La voix humaine, Poulenc’s French monodrama, follows a young woman’s emotional phone conversation with an unseen former lover. His is discarding her to marry another woman, and she is desperately trying to win back his love. Set in 1940s Paris, this one-act opera paints an emotional portait of an abandoned woman teetering on the edge during an affecting and engaging monologue.
The action took place over three or four phone calls. Apparently, the phone service in 1940s Paris was horrible, as every few minutes the two parties were either cut off in mid-phone call or just thought they were. First, the man calls the woman. Strange, for a man who has apparently thrown this woman over, but I am willing to suspend disbelief. In the first phone call, her essential message is “I’m okay. I’ve been out having a good time. I’m much stronger than I thought I was. No, really, I’m okay.” They’re cut off, and after she fixes herself a drink and lights a cigarette, he calls back, whereupon her message changes. Now it’s “I’m not really that okay. I’ve been struggling. I really miss you. I still love you. You’re always right, I’m always wrong. ” They’re cut off again and she tries to call him back at home, only to find out that he’s not at home. Whoops. He calls back, and the message changes to “I’ve lied. I’m horrible, I’m not coping at all. My friend has had to come and sit with me for days because I wanted to die. If you were to, say, lie to me about not being at home, not that I’m saying you lied, mind you, but if you were to lie, it would just make me love you more because I’d know you were trying to spare my feelings.” And then, after he hangs up, she throws herself out the window. My disbelief jumps out after her, its tenuous link to my enjoyment of the evening having snapped.
Eleven years ago, I myself had a rather rough breakup with my third husband. I was the breaker, rather than the breakee, and I understand the person on the phone’s desire to let the other person down lightly. After every breakup I’ve ever had, I’ve always felt guilty for leaving, no matter how badly things went in the relationship. Thinking about it now, I realize how incredibly egotistical that is. Who do I think I am that merely denying my presence to someone would be enough to plunge them into despair? And yet, I was always worried about “letting them down easy.”
The problem with acting like I’m the guilty party is that the guys I have broken up with are more than happy to go along with my act. Yes, they say. I was in the wrong. I should never have left them. They’re exemplary specimens, and I’ll be sorry one day, and everything is my fault. This wouldn’t be a problem, if it weren’t for the fact that I have children with a couple of these guys. For the past couple of months, I’ve been in a sticky custody situation with one of them, and it’s really been getting on my nerves. After every email, phone call or face-to-face meeting, I invariably end up wishing that things had gone differently. There’s something a bit unfair about the way that, after you break up with someone, they continue to attempt thinking for themselves in a way that leads them to entirely different conclusions about the problems that face the both of you.
It was only after considering this for a while that I realized the truth about La voix humaine. The man, after magnanimously telephoning his ex-girlfriend to make sure she’s okay, after gently breaking it to her that he’s sending his servant around to pick up some things he left behind, hangs up to go back to his “other woman,” and his discarded girlfriend does the only decent thing she can do – throws herself to her death. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the fantasy that most of us have about the end of our relationships. The world would be a better place if, once we have discarded someone, they would have the decency to vanish from the face of the earth, right? Right?
Well, I’m sure that’s what my ex-husband is wishing for, right about now.