A Woman’s Voice: The Director’s Perspective on La voix humaine

Layna Chianakas as “elle” in OSJ’s 1996 production of La voix humaine. Photo by Scott Hinrichs

It has been almost 14 years since “elle” came into my life, and I can honestly say she has haunted me ever since. When I was asked to direct Poulenc’s La voix humaine for Opera San José, I was at once humbled and honored. Having sung the role all those years ago, and knowing its challenges, helped me to immediately say ‘yes,’ and in turn begin shaping my own ideas about the character, the play and the way in which the music highlights them.

La voix humaine is all about the text, with the music simply an enhancer of the drama.  Cocteau’s words and the emotions they conjure are just as real today as they were in 1930 when he wrote the play.  Of course, party lines no longer exist, but we all can certainly still attest to dropped calls and bad reception!  To modern women, the character (simply referred to as elle or “she” in the libretto synopsis) is a desperate and sometimes-infuriating woman, but one with whom we all relate, especially if we have ever been in a volatile and passionate relationship we felt didn’t need to end.  Her desperation to keep her lover is palpable, and we feel at once both frustrated by her and sad for her.

What makes La voix humaine so unique is the unsaid character of the voyeur, played by the audience: that feeling that we simply want to look away, but just can’t help but watch, that we are intruding on something severely private, and yet we take it in, make it our own, and talk about it afterwards.  I do hope the audience feels especially on edge watching the woman speak with her ex-lover, as she tries to come to terms with her loss and herself.

I have set this production in the 1950’s film noir style, where the telephone is as important to the plot as the character herself. I have always been fascinated with black and white film noir, as well as the acting, which to modern audiences seems so melodramatic and far-fetched: it is perfect for opera, where the audience is such a distance away from the singers and, often, facial expressions cannot be read! In our production, sometimes the telephone is her lover; sometimes it is, as she says, “a weapon that leaves no trace;” sometimes it is the listener; and sometimes, it is the frazzled tether of a failed relationship.  No matter how the telephone fits into the drama, it is intriguing because the fragility of hearing only another person’s voice leaves room for misinterpretation and disdain. If her lover had come to her apartment and spoken with her in person, perhaps the severity of her situation would have been lessened.

Caricature of Poulenc as drawn by Jean Cocteau (1899)

The line drawings of Jean Cocteau also inspired J.B. Wilson’s set design, and make for a wonderfully askew quality to the borders of the room. John has taken my black and white vision and realized it with bold edges and strong lines of the 1950s French modern style.

I am surrounded by a talented production team and two strong actresses, and I look forward to a wonderful experience in my directorial debut!


Pagliacci: The darker side of betrayal

(Editor’s note: Following on the theme of lost love in Poulenc’s passionate La voix humaine, the second one-act opera in our November double-bill, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, will take us through an exploration of the darker side of betrayal.)

Leoncavallo and his dog, 1894

His life was surely eventful, and tended toward the extremes. Commissioned by kings, starved in the streets of Paris, hailed as the most promising composer of his generation, damned as shallow and litigious, Ruggiero Leoncavallo knew it all first hand, but all we know of him is Pagliacci.

Born in Calabria, in the far south of Italy to well-to-do and socially prominent parents, Leoncavallo had an excellent education and all the advantages that Naples could afford, which were many. His father was a judge and his mother, the namesake of Virginia Donizetti and the goddaughter of the famous composer, was a painter. Theirs was a cultured and well-educated family; Art was revered in their household.

As a student at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Naples, where Donizetti had been the director, Leoncavallo was able to attend performances at the famed Teatro San Carlo as well as the three other opera houses in that ancient and wealthy royal capital. He began life with advantages that Verdi, Donizetti, and many other composers couldn’t dream of.

After completing his course requirements in Naples, Leoncavallo attended the prestigious University of Bologna where he studied writing and literature. In Bologna, he was welcomed into the cream of society, not least because of his unusual accomplishment as a pianist. He composed for and performed at the most distinguished salons, and began (though never completed) a lifelong project inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle on significant moments and persons in Italian history. Only the first of the three operas was composed and performed, I Medici, which, well received for a time, soon disappeared. He also composed a La bohèmethat had initial success but was later eclipsed by Puccini’s brilliant work derived from the same material. Leoncavallo also wrote a number of popular operettas, which have disappeared from the repertoire over time, along with his numerous songs. The one opera that has remained, still one of the most performed operas in the standard repertoire, is Pagliacci.

Les buveurs d’absinthe (The Absinthe Drinkers) by Jean-Francois Raffaëlli, c.1881

In Paris, Leoncavallo became acquainted with Émile Zola, who, along with Honoré de Balzac and Prosper Mérimée, established a new form in French literature referred to as realism, in which the lives of the lower and middle classes were depicted, and in ways that seemed at the time grippingly, even shockingly true to life. Bizet’s Carmen was the very first opera derived from this literary genre, based upon Mérimée’s novella. Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was the first of this style written in Italian, where the genre was called verismo; Pagliacci was the second.

