Content note: The Human Voice & The Call contains coarse language, discussion of drug use and domestic violence, and allusions to suicide.
Presented by Opera Queensland and Brisbane Festival in association with Queensland Symphony Orchestra, The Human Voice & The Call is a compelling double bill of one-act, one-woman operas, including the world premiere of a new Australian work conceived and performed by soprano Ali McGregor.
Directed by Opera Queensland’s Artistic Director, Patrick Nolan, The Human Voice and The Call are each centred on a life-altering phone call, of which the audience hears only one side. Both works featured set and costume design by Marg Howell and lighting design by Bernie Tan-Hayes, and the score was performed live by Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO) under the baton of highly accomplished Greek conductor Zoe Zeniodi.
I’ve seen only a handful of operas, and my understanding is that new operatic works are not very common – like ballet, opera is an art form of well-worn repertoire. Having said that, I’ve been fortunate to see two new Australian operas in as many years, both of which have centred the voices and emotional lives of women, and both of which were conceived by Ali McGregor and performed by Opera Queensland under Nolan’s direction. The Human Voice & The Call provided multiple emotional entry points, regardless of your experiences in life or opera.
Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice) premiered in 1958 and the libretto was written by Jean Cocteau, based on his 1930 monodrama of the same name. The work centres on a woman known only as “Elle” – “she” in French – as she has a final phone conversation with her lover, who has left her. As she speaks about their relationship, trying to hold on to the past and to him, there are multiple dropped calls and missed connections. Sung in French, with English surtitles projected against the back wall of the stage, the audience sat with Elle through the storm of her emotions: grief, anger, denial, agitation, and eventual acceptance. The score, beautifully performed by QSO, seemed to alternatingly underscore and respond to Elle’s emotions.
Soprano Alexandra Flood performed The Human Voice and was already seated onstage when the audience entered the Concert Hall. Flood moved purposefully around the stage and her voice came in strong bursts of feeling, powerful and warm even in its quiet moments. She sang into a mobile phone, holding it or placing it on the table as if it were on speaker; although this allowed her to move freely, it felt incongruous with the one-sided conversation taking place.
Decadent design by Howell contrasted against the stark white walls of the setting, pulling the focus of the audience inwards as Elle paced the stage in a sequinned gown, shoeless and partly dressed, moving amongst glittering crystal and flickering candles. Lighting design by Tan-Hayes cast Flood’s shadow – sometimes a companion, sometimes an antagonist – against the opposite walls, and added to the overall atmosphere and emotion of the performance.
The second work of the evening, following an interval, was the world premiere of The Call, presented in association with FLUXUS. Composed by Connor D’Netto, with libretto by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, The Call is based on a true story shared by Auburn Sheaffer at a storytelling event hosted by The Moth. Sung in English with English surtitles, ittells the story of a woman in the depths of addiction, searching for a better life for herself and her infant son, and the unexpected act of kindness and connection that helped her to find it.
Auburn had a wealthy, insular childhood, but realised as she grew older that the world was full of injustices for those less privileged than she was. With the desire to burn down that part of herself, she married a radical poet who introduced her to a different way of seeing the world and, eventually, to a drug that would consume her. Wracked by anxiety and withdrawal, and motivated by love for her baby, she dialled a phone number that her mother had mailed to her and began a conversation that would alter the trajectory of her life.
The libretto drew heavily, verbatim, from Auburn’s monologue for The Moth and D’Netto’s score incorporated electric guitars and percussion to create a modern, urban sound, performed by a smaller ensemble from QSO as well as guitarists Joe Fallon and Libby Myers. The Call opened by emphasising that this was a true story, and pointedly addressed the audience as it commented on race, class, wealth, and privilege.
Ali McGregor delivered not only an impressive vocal performance, but a physical one as well – she moved cameras manually around the stage with her, jumped on the bed, and interacted energetically with the setting and props, using the full performance space from wall to wall. Whether standing centre stage or curled up on the floor, McGregor’s voice was consistently strong, clear, and shimmering with feeling.
The Call utilised live feed cameras, with footage projected onto a screen along the top of the stage with the surtitles. McGregor set up and moved a number of the cameras herself, while others captured her from above – alone onstage, and magnified by the projected image, her raw emotional performance was captivating from every angle. Lighting design by Bernie Tan-Hayes mirrored the rising tension of Auburn’s story, narrowing to a single spotlight in her darkest moments and warming as she spoke on the phone. Despite the heaviness of the themes and events in The Call, there were also moments of humour and physical comedy, and the overarching message was one of hope.
The Human Voice and The Call each showed one woman, and one phone call, in a moment of emotional and existential crisis. Although musically and stylistically different, the works complemented each other thematically, placing the emotional lives of two very different women at the fore and emphasising the power of connection, kindness, and hope.
The Human Voice & The Call will play at QPAC’s Concert Hall, South Bank, from 20 – 24 September 2022