Review: New Zealand Opera’s The Human Voice

Photo: Grant Triplow

It’s a short, one-woman performance that packs a palette of emotions into a small space. What’s Hot New Zealand reviews the Christchurch performance of The Human Voice.

“Do I sound like someone who’s really got something to hide?” the protagonist of asks. She’s talking to the ex-lover on the other end of the phone line, and she’s asking us, her audience, whether we trust her. Her demeanour tells us not to. We’re so close we can see her every twitch, wry smile and tear. CSI-style, we interrogate these tells in our heads and ask ourselves whether they mean something, and what.

Before we enter the hotel room where the opera takes place, the audience gathers in the bar at The George in Christchurch. “I’m wondering how an opera will be, in a hotel room,” one woman muses aloud. “Will 20 of us absorb all the sound?”

The tour manager takes us up the elevator in groups and intalls us in the room, where a horseshoe of chairs is positioned around the bed that will be the main stage of performance. We chatter quietly, nervously, curiously among ourselves. A few people start to giggle. It already feels surreal, immersive. We’re intruders in someone else’s world, a 360-degree immersion. The room has the familiar feel of a hotel, with personal touches – a black nightgown laid out on the bed, a gold charging cable poking out from under a pillow, a half-eaten cheese board on a side table. There are signs things aren’t going well for the occupant. Two wine glasses next to two pill bottles. No, three – there’s another pill bottle by the clock radio. Four – another one by the phone charger.  The details pique my intrigue.

And then the protagonist Elle enters the room, instantly drawing us into her state of being with the heavy, exasperated breathing. We’re at the 8pm performance with Christchurch’s own Amanda Atlas; the 6pm performances star Fiona McAndrew. It feels almost too intimate, the sound of our own breathing mingling with Elle’s. She frantically darts around the room and turns on the clock radio signalling the start of the music, played by pianist David Kelly hidden in the bathroom.

Francis Poulenc composed La Voix Humaine in 1958, but our Elle is thoroughly modern. She’s wearing a trendy gold Fitbit and alternates between using the hotel room landline and her own iPhone to speak with her ex. It feels ‘of the moment’, while drawing the audience into the actual moment. Elle brushes past us, the ghosts in the room, as she peers out the window or visits the bathroom to change. She crumples old love letters and throws them at our feet.

It’s almost as much fun to watch the audience as it is to listen to Elle’s emotive narrative. The people I can see alternate between fascinated staring; averting their eyes from personal moments; looking down in pity or disgust as Elle begs in shame; smirking as she tells porkies, or owns up to them; and crying as her emotion catches on.

It’s a performance that asks a lot of the performer, and of the audience. A tempest in a teapot, it delivers so much more because of the close quarters, and because we have to do a little mental work to figure out what’s gone down.

New Zealand Opera: The Human Voice
The George, Saturday 17 – Wednesday 21 October, Christchurch

The Rutherford Hotel, Saturday 24 – Sunday 25 October, Nelson
Ohtel, Wednesday 28 – Tuesday 3 November, Wellington
Anchorage Resort, Thursday 5 – Friday 6 November, Taupō
Hotel DeBrett, Tuesday 10 – Thursday 12 November, Auckland
nzopera.com