Pagliacci begins with a prologue, sung by a baritone who most often enters the stage in front of the main drape, during which an explanation of this radically different style of opera is explained; it serves as a warning to the audience.

When you look on us, dressed in costumes and tinsel,
Ours are human hearts, beating with passion,
We are men like you, for gladness or sorrow,
It is the same broad heaven above us,
The same wide, lonely world before us!

This is an invitation for the audience to enter into a world that is immediate and familiar, rather than a world of imagined fantasy. Instead of seeing knights such as Lohengrin or Parsifal, or troubadours such as Manrico or Blondel, you are forewarned that you will be seeing individuals much like yourself, individuals who bleed when they are pricked. The dramatic force of Pagliacci lies as much in its tenacious determination to give us a story about very human individuals as it is in its richly, powerfully expressive music.

Stage Director Cynthia Stokes (who makes her debut at OSJ with this production) feels very strongly that the story of Pagliacci is universal. This unfortunate situation is as old as humanity and happens in all cultures at all times. To help remove the distance, to take the action out of a specific time or local, she has asked for a very clean, spacious setting that includes nothing that will define place or time. Pearl-gray geometric shapes, a ramp, an altar-like platform, a curved wall, and a blue horizon to indicate the sea, is all there is until the addition of the backdrop for the commedia dell’arte play. The costumes, however, are true to the clothes of Calabria at the turn of the 20th century. In this nebulous world the clown’s heartbreak spans time, as it could be happening anywhere at any time.

(Editor’s note: If you are interested in exploring the world of verismo opera, the Naxos Music Library has an online playlist of arias in the genre; a site subscription is required.)

Betany Coffland Interview: Following a Dream Beyond the Rainbow

“I’m always impressed by how much work goes into putting an opera together and how much physical and emotional energy the singers invest in their voice lessons, coachings, outreach programs and rehearsals in order to make the magic that we finally see happen on stage.  They don’t do it for the money, and that is why the program at Opera San José and its network of supporters are so beneficial to budding professionals.”
Joseph Coffland
Mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland and her husband Joe make time in their busy schedules to go for hikes and spend time outdoors.

Talented singers like mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland frequently come from families that value music in all its forms. “Everyone in my family sings,” Coffland says, “though not professionally. Mom was an amateur opera singer and often sang famous soprano arias around the house.” Betany and her siblings sometimes entertained the family, performing as a quartet.

Born in a small Kansas town, Betany’s family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, when she was four. At fifteen, she auditioned for Brigadoon and got the role of Fiona. “My parents began to participate in shows with me, since I was too young to drive myself to rehearsals.” As a teenager, Coffland also participated in the first year of the Missouri Fine Arts Academy.  Each high school could nominate one person, and she was selected from her school.  For 100 students, it was three weeks concentrating on song, dance, mask-making and other subjects. “It was the defining moment that convinced me I wanted a career as a singer,” Coffland said. Two summers ago she went back to the Academy, now internationally respected, and lectured on what the students there can expect as they move into their chosen careers.

Coffland’s undergraduate studies were at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, an institution she says is very protective of their singers.  She auditioned and was accepted for their Graduate School Opera Workshop Program, where she sang short pieces and learned how to develop her characters.  She then completed a Masters Degree at Julliard.  “It is a very demanding school,” she says, “I developed a backbone.” In addition to singing and acting classes, her conservatory training involved intensive language study.  Singers must take German, Italian and French, and they also take diction classes. After graduation, Betany moved to Italy to perfect her Italian, and she later lived in Prague so she could learn Czech. “At Julliard, we also had to take English diction classes.  English is the hardest language to sing in.”

Coffland, who keeps track of opportunities to sing and had seen the Opera San José website, was living with her husband in Boise, Idaho, when she met Jason and Michele Detwiler, former OSJ residents. The company was looking for a mezzo-soprano, and luckily for everyone, the Detwilers convinced her to audition. Now a fourth-year resident with Opera San José, she is a George and Susan Crow Fellow and a John M. Heineke and Catherine R. Montfort Fellow.

Coffland will sing the role of the Woman in OSJ’s upcoming production of La voix humaine. Typically, she likes non-standard musical works the best. Her favorite opera is Little Women by Mark Adamo, and she would love to sing the role of Jo in it.  She also likes Pelleas et Melisande by Debussy and The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky. Her favorite singer is the now deceased recitalist Jan DeGaetani, perhaps because she too likes to do recitals.  “I also like to sing chamber music and art songs, and plan to do some of both after OSJ,” she said. “One of my favorite roles was Dorabella, in Così fan tutte.  It was all about being in an ensemble, and I like comic roles.”  All the roles she has sung for OSJ have been new ones for her.

Coffland believes that authentic, real characters are what make an opera great. When she sees a performance, she searches for honesty and wants to see a person’s soul on stage.  She watches to see how the story and the music come together. “A good singer has excellent technique, but that person must also be able to communicate with the audience.”  And a good artist is the product of research. He or she must learn about the characters and how they relate and must ask, “Who has done this role before?  How can I make it different?” In preparation for her role as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, for example, she read a translation of the play by Pierre Beaumarchais, upon which the opera was based.

