GELFAND’S WORLD--Long Beach Opera started the season in a regular theater, then moved to a National Guard Armory for its second production, and now is performing in the basement of the Federal Bar in Long Beach. One local wag, when informed of these wanderings, referred to LBO as the Found Space Opera. There is a bit of truth to this, in that LBO has a penchant for finding an unusual place to fit the show rather than trying to fit the show to the home arena. In the case of Poulenc's La Voix Humaine -- The Human Voice -- the tiny performance space in the basement of what was previously a bank puts the action and sonic intensity right in our faces, mere feet away, and thereby manages to drive some serious emotional impact.
I must confess that I approached this performance with some trepidation, as I had seen La Voix Humaine at the Chicago Lyric Opera back in the 1980s, and it didn't connect with me. After all, this opera features a lone performer who sings into a telephone for the duration of the piece. In the cavernous spaces of the Chicago opera house, the performance lacked drama and emotional connection. But this week things were different. Performed up close and with emotional intensity, this opera is a completely different organism.
In Long Beach this week and next, Suzan Hanson adds that something to the performance that brings it alive, and that something is acting ability to add to vocal power. In this case, acting ability involves not just expression and movement. It involves the use of the voice to convey nuances of emotion and situation.
So what is La Voix Humaine, and why did it work so well for LBO?
The opera was crafted by Francis Poulenc in the 1950s, based on a 1930 play by Jean Cocteau. A woman is alone in her room, waiting for the telephone to ring. There are a couple of wrong numbers, but finally her now-former lover rings in. We've been told in advance that her ex is going to marry someone else, but we don't know much of anything beyond that.
The opera consists of the woman communicating through multiple telephone conversations. We are allowed to figure things out bit by bit through hearing her side -- but only her side -- of the conversations. We find out one critical thing fairly early in the performance, when the performer learns that her ex-lover will be marrying the next day. The woman, who is referred to in the opera only as Elle (in other words Her), reacts in various ways, at some times putting on a brave front, other times being flirtatious, but gradually crumbling. She admits to a previous suicide attempt, and then pretends to be talked down from the emotional edge.
In a way, this story is the mirror image of all those shows in which some brave cop or fireman is trying to talk down a suicidal person. La Voix Humaine provides us the other side of the story -- we are placed in the mind of the suicidal person rather than the rescuer. It's a curious inversion, because those tv shows usually start by making the audience irritated at the suicidal character -- why can't she behave herself and get down off the ledge, or put down the gun? This opera presents us with the opposite point of view. We begin to empathize with her as we begin to feel her pain.
Suzan Hanson has been singing with LBO for a decade and a half at this point, and as a dramatic actress, this may be her performance to remember.
On a secondary note, this opera fits in with a century old tradition that historians of cinema and drama have been commenting on for several decades, namely the telephone drama. Americans are familiar with the comedy of Bob Newhart, featuring the one-sided phone conversation as a plot gimmick. But the telephone as a major plot point is actually more than a century old. Cinema historian Eileen Bowser, former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, explained how early cinema used the evolving technology of the day. It was what Bowser refers to as the telephone thriller, which developed in the early 1900s. The telephone was fairly new at the time, and provided a cinematic way of connecting characters to each other on screen while showing them as separated by distance. It's a way of adding dramatic tension to a situation, because the audience can be kept in ignorance about one side or the other as the storyline develops.
La Voix Humaine takes the idea a step further by presenting that one side of the conversation live, right in front of the audience, and by gradually developing the heroine's distress. At first she puts on a brave front not only to the audience but to her distant telephonic companion. As the minutes go by, she allows herself to feel things more and more directly, until she finally allows herself to succumb to unbearable anguish -- and with great musical expressiveness.
One of the strong points of this production is the intimate relationship of the playing area to the audience. There can't be much more than a hundred or so seats in the room, so it's a dramatic connection that is akin to seeing a powerful play close up. This is both benefit and problem, because there are only four performances remaining, and half of them are already sold out.
By the way, the opera's storyline includes the technical glitches characteristic of telephone service in a bygone era. There are lost connections and something that the modern generation is thankfully ignorant of, the problem of interruptions on a party line. But these are all too real to Elle, who answers the ringing of the phone with her plaintive, "Hello, hello!" In the LBO presentation, the two words signal us that we are about to be presented with more clues to what has happened and will happen in one woman's doomed and lonely life.
LBO chose to present La Voix Humaine in English translation rather than in the original French. At one level, this takes away something, but only if you are fluent in French. Cocteau was interested in exploring the human voice, as the title implies. In the current production, LBO chooses to make the emotional connection by using understandable language -- and with terrific diction by Hanson. This was the right choice.
LBO opened the evening with a series of short pieces by Satie, including narration, presented to fine comic effect by Robin Buck.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture, science, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])