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!


  1. patrick peterson says:

    My wife and I saw the 1996 production of la voix humaine and have horrible memories of it in contrast to the wonderful Pagliacci that played with it.

    Why are you bringing this opera back? We were far from alone in our displeasure with this very unpleasant to listen and sit through opera, for many in the audience were also fidgety and visibly displeased.

    We are looking forward to the new Pagliacci production, but dreading having to sit through la voix humaine.

  2. ELOISE BOUYE says:


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