I am lucky enough to be combining my two passions – drama and opera – in a project airing at The Flying Nun at Brand X, Darlinghurst.
It’s Still Her Voice is an adaptation – or a mash up – of Jean Cocteau’s 1928 play and Francis Poulenc’s opera of 1958 La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice).
Both works portray an unnamed woman speaking on the telephone for 40 minutes to a lover who is leaving her. Her predicament is timeless and universal. Whatever one’s gender or sexual orientation, who has not waited for a former lover to call, overcome by such intense despair that living on seems impossible?
We take the opera, sung in French, as the core or spine of the adaptation. A contemporary English text weaves its way though the edited score. Two women are attempting to suppress mounting hysteria as their female lover gives them the heave-ho.
Only ever hearing one side of a telephone conversation, we’re left to infer the other side both from the women’s reaction to it and from Poulenc’s score, which reinforces and comments on their emotional state.
This intimate study of despair has inspired some great filmed performances, notably Ingrid Bergman, Rosamund Pike and more recently Tilda Swinton in a 30 minute adaptation by Pedro Almodóvar.
In the opera world there are just as many. Poulenc chose his friend and muse, the French soprano Denise Duval and she gave performances that propelled La Voix Humaine into the operatic canon. Her filmed performance can be seen on YouTube.
It is easy to go over the top with this kind of story.
Both actor and singer are offered super fast swings in mood and tone. It is heightened material and the challenge is to be subtle and precise. The tension must build slowly. It often feels excruciating as the characters ever more focus their obsession on an impersonal, weirdly disembodied technological device.
In the end, only the telephone itself still exists for them, but it is not enough. They cling ever more tightly to it and I think this is how an audience maintain sympathy for each character.
At a deep level, the real subject of this piece is the erosion of an individual’s personal dignity and social identity. The plot traces the process by which the women become psychologically naked in an effort to deny, and then reluctantly accept, a fatal truth. Line-by-line, successive layers of social propriety, ironic distance and self-regard fall away until nothing is left but a single phrase: “I love you and I am nothing.”
This final self-revelation is no more than a last gasp, a final way to keep the phone call going. It is hopeless. They know it. We know it.
It’s Still Her Voice expresses a desperate loneliness that certainly feels true to the kinds of apartness that the pandemic forced upon us.
What surprises is how well the technological panic and bewilderment that Cocteau observed in the telephonic age of 1920s maps onto the digital landscape of today. We still fling our profound feelings plaintively down fragile wires, although now they arrive illustrated with contorted cartoon faces in addition to fading, fragmenting voices.
When Cocteau first wrote La Voix Humaine in 1928, few artists had yet shown how the modern technology that supposedly brings people together may also push them apart. In 1958, Poulenc still lived in that world of crackling lines, faulty connections and inscrutable, disembodied operators. His score cunningly finds musical equivalents for the stop-go alternation of worry and relief, anger and gratitude, baffled silence and cross-talking clamour, that life-changing calls used to entail.
Strangely, to revisit these technical glitches, hold-ups and breakdowns in 2022 is to be reminded not how much has changed but how much stays the same. The chopped or twisted faces and voices on a flawed Zoom may still provoke a distress that massively aggravates the anxiety of remote communication. After two years in which millions have had to depend on these cracked digital vessels for any contact with loved ones, It’s Still Her Voice feels raw and relevant.
As director and with soprano Karina Bailey, actor Pollyanna Nowicki and music director Antonio Fernandez this touching, and an eerie production both marks our time of agonising separations, and seeks to supply an antidote to it.
It’s Still Her Voice plays at Brand X, Darlinghurst, March 4-5.