Opera on the line

(From far left) Ivan Heng directs La Voix Humaine, which stars pianist Shane Thio and soprano Jennifer Lien.
(From left) Ivan Heng directs La Voix Humaine, which stars pianist Shane Thio and soprano Jennifer Lien.PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY GROUP

In the chamber opera La Voix Humaine, a woman tries desperately to keep her former lover on the telephone

Ivan Heng sees no difference between classic opera and the musicals his troupe Wild Rice is famous for.

"In a way, it's like a musical. You talk, talk, talk and when you can't talk anymore, when words are not enough to express the pain, confusion or ecstasy, it explodes into these songs and gorgeous passages," he says at a media preview of La Voix Humaine.

Heng directs the one-woman chamber opera, which shows this weekend at the Victoria Concert Hall and presents half of a telephone conversation.

The audience sees a woman plead, flirt and try desperately to keep her former lover on the line. The 45-minute performance is part of the VCH Presents series programmed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's parent, Singapore Symphony Group.

La Voix Humaine was written for soprano and pianist and this weekend's performance features United States-based Singaporean soprano Jennifer Lien as Elle and pianist Shane Thio.

No phones are likely to appear on set, Heng says. Instead the piano takes centre stage, the music filling in for Elle's former lover.

The opera, which premiered in 1959, was written by French musician Francis Poulenc and based on an earlier play by Jean Cocteau. The old-school telephone is key to the work. The phone connection cuts out at times, leaving Elle in despair.

"When you're talking to someone, it's the silences that kill you," Heng says.

Lien and Thio performed La Voix Humaine here in February 2016 at The Arts House, under the auspices of art song collective the Sing Song Club. It is a perfect duet for voice and instrument, both say.

Thio enjoys that the score was written for the piano, rather than recreated from a larger orchestral work.

Lien is enjoying revisiting the work with a director at the helm. For one thing, she has to "unlearn" how to position her hands.

"I use my hands when I talk, but not when I sing," she says, referring to how opera singers are trained not to wave their hands about. "But Ivan tells me: 'Use your hands.'"

The trio discussed whether or not to update the piece for contemporary technology. "People break up by SMS," Heng says, "and we could have gone that route. But this is that extraordinary situation, unfortunately extraordinary today, when someone says: 'Call me.'"

He has designed the set and multimedia designer Brian Gothong Tan provides visuals as well.

The challenge is recreating the intimacy of this work meant for chamber setting in the expanse of the Victoria Concert Hall.

It is not too difficult, however. The director says: "It's very intimate, but the emotions are grand."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2018, with the headline 'Opera on the line'. Print Edition | Subscribe