La Voix humaine at San Francisco Opera

I first heard of this piece when Dehggi reported hearing Anna Caterina Antonacci live at Wigmore Hall in Sep/2015. That post triggered my 2nd round interest in her work, which became more intensified and culminated with trips to hear her first live Sancta Susanna in the 3000+-seat Opéra Bastille last December and “Elle” at the superbly intimate 300+-seat Taube Atrium Theater in San Francisco last night.


First, a shout out to the intimate space! It’s a real treat to have the opportunity to hear an artist of this caliber in such a small setting with good acoustics. The place was packed, which was nice to see. If this were taking place in Paris I imagine it would be sold out within 30min of the opening of ticket sale? I brought 2 new companions along, both who have traveled the world and seen far and beyond what I have, and as a bonus, 1 being fluent in French and *loves* Debussy. As he told me, Debussy has been in his blood since childhood, so he was quite looking forward to hear the song cycle. My other companion is a fan of the piano and passionate follower of “anything Puccini” and have often been to both the San Francisco Opera and symphony orchestra concerts. As for me, one could say, only by ear, a passionate fan of early music.

I mentioned our various backgrounds because, I would say at least for me, this concert program is really out on the edge of my listening experience, La Voix humaine included (though i’ve had it on several times beginning with the Wigmore Hall radio recital). So, Debussy.. I now recall the same feeling I had when first hearing another piece of the same composer in her radio-broadcast recital in Brussels: that it sits somewhat in a strange not quite comfortable place :-). Like all ACA’s non-early works I have been trying to get accustomed to listening, Les Troyens, Penelope, La Ciociara, La Voix humaine, Sancta Susanna, etc., I think the ears do need time to get adjusted. Additionally, when it comes to song cycles, for non-native speakers, we look to identify with something in the music, the “conversational” communicative tone (musical phrasing). For this, I somehow identify so much more with Poulenc’s La fraicheur et le feu cycle. As was my non-Debussy-in-blood companion! There is something big picture that sits within one’s experience and arch of identification I think! This cycle is more on big picture, at times melancholy, at times feisty. Altogether, quite a treasure to sit in such a small space and experience ACA communicating this live. Let me attach my Brussels radio broadcast capture here, for those who wish to explore the cycle further, and I to listen along while typing.

During intermission, the stage is set for a single orange phone, a small lamp table, a few love letters, a chair, a few cushions, and one just have enough time to prepare for the switch in intensity. Now that I have had 1 overnight to think about it, I realize how an enormous challenge this show is: a solo artist, with her pianist, but this one was really her front and center, all exposed for 40 minutes to hold the audience’s attention. These are by far my most favorite types of settings, minimal props, just enough for us to have an idea, and the rest is up to the performer! Though admitting at times I got distracted because it *is* a lot of French dialogue and I got lost in it at times and tried to sneak up a few glances at the English** translation… These glances indeed took away the ability to follow the flow and identify with “HER”. But one can’t help recalling there was one time or another one perhaps was desperately waiting by the phone just to hear a voice. As ACA explained it in her interview on the piece with SF Opera, and my companion and I discussed post concert, the piece is about searching, yearning, reaching for a connection. In fact I wonder if it might even work in a setting of sending and receiving letters ( I grew up during that time! we got 1 letter PER year and the whole family rushed out the greet the mail person..), where these conversations “Elle” carried over the phone could be played out in her head as she composed the letters..

But this monologue is quite more intense over the phone because you “realized” ACA’s “Elle” is hearing something from the other side and reacting. At times she is desperate, pulling the phone far from her ears to let out a scream of despair or panic, perhaps not wanting to admit openly over the phone to her sympathetic (but quite done with her) lover. We see her though the course of the evening/night switching constantly between trying to by cheerful by lying about the casual things (dressing up, dining out), to admitting it was all a lie and in fact she has been retreating to a dark corner consuming some pills.. but “no no, do not worry, i won’t overdose and harm myself again..” Through all these, there were occasional exasperation when the operator interupted to pass on the neighbor’s caller, or when the line got disconnected. I haven’t lived through this, but my companion had! and was explaining to me how the phone used to be shared between her family and the 4 neighbors in the building, with an operator pushing button 1 for family A, 2 for Mrs Smith, 3 for Mr. John, etc. This, in combination with the occasional technical difficulty when “Elle” could not hear well her lover and kept uttering “Allô, can you hear me?!“, intensified the desperation level, and one (me) is worried what would happen when this conversation ends..

