Q & A : Director Antón Armendariz Diaz On His Adaptation of Poulenc’s ‘The Human Voice’

By Chris Ruel
(Credit: Natalia Munro)

New York opera audiences will have another opportunity to encounter one of Francis Poulenc’s works after “Dialogues des Carmélites” finished off the Met Opera season to the acclaim of audiences and critics alike. The U.S. debut of the Spanish production of “La voix humaine (“The Human Voice”),” directed by Antón Armendariz Diaz, and starring soprano Ashley Bell and actor Michal Gizinski, runs in New York on June 25 and 27 at Baza Studios. The opera is presented by Divaria Productions as part of New York Opera Fest 2019.

Poulenc’s opera, “La voix humaine,” is based on Jean Cocteau’s monodrama of the same name. The work was a result of the collaborative efforts between Poulenc, Cocteau, and French soprano Denise Duval. Director Armendariz Diaz’s Spanish production of the “The Human Voice,” combines Cocteau’s play with Poulenc’s opera, presenting both simultaneously using an actor, a singer, and three languages—French, English, and the potent language of Poulenc’s music. When the production debuted in Spain in 2018, it proved to be a powerful piece of operatic theater that left audiences stunned.

Armendariz Diaz’s directing experience began with short videos. He studied film direction with Eduardo Gil and interpretation with the Professor of the Institut de Teatre de Barcelona, stage director Jordi Godall. Armendariz Diaz’s passion for music soon led him to form the company Rioja Lirica where he has directed many successful productions including, “L’Elisir D’Amore,” “Don Giovanni,” “Così Fan Tutte,” as well as newer works. OperaWire connected with the director to learn more about his Spanish adaptation of “The Human Voice,” the themes addressed in the work, and the challenges and joys of showcasing such an intriguing work in the Big Apple.

Opera Wire: How did you come to work with Divaria Productions on staging the U.S. premiere of the Spanish production?

Antón Armendariz Diaz: My company’s collaboration with Divaria Productions began in 2011, and since that point we have worked together every year, presenting operas or concerts both in Spain and in New York. In the case of “The Human Voice,” I’ve had this idea in my head for years. When the opportunity finally arose to present this production in Spain in 2018, I did not hesitate for a second to contact soprano Ashley Bell. As a director I knew right away that her embodiment of the character of Elle would be thrilling. The Spanish production combines the opera sung by the soprano in French, with the play spoken by the actor in English. In Spain, we had great success, with fabulous reviews, and this is what led us to believe that it might be well received in New York.

OW: What inspires you about “The Human Voice?” What excites you most about this production?

AAD: The first time that I saw “La voix humaine” was at the Liceu Theater in Barcelona, and I was stunned. The power of the music and of the text, as well as the powerful interpretation of the soprano, captivated me, and that is when I began to investigate the work and the composer. Then I read the text—the original work—that was when the questions began because the music led me in one direction and the text in another. Questions arose, such as: Is it worth dying for a love that fades, or for a person who distances himself? Does “Elle” have to die at the end? These were intense questions because many of us have lived through similar situations, perhaps not the extremes of the protagonist. The theme of love or lack of love is something universal. Leaving aside the personal story of which the author gives us a glimpse, the substance of the work, and the issues it raises, are all about the courage and willpower that Elle needs, and about everything she has against her—machismo, violence, sexual aggression, etc. But digging even deeper, I believe it refers to the effort of the human race to love and feel loved, and to feel part of a whole without inhibitions, fear or remorse.

OW: There seems to be greater attention being paid to Poulenc’s operas. What do you think is driving the interest?

AAD: It’s the undeniable strength of his characters, and the melodic lines that serve the text. There are surprising harmonies with unexpected turns that translate into the mood of the characters. Poulenc leaves nothing to chance, every note that he writes has meaning. This opera is known as a monologue, and it certainly is, but we must not forget that there is another protagonist, or rather two, the telephone and the lover. Thanks to the brilliant orchestration (piano in our production, interpreted by the Maestro Nicolò Sbuelz), the audience knows what the man is saying, what he is thinking, and how he answers. In the same way, we hear the telephone ring and their interruptions. All this naturalness makes the audience feel like they can identify with these characters and this music which moves the spirit and senses

OW: Do you consider yourself to be a champion of the composer’s work? If so, why?

AAD: I wish that his works would be presented more. I’m passionate about his music, but this is the first time that I’ve directed one of his works. I do love the strength, the nature of his characters, the struggle expressed in a natural way, and the move away from the clichés of the music of the Romantic era to which we are more accustomed. This work is brutal in the sense that it overcomes all realism, it is a situation that could occur in any home even in 2019, albeit no longer with a corded phone, but from the emotional point of view. How many teenagers break up with their boyfriends or girlfriends using WhatsApp. Poulenc’s works are very current, and very involved, perhaps because of the era in which they were written.

OW: The play, “La voix humaine,” was written by Jean Cocteau as a one-act monodrama. How was the work adapted to create the opera?

