Jean Cocteau

Hanging On The Telephone

La Voix Humaine, Francis Poulenc’s one act opera adapted from Jean Cocteau’s play from the ‘30s, will be staged for two shows only, tonight, May 17, and Saturday, May 19, at 7 p.m.


The staging is an independent directing project for graduating Yale School of Drama directing student Louisa Proske, and represents one of the few collaborations between the School of Drama and the School of Music that has been staged for the public.  For Proske, the project fulfills a longing to work more fully with students in the School of Music that began when she took part in a class in 2010 that included opera singers and theater directors.

The opera consists of one side of a phone conversation, sung by a woman trying to get through to her lover.  The play, Proske says, was Cocteau’s answer to critics who thought him too detached in his handling of characters, using actors as “props.”  He wanted to create a character study and chose to present a woman facing a major loss in her emotional life: The man she still is passionately in love with has broken with her and agreed to a final phone call.  In a sense, the entire relationship becomes the context of the call—all that has been in the past is reduced to whatever the woman can get across on the phone.  The call itself is challenged by interruptions and interference, an element of the absurd that Cocteau introduces to underscore the phone’s status as “an infernal machine,” promising intimacy but at the same creating a mechanical and spatial alienation.

Poulenc’s adaptation, Proske says, works at times with, at times against the romantic clichés of the woman’s language—for instance, when she speaks of her recent suicide attempt, the music becomes very lush, and, Proske says, “collapses into opera,” from its more a-melodic patterns.  Poulenc treats the language as “scored speech”—letting the text’s sing-song elements and colloquial nature dictate his adoption of tritones for qualities as unpredictable and erratic as the woman’s varied efforts to play upon her lover’s sympathies.

This is not the first time Proske has directed opera—her production of Invisible Cities, based on the book by Italo Calvino, was a world premiere at the Italian Academy in New York.  But the seeds for her final project at Yale were planted much earlier than that: Proske describes her youth as a “choir child” in Berlin, performing in operas and other works twice a week. Familiarity with the rigors of such a schedule is quite useful when working with opera singers and musicians.  At first Proske dreamed of putting on La Voix Humaine with an orchestra, but found that the estate of Poulenc would not sanction an orchestral performance with anything less than a full orchestra; fortunately, they would permit a piano reduction.  And so that’s what Proske is staging.

That constraint, the director found, is not so constraining.  Proske alluded to a piano reduction of The Magic Flute she saw not long ago, staged by Peter Brook, with a cast well less than half the size of a full production, and recalled it as the most memorable and brilliant version of the opera, which she had sung in as a choir member, she had ever seen.  Proske found that, for her project, reduction to piano and voice allows for much greater intimacy and a greater concentration on acting.  Opera singers in the Music School, she says, rarely get a chance to act and the collaboration with singer Jamilyn Manning-White was a delight.

Part of the difference in directing singers, Proske finds, is that they already command a thorough grasp of the musical component of a character, which determines, to a great extent, the performance. They aren’t still searching for the character.  This makes them perhaps more amenable to the director’s choices about how to put across the expressive aspects of a character on stage.

Another difference in directing theater as opposed to opera, Proske says, is that “time is not yours.”  The score determines tempo in a way that’s not true with spoken texts, and the music contains much of the emotional thrust of the piece, so the problem of searching for the most dramatic reading of a charater is shifted onto the problem of staging.  Proske and Jiyoun Chang, Set and Light Design, have hit upon a stage that invokes the relation between abstract space and a palpitating disfigured figure that one finds in the work of Francis Bacon.  For Proske, the emotions of Cocteau’s woman are wrenching, at times overwhelming to the woman herself, and yet she must remain in contact through a highly artificial device, the telephone, unable to make any more direct or mute appeal to the man she loves.  Cocteau, Proske says, was greatly interested in invoking “the mythic element in the modern” and conceived of the play as a virtuoso challenge for an actress.

When asked if the play might be, for today’s audience, too passionate, too unironic, in its depiction of a woman so hopelessly enthralled to a man, Proske said that her primary struggle was to not let the beauty of the piece, its aesthetics of suffering, dominate.  She went after “the ugliness” in the opera, hoping to evoke “the monstrous face” of both ecstasy and pain.  She admitted that at times the woman elicits her full sympathy and at other times she finds herself judging her and distancing herself.  The audience, she expects, will do the same, and believes that everyone can share in the opera’s depiction of someone who tries desperately to revive a former happiness, or who simply wants very much to make a connection.

La Voix Humaine Music by Francis Poulenc; Lyrics by Jean Cocteau Directed by Louisa Proske; Featuring Jamilyn Manning-White

Two Performances Only May 17 and May 19, 2012, 7 p.m.

The Iseman Theater 1156 Chapel Street 203.432.1234