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!