05 Oct 2020

Synopsis of The Human Voice

by Michael Clive

The Human Voice
Tragic Opera in One Act
Music by Francis Poulenc (1899 — 1963)
Libretto by Jean Cocteau (1889 — 1963)

As the opera opens, the protagonist, ambiguously referenced as Elle (she), lies prostrate and unmoving. When she finally mobilizes and rises as if to leave the room, her telephone rings: two wrong numbers, and eventually, her ex-lover, whom we never hear. Her sung conversation with him is a study in concealment, posturing, disguised pleading, and mental disintegration. First she dissembles and lies, saying that she had gone out; then she blames herself for their romantic problems. The call is interrupted by system problems and eventually disconnects; in her attempt to call back, Elle discovers that her ex-lover is not at home, as he had claimed; but when he calls her, she conceals this knowledge, imputing the background music to a home radio. Eventually she gives way to suspicions that he is with her friend Marthe. (He is at a club where live music is performed.) As her tormented monologue proceeds, the depth of Elle’s preoccupation with the telephone and its fateful role in her life becomes clear to us. The opera ends with Elle, having repeatedly confessed her continuing love for her unseen ex, tells him that the telephone cord has wrapped around her neck. Finally, she collapses back onto her bed — strangling herself?