‘The Call & The Human Voice’ was soulful.
Opera Queensland’s double bill offering,’ The Human Voice and The Call’, adorned the final week of the Brisbane Festival with two incredible contemporary opera stories; telling tales of two women from distinctly different worlds and backgrounds with one thing in a common – a phone call that would change their lives.
Charming, humorous and deeply moving ‘The Human Voice and The Call’ is perfectly placed amongst the 22 new works produced by Brisbane Festival this year. Directed by Patrick Nolan, this show stands to prove opera can be so much more than what it is widely perceived to be.
‘The Human Voice’ opened the evening: a French opera with music by Francis Poulenc and libretto by Jean Cocteau. It follows Elle, a woman whose lover is away from home, and left her to reckon with her loneliness. It was a uniquely told perspective of a lone woman on a phone call.
While audiences will never hear what the person on the other side of the call is saying, it is deeply felt by Alexandra Flood as Elle, the sole character. Her vocal performance was technically precise and beautifully emotive. She is all at once tragic and comedic and fills up the white box performance space with her voice and presence. The libretto did not quite allow Elle to reach any emotional height and lacked a compelling plot line, but the way in which the story was almost half-told, never reaching a final conclusion, enables one’s imagination to run wild and draw their own prediction of the ending. Most poignantly, this also enhances the relatability of Elle’s loneliness and sense of abandonment.
The music of ‘The Human Voice’ perfectly accompanied the libretto, complimenting the emotional swells of the character. This was incredibly provoking for Elle as her phone ringtone was woven into the larger musical motifs, taunting her with the oncoming confrontations with her lover, which increased the stakes and tension.
Following this, ‘The Call’ was the highlight of the evening. This new electric piece had endless heart, and told an incredibly compelling story of a woman’s journey discovering the danger and heartbreak of the world, but also, the deep compassion and humanity that exists simultaneously. Told as a retrospective, Ali McGregor plays a woman who is celebrating the moment her life was changed for good. She comes from a well-to-do background and wants to discover the world without the veil of her class and race – and she sets off across the world to do so. The woman falls in love through this mission, but it quickly turns sour as she becomes addicted to drugs and their relationship turns violent. The storyline hits a climax as the woman decides to call the counsellor her father had urged her to speak to, and she tells this mystery answerer everything; heeding the well-placed advice he gives only to find out that she had dialled the wrong number and was, in fact, speaking to a complete stranger.
‘The Call’s libretto, written by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall was rooted in realism: as if she was a regular woman telling the story of a lifetime. This made McGregor’s performance feel incredibly real and down-to-earth, even when paired with the typically heightened form of opera. The composition by Connor D’Netto was tense and soaring, particularly shining in the moments before McGregor’s character decides to call for help.
‘The Call’ also utilised cameras set up in different areas of the stage, enabling the audience to enter into a far more intimate relationship with the story than what the grandness of QPAC’s Concert Hall typically allows. This was sublime, and expertly told and crafted the story with a much-welcomed message of how humanity will always find its way to those who need it most.
The set of ‘The Human Voice’ was remarkably grandiose. Designed by Marg Horwell, it contained a beautifully set dining table inside a white box. The space then transformed into a simply decorated bedroom for the next piece, ‘The Call’.
Lighting design, by Bernie Tan-Hayes, while simple was effective and gave ‘The Human Voice’ the height and dynamic tension it required; casting Elle’s shadow on the wall, giving the illusion of a dusky and dreamlike, never-to-be-had dinner party that only increased feelings of her isolation. In ‘The Call’ the lighting design was grounded and simple, giving way for McGregor’s story, performance and the use of multi-media to shine.
Opera Queensland has produced a cutting-edge performance that challenges what audiences think opera can be and gives a momentous opportunity for stories of true humanity to be told on a grand scale. ‘The Human Voice and The Call’ is sure to make a reappearance soon and you would be doing yourself a grave disservice to miss it.
‘The Call and The Human Voice’ performs until Saturday, 24 September 2022 at QPAC. For more information about this production, visit Opera Queensland’s website.