The stark working set is an unmade bed, set low to the ground. A suitcase, clothes and shoes are strewn about, and a young woman is on the ground at the foot of the bed, anxiously speaking in French to her estranged lover on the phone.
Actually, she’s singing.
Camille Zamora is rehearsing for her role as Elle in Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice), a 45-minute opera structured as a woman’s one-sided phone conversation. Suddenly, director Crystal Manich strides forward, gets down on Zamora’s level and shows her the deliberate move she wants Elle to use in placing the phone back in the receiver.
It’s the beginning of an intensive three-week rehearsal period for Opera Columbus’s next production, a double-bill that couples La Voix with Pagliacci, a well-known one-act opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo. Both are darker operas that feature women in distraught romantic situations.
More discussion ensues as Manich stands between Zamora and the conductor, Steven White, mitigating the artistic process. Talk turns to which chord is the best dramatic beat for Elle (translated as “she” in French) to hang up the phone.
The unusual score for La Voix, based on the Jean Cocteau play of the same name, is largely a recitative style, meaning that Elle sings her monologue with little accompaniment, and with the pacing and inflections of the spoken word. The freedom of recitation provides a musical “architecture” with dozens of interpretative decisions in creating a character and an onstage world.
“What’s so fun about this process with Crystal and Steven is that it’s such a conversation,” Zamora said. “There’s so many different choices that you can make. You pick up the phone. What is her feeling? Is she annoyed? Is she expecting every time she picks up that it’s going to be the voice of her love, or is she so used to disappointment that it’s actually a surprise?”
La Voix Humaine, while an adaptation of Cocteau’s play, aims to maintain the emotional integrity of the original, the key goal being to hold the audience emotionally with a single singer on stage. Manich and Zamora experiment with several different positions for Elle to assume when the lights first come up.
“The first page of music alone has so many ways that you could take it,” Manich said about staging La Voix. “Is she on the floor? Is she about to leave? Is she coming back from somewhere? Whatever you set up at the beginning has to then carry through the rest of the show.”
After several runs through a section of music, White dispenses with a fermata (a rest or note held longer than its conventional length). It’s delaying Elle’s reaction for no good reason. Here, drama trumps the music written on the page, and Zamora nods in agreement.
“Part of what’s so powerful about this opera is the setting of a very complex, even kind of a postmodern mindset,” Zamora said. “You have this person who is analyzing herself and constantly taking the temperature in the room, gauging where she stands in relation to this unseen love.”
Over a quick lunch break, Manich tells me about her direction choices. The two operas are not typically performed together, so she has updated Pagliacci to the 1930s to match the time period of La Voix. Certain set pieces will remain in place, and Zamora will also sing the role of the doomed Nedda in Pagliacci, all of which Manich hopes will unify the two operas visually and thematically.
“This desperate woman is the character that I really wanted to explore in the two pieces and try to get that across through the set design,” she explains.
“The funny thing is that every human taps into them occasionally. We tap into them when we’re laughing hysterically, when we’re crying. That’s what we excavate and amplify when we sing opera.”
Changeover. The rest of the cast of Pagliacci joins Zamora for a talk-through before they plunge into a scene. The singers have arrived with their music and foreign-language text already memorized, ready to make decisions about staging and character.
“Every singer has their own approach to how they learn a role, but generally you want to start with the libretto, or the text,” said Robert Kerr, who sings the role of Tonio, and plans to play him with both physical and mental limitations. “First you need to learn the story and what happens to everyone, not just yourself.”
“Tonio is somewhat complex,” Kerr said. “For me, he’s kind of a bad guy. But this unrequited love he experiences in the opera—I think that’s kind of sad too.”
Pagliacci, which centers on a traveling performance troupe, can be classified as a “verismo” opera, or a true-to-life story. Indeed, Leoncavallo claimed the murder that ends Pagliacci was based on a true incident from his childhood. Verismo opera requires more realistic production values, and more intense drama and vocals. Already challenging, the singing in opera is done without amplification. Singers learn to use the natural resonating chambers of the head and face, chest, and back in a way that some describe as “olympic.”
“The funny thing is that every human taps into them occasionally,” Zamora said. “We tap into them when we’re laughing hysterically, when we’re crying. That’s what we excavate and amplify when we sing opera.”
While opera requires classical vocal training, Opera Columbus has recently striven to find ways to break with classical opera conventions and return to the music and text with a more imaginative angle, hopefully bringing an audience of opera newcomers along with it.
“It’s nice to look at Pagliacci with a fresh set of eyes, through the eyes of Voix Humaine,” Manich said. “It’s an unusual pairing and I think we’re finding a lot of stuff.”
Opera Columbus presents La Voix Humaine and Pagliacci at the Southern Theatre (21 E. Main St.) on June 3 (preview), 5, and 7. For more information, visit capa.com.