The dazzling French soprano Anne-Sophie Schmidt will be performing Poulenc's La Voix Humaine as part of the Royal Opera House's French Opera Week. This avant-garde mini-tragedy is based on a play by Jean Cocteau, in which a woman talks on the telephone to her straying lover, who is preparing to marry someone else.
The "action" begins with Schmidt lying still on the ground by her bed, wearing a white nightdress as though it were a shroud. Then the phone rings, and for the next 50 minutes she sings down the line. Schmidt says: "I think this is the hardest opera I have ever learnt in my life. It is a very difficult part because when I am talking to my lover on the telephone, there is nobody there. I have to imagine what my lover is saying, because if I do not respond in my own head, there is no connection. If I let the flame go out, the audience will not believe my performance.
"At first I try to pretend to him that I am fine, and then it all comes out - that I am a wreck. I can no longer battle with the situation - it is mental torture. When I finally begin to tell my lover the truth, it is one of the most beautiful moments in the opera. The music is amazing, while I release everything. I realise that the relationship is over - and then I stop battling to hold on to his love."
Schmidt told the director, Pierre Jourdan, of her concerns about playing the role in a vacuum, but when she asked for direction, Jourdan could not enlighten her: "He said that when he met Cocteau, and asked him what the man is saying to her, his response was that every actress will have her own interpretation and must imagine her own story."
So the two of them invented the man's half of the dialogue (which will be be printed in the programme). "He is reassuring her that this is not a problem of love, but a problem of obligation. That she is the love of his life."
La Voix Humaine is presented by the Theatre Français de la Musique, who will be resident throughout French Opera Week. Likened to a French Glyndebourne, the company is based at the splendid Parisian Théâtre Impérial de Compiègne, built in 1866. The company was set up in 1987 by Jourdan, and is dedicated to the promotion and performance of French opera.
To this end, Cocteau's one-act opera will be performed as a double bill withChabrier's Une Education Manquée, performed by the Orchestre de Picardie, conducted by Pascal Verrot.
But it is Schmidt who has the last word. Although the stage play of La Voix Humaine gave the soloist little help in researching her lover, she says: "There is a phrase that explains her feelings of loss at living without his love very well. Unbelievably, it has been left out of the opera version, but it says that learning to live life without him is like a fish learning to live outside the water." Fortunately, there will be surtitles. "Otherwise," says Schmidt, "if you weren't fluent in French, it would render her conversation meaningless."
'La Voix Humane', Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000; www.royalopera.org) 19-22 NovemberReuse content