In one of the more unexpected turns of pandemic-era opera, Voicebox: Opera in Concert has made an impressive first step into digital production with its double bill, The Human Voice. Back in the days of live performances, Opera in Concert held a firm place in Toronto’s scene, offering in-concert performances – that pure and simple form of opera, where the singers and orchestra perform unobstructed by sets or costumes.
Its double bill, available online until Feb. 19, is another pure and simple idea with great impact – pair Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play, La voix humaine (The Human Voice) with its 1958 operatic adaptation by Francis Poulenc of the same name. Both play and opera are written for a single character, Elle (She). For nearly an hour we’re voyeurs, spying on Elle as she speaks on the phone to her lover of five years. It is the eve of her lover’s marriage to another woman, and this is to be their last conversation, the inevitable end of their affair. Through the murkiness of a one-sided conversation, Elle reveals her addictive love for the man, her feeble attempts at emotional manipulation and her suicide attempt – her first, but surely not her last.
Poulenc’s La voix humaine has had a grim surge in popularity since the start of the pandemic. It’s almost too perfect for opera in the time of COVID-19. It requires just one singer and one pianist, and it’s about deep-rooted isolation, loneliness and the maddening frustration of unco-operative technology. In 1930 (and in 1958), it was all about shaky phone connections and meddling switchboard operators; in 2021, it’s about an empty room and being utterly desperate to make art – and work for artists.
And even if the themes of isolation and bad connections are already feeling heavy-handed, Opera in Concert has done an extraordinary thing in its Cocteau-Poulenc pairing. In the hands of videographer Ryan Harper, there’s an imperfect graininess to The Human Voice that keeps it feeling raw, almost live. And the talent is excellent: Broadway performer and singer-songwriter Chilina Kennedy is Elle in the play (translated into English by Daniel Raggett), and Juno-nominated soprano Miriam Khalil sings the operatic Elle.
The two women are different, their stories individual despite sharing text. Yet it’s a curious move to place them in the same apartment, moving about the same furniture, fumbling with the same bottles of pills. For the Torontonian opera fan, it’s almost reassuring to spot the familiar set pieces of Opera in Concert shows past – the ivory-hued furniture, the conservative 1950s-style lamps, the shiny-coated upholstered chairs. In the world of The Human Voice, these are markers of timelessness, spanning a past and a present. In the world of shuttered stages, the set is filled with operatic Easter eggs.
Kennedy is instantly magnetic. Her Elle is contemporary, set in mostly present day. Lacking any reference to a pandemic, her iPhone is the only hard clue to time and place. Piece by piece, we receive the story that Elle is wavering between the stages of grief. She hasn’t quite processed the end of her affair; she lashes out pitifully and then almost immediately withdraws out of a deep fear of rejection; she plays down her suicide attempt; she deifies her phone as a last thread between her and her lost lover.
Kennedy’s storytelling is all in the details, the tiny shifts in her eyes and the false steel that creeps into her voice when Elle feels vulnerable. She’s got all the fear of an addict on the verge of cold turkey, and she’s infuriatingly insecure to boot. One can’t help but wonder what the man on the phone ever saw in Elle, and one can’t help but be curious to see her with him, say, back when they’d just met.
By the time we hear the first, chaotic notes of Poulenc’s La voix humaine, played by pianist and music director Narmina Afandiyeva, they sound foreboding. I’ve seen this opera a handful of times, but it’s a unique effect to go through all of Cocteau’s play, and then like a moment of insanity, watch the story begin all over again with a noisy clang. Khalil’s Elle is stronger, at least at first. She retains dignity for longer than Kennedy’s Elle, but her fall into depression is operatic in scale.
With Cocteau’s text so fresh in our ear, Poulenc’s opera is particularly fascinating. You can hear Elle’s lies in her melodic lines, and the piano throws out hints of what her lover is saying on the other end of the line. Khalil speaks into a telephone, the kind with a receiver and a coiled cord to keep her pacing contained. It’s a clear indication that this version of Elle’s story is set closer to the 1960s, a nod to Poulenc’s carefully crafted score and a harsh suggestion that there have been decades’ worth of Elles, falling apart in ivory-hued apartments with tacky lamps.
With The Human Voice, Voicebox: Opera in Concert has made some lemonade out of the pandemic’s lemons. It’s a big departure from its usual output, and since it’s not in-concert opera, it’s decidedly against the company’s mandate. Yet it marks an impressive evolution for the company and a gripping choice for today’s opera-deprived.
The Human Voice is available until Feb. 19. Tickets can be purchased on eventbrite.ca
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