fundamentally different from ours in 2021. Both play and opera were offered from a stage with an audience, requiring a stage actor’s trained voice or an opera singer’s voice to reach the whole audience. This time as we’re peering at and listening to each star on our own electronic devices, the game is different. Cocteau’s play becomes a teleplay on film with all the intimacy that the medium affords. I wonder how Chilina Kennedy would present Elle if she were performing on a stage? For this virtual version Chilina had the luxury of whispering into her phone. I say luxury because she didn’t have to project her trained actor’s voice to fill the theatre. This is one of the great challenges of a role such as this one when presented in a big theatre, that we’re to believe the actor is whispering into her phone even as she makes enough sound to be heard by however many hundred people are sitting with you observing her melt-down or intimate moments while we overhear. Chilina is sometimes lying to her lover, tipping us off with a facial expression that can be subtler than usual in this filmed version.

But if you think that’s difficult, soprano Miriam Khalil’s challenge is bigger still. The score more or less dictates how the part must be sung. While Miriam sang as delicately and softly as the part would allow, in many places it is written as though the singer must be heard in a big theatre: even in this intimate virtual context. It’s opera, right? And so even though we’re watching on our own device, the medium requires Miriam to sing with the piano even if the moment could work more softly & intimately.

The juxtaposition between the two versions is a dream come true if you’re a student of dramaturgy, studying how a play or an opera works. One of the things you notice is how Cocteau builds silences into his play, the moments when Elle is listening to her invisible lover on the other end of the phone. Somehow Elle must make us believe that there’s a person there, that her pauses are motivated by the inaudible words she hears that we can only imagine as she stands before us holding the phone. Poulenc’s operatic treatment is different because the silences are more infrequent. While the operatic Elle isn’t always singing, the piano is often playing into those “silences”, assembling the lines into something of an arioso, creating something very different from what we had in the play. In effect there’s another non-verbal voice, coming from the piano. At times the effect is of a Greek Chorus as we might find in a Wagner opera, where his orchestra fills in details or even the emotional underpinnings. As a result the soprano has less interpretive leeway, the score preventing her from being as free as the spoken word actress portraying Elle. Miriam pushed the role a long way away from the kind of ostentation we see on a stage, where the big voice and presence of a soprano may seem larger than life. And that’s how I have usually experienced this opera, come to think of it. Miriam softens the role as much as humanly possible.

The double bill of The Human Voice and La Voix Humaine are available from Opera in Concert’s website until February 19th.

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