AAD: Poulenc didn’t write the opera immediately after the premiere of the theatrical work. He waited 14 years, years he believed he needed to have experience in life. The adaptation maintains the emotional intensity of the play, supported by harmonies that leave us with no doubt as to the emotional state of Elle at all times. Poulenc’s piece also highlights the role of the orchestra, which plays the other protagonist, the telephone, and the relationship that both of them have.In producing this particular adaptation, mixing both works and presenting them simultaneously, the main focus was to find the moments where we cut to the place where Elle (the actor or singer) has left off, giving the audience the feeling of being in a permanent flashback. It was also interesting studying the character from different points of view, and I don’t mean male-female, but rather being-not being, living-dying, and studying how a person would behave under such pressure. This adaptation involved investigative work with a very heavy psychological burden as well as listening to many opinions from many different people to avoid histrionics or make the character seem ridiculous, rather than someone real, like any of us.

OW: What is the primary theme you are wishing to explore?

AAD: Human emotions. When we premiered the play in Logroño (Spain), the audience did not react; it was paralyzed. There were people crying, including someone who told me days later that he could not stop thinking about Elle and what he had seen. We live in a world of prefabricated illusions, everything is a lie, fake news, superficiality, and here suddenly we see a woman (played masterfully by Ashley Bell and Michal Gizinski) showing her absolute truth, naked before the world, sincere, and with good and bad sides. She is a woman who makes decisions and is consistent with them.

OW: The write-up regarding the opera poses the following question regarding the character(s): “Is he her? Or is she him?” Is this representative of a larger underlying question regarding gender?

AAD: Cocteau had just broken up with his lover shortly before writing the work, and that leads me to think—although I may be wrong—that it is partly biographical. In the 1930s he could not put a man on stage speaking openly about a homosexual relationship in spite of how open Paris was at the time. In part, this was what lead me to use a male actor to play the spoken part of Elle, but there was something even deeper in my reasoning.

In this adaptation, Elle acquires a masculine figure to encompass the human being in the intrinsic meaning that I want to express. In the end, what we see is a person, whether it’s a man or a woman doesn’t matter, nor do I think the work speaks of masculine or feminine genders or of hetero or homosexuality. We see a human being suffering, at times happy, leading his/her life as best he/she knows how to or can, or letting surrounding circumstances lead him/her down a certain path.
At the end of the premiere in Logroño, we had a conversation with the audience, and someone asked why a man had not sung. The answer is simple: the opera was written for a soprano, and it would not be possible for a man to sing it, but if it wasn’t for this, the character is easily interchangeable. But yes, we cannot and should not see a man and a woman, but rather a spirit, a soul, an energy. And for this same reason, we haven’t changed a single line of the original script. We maintain the same references to gender that were in the original.

OW: What is the significance of the mirror in which the two singer/actors live out their parallel lives?

AAD: The mirror shows our reflection, who and what we are at this moment. But is this reflection reality, or is it what I want to represent? The mirror is the key; it is the boundary between who I am and who I want to be. At times it coincides and at other times it does not, but both images need each other. Elle sees herself reflected, and at times she hates herself, at other times not, but she can learn from her mistakes. The mirror is a metaphor through which we can understand that each of us has a mirror that reflects us. If we don’t like this image, all we have to do is change it, accept who we are, and let ourselves flow. The mirror reminds us that all of us are Elle.

OW: What are the directorial challenges you’ve had to overcome in mounting the production? And, on the flip side, what have you found to be the most rewarding aspects of directing the opera?

AAD: The primary challenge is to make the audience understand the meaning, and to not see the actor and the soprano as independent of one another, but as a whole—a single character who learns from his/her mistakes. This has been my primary objective since the development of the idea began. In the beginning, the rehearsals were done separately, like pieces in a puzzle, where I gave directions to each individual. For the actor playing Elle, the part is difficult, because while the soprano sings the role,the actor has to do many things, such as react to her thoughts. But, then, while he acts the part of Elle, the soprano disappears, since we are transported back into the real world. During the separate rehearsals, many times it was not very clear to the actor why things happened. Of course, everything became clear when we combined the rehearsals; everything worked, and the puzzle was completed.

We all had to struggle and tell ourselves multiple times that we were acting. This is such an intense work that, although we are professionals and treat acting as a game, separating our lives from that of Elle, was difficult. The emotions flowed ceaselessly and on more than one occasion, we had to stop because of our desire to cry.  All of us felt it—the actor, Michal Gizinski; the soprano, Ashley Bell; the pianist, Maestro Nicolò Sbuelz, and me. It was a very beautiful process.

The most rewarding thing has been working with this team. To see the team commit themselves to something that I dreamed up eight years ago, and to see that thanks to their work—and also to your [journalists’] work with the attention you are giving to us—I see live in 3D what only a few months ago was just a figment of my imagination. Seeing it in New York is priceless. I can only feel grateful for everything and thank everyone.


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