I really love the piano in changing the mood / scene. One felt a bit sick to the stomach hearing her asking the lover to not go to the place in Marseille where they used to spend their time.. It is inevitable the lover might not return another phone call ever. In this one we are left unsure what will happen to “Elle”, as the light simply went off with ACA’s sinking back into the chair head down arms still reaching over the hung-up phone. I like such ending as well because it leaves it to the audience to continue the dots in their heads based on their intake of the event. As the light came up, my companion finally breathed and we stood up to give tribute to such a performer / performance. I repeat again, regardless of how one can feel the flow, whether one thinks the performer is over- or under- doing the emotional flow, I am in deep admiration for ACA and her ability to carry these solo (with piano) communicative pieces across.

I have to admit EVERYTIME i see her entered, in my head, i had the opening line to “Tancredi…, che Clorida un homo stima.. ” and had to shake it to absorb the new music :-). Since there’s a plan to come back on Tuesday for a 2nd performance, I have decided that I’ll sit through this audio and read through the original text at least a few times today and tomorrow, so as not to get lost in the conversation. It’s not so much the conversation, but I think the piece has a few “moods” (flow) to it and I just need a better grasp at it. I’m still debating if one gains more by understanding the text.. Perhaps when not very familiar then we rely on that, but theoretically one should gain simply from relying 100\% on the emotional expression in the voice?!

**On that related note, I sent a request to the SF Opera Lab to also project the French text if possible… for the audience who can not follow French, English is great. But for those of us who can at least follow roughly the French text, I *think* it is much less distractive if we can catch quickly the glimpse of the French and not need to “convert” it into English. I’d argue it is much less distraction because the language has its own flow and expression, and it’s moving too fast the thoughts for our head to switch gear to figure out how she’d say such and such in a different language… I could be wrong, but I think the original language contains the original arc through which the singer is communicating, and thus it’s useful for us (who might need it at times…) to catch on.

That’s pretty much it for the first night report. My Debussy-fan companion loved the evening, said the Debussy piece was the best, and that Poulenc was a bit too depressing :-), but that ACA was GREAT. My other companion and I discussed how, though able to separate ourselves, we could feel a human in need of help, and how difficult it is for a performer to keep the intensity level, and how she really has to be fully committed and not a moment distracted/losing sight. Be 100\% in the moment. With that, we parted.
A little more ACA music to wrap it up then, how about some Chausson, from the same recital in Brussels last year’s April.

(ps- oh, look what i found in the hall way:)


About thả diều
writing-challenged opera-addict

6 Responses to La Voix humaine at San Francisco Opera

  1. dehggial says:

    great stuff, both from her and from you 🙂 for me opera is always better when I know what’s being said/am familiar with the piece in general and even better, with the performer (then you can relish the “vintage” moments). But you always have to start somewhere with something and with a great performer (one that works for you) you do get quite a bit even the first time. This and Dame… have such typically French texts that it really helps if one has a grasp of the language (as I think it helps if one knows a bit of German with Strauss stuff). Can’t wait to see what you think of the Tuesday performance!

    • thả diều says:

      (ps- the Juditha Triumphans post will come, i promise! perhaps at the end of this month.. )

    • thả diều says:

      ps2- very interesting how i can understand French much more listening to the Wigmore Hall than live.. i have a feeling when we have visuals we “think” we can’t hear unless we look 🙂 . I hear very well also all the mood changes in this audio, all the nervous pacing, the change in her voice.. i’m curious how it will be on Tues indeed 🙂 . You know with this piece, as you mentioned, sometimes it can be a bit too under-control or too much etc.. , like our 2 trips to D.Röschmann’s Wigmore Hall experience.

      • dehggial says:

        when there’s visuals you also get more distracted, since you have to focus on more things at once. But yea, I think you’re right, if the words are there you’re compelled to read 😉

        it’s so weird to hear an audio of what you saw live. But hey, that Wiggy set won the Grammy!

  2. towanda says:

    thank you for the clips, really really lovely, especially the second one.

    the JDD photo is a prize!

  3. Agathe says:

    Thank you thadieu, I love your way of reporting your personal opera experiences!
    I also agree regarding the confusion by subtitles in a different language, for me it’s a universal thing, e.g. I hate watching English movies with German subtitles, because I HAVE to read what’s written, can’t stop it and it’s very confusing converging this with the original language. Also, in a live performance you are basically there to capture the moment so distractions are not good, but I also agree, it is important to roughly understand what’s going (at least for me) on and understanding a bit of the original language is of course the ideal situation.

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