She and her husband are considering settling permanently in the Bay Area after her residency, though she will continue auditioning for roles in New York and elsewhere. Her husband supports her career – “He promised to do so in our wedding vows.”

OSJ patron Carolle J. Carter was a professor emerita from Menlo College, and is a retired lecturer in history, San José State University.


The Wages of Love

It seems that passionate love is hardwired into the human condition, and that each of us must sooner or later go through the ecstasy of a love that is destined to die too soon. Even sainted monks and nuns have written about their experience of an overpowering, passionate, reciprocal love (in their case, with Christ), eventually followed by a ‘dark night of the soul,’ during which there is a heart-rending sense of abandonment and paralyzing loss.

Psychologists tell us that when we are in love we feel that love will never end, and when we are not in love we feel we will never again know love. They assure us that these feelings are chemically induced, and if we would just eat some chocolate…

Our next production, a double bill of La voix humaine, composed by Francis Poulenc to a text by Jean Cocteau, and Pagliacci, text and music by Ruggero Leoncavallo, are studies in what it is to love devotedly and passionately, only to find that you have loved too long.

Francis Poulenc is among the most performed of French composers. His Gloria is surpassed in number of performances only by Ravel’s Bolero. Born into a wealthy Parisian family in 1899, whose Rhône-Poulenc Chemical Corporation remains among the most financially successful companies in the world today, he had every advantage that financial resources and one of Europe’s most glittering capital cities could provide.

Enjoying an excellent education coupled with a keen intellect and an out-going, jovial personality, even as a teenager Poulenc found himself in the company of the towering icons of his time: Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Satie, Cocteau, Picasso, Apollinaire and many others, who either assisted his career, advised him, or became a close personal friend. There was only one city in the world that could offer this kind of concentrated creative force in the 1920s, and Poulenc was born in it.

"Café-goers enjoy a pleasant afternoon in Montparnasse—Left Bank center of bohemian life in Paris."
Through the Lens: National Geographic's Greatest Photographs, 2003

Having had success in all manner of music, from ballets for Diaghilev to chamber music for the salons of royalty, Poulenc turned to opera rather late in his career. His first major masterwork was Dialogue of the Carmelites, which had its American premiere at the San Francisco Opera, starring Leontyne Price, in a production that was televised across the nation. He composed two more operas, Les Mamelles de Tirésias and, finally, La voix humaine. These operas, like so much of Poulenc’s work, are so widely disparate that they would seem to have been written by three different composers.  Carmelites is a large work of obvious genius and contains a deep sense of the sacred, as it depicts nuns in a Carmelite convent at the time of the French Revolution, concluding with the execution of each of the women in turn. Les Mamelles de Tirésias is about a woman who is tired of the kind of life assigned to women, and who rids herself of her most obvious feminine characteristics (two balloons that are released to float away) in order to take on the work-a-day life of a man; it is clearly a comedy. La voix humaine came later, at a time when Poulenc, in his 50s, had lost many of the most important relationships of his life and who lived with the mistaken assumption that his twenty-something lover would throw him over (the young man remained with him to the end). Poulenc could bring much genuine feeling to this deeply revealing emotional rollercoaster.

La voix humaine was written by Jean Cocteau in 1930, as a play for a single woman. Many illustrious actresses have performed the role since, including Simone Signoret and Anna Magnani. The opera, originally performed by Denise Duval, has been sung by a dizzying number of brilliant singers, and many of these performances are available, at least in part, in video recordings.

In this one-act opera for a single character, a woman is alone in her apartment waiting for a phone call from her lover, who having told her the affair is over, has also told her that he would call again this evening. When he does, and she melts at the sound of his voice, she soon finds that what he wants is his letters. He wants no record of their relationship to remain after he is married tomorrow. She does everything she can to keep him on the line, and we observe this woman as her world melts away.

I had a dream.
I dreamed about what is happening to us.
I woke up so happy because it was just a dream,
But then, when I knew it was true,
That I was alone,
That I didn’t have my head on your neck,
I felt that I could not go on living…
I didn’t feel my heart beating anymore,
But death was long in coming.

Poulenc was unembarrassed to compose music in clearly recognizable harmonic progressions of an earlier time, and ignored the 20th-century avant-garde insistence on 12-tone music and music without melodies. This score, admittedly jarring on occasion, is richly orchestrated and gives the singer lyric passages of both beauty and frantic fearfulness.

Layna Chianakas, who sang this role superbly for Opera San José in 1996, has agreed to make her directorial debut with this production. Her insights into the character have led to a beautiful set, inspired by the sketches of Cocteau (a true polymath), in the black and white world of film noir. We are pleased to have Bryan Nies conducting the brilliant singing actresses Betany Coffland and Suzan Hanson in this demanding tour de force.

Editor’s note: New to the OSJ Blog? Be sure to subscribe to our RSS feed, to ensure that you never miss a beat, including upcoming interviews with mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland (La voix humaine), tenor Alexander Boyer (Pagliacci), and an article about Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci by General Manager Larry Hancock!