La voix humaine

La voix humaine
Monodrama by Francis Poulenc
The composer in 1922
Descriptiontragédie lyrique
TranslationThe Human Voice
Based onThe Human Voice
by Jean Cocteau
Premiere6 February 1959 (1959-02-06)
Opéra-Comique, Paris

La voix humaine (English: The Human Voice) is a forty-minute, one-act opera for soprano and orchestra composed by Francis Poulenc in 1958. The work is based on the play of the same name by Jean Cocteau, who, along with French soprano Denise Duval, worked closely with Poulenc in preparation for the opera's premiere. Poulenc's tragédie lyrique was first performed at the Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique in Paris on 6 February 1959, with Duval singing the female role and Georges Prêtre conducting; the scenery, costumes and direction were by Cocteau.

The libretto consists of a woman's last phone conversation with her lover, who now loves someone else. During the call, the woman reveals that she has attempted suicide because her lover has abandoned her.

The work has been frequently revived. Sopranos from France, other continental European countries, the UK and the US have performed the solo role, and several of them, beginning with Duval, have recorded it.


Cocteau's play

Cocteau finished writing La voix humaine in 1928, and the monodrama was premiered two years later. Having been previously criticized for using mechanical effects in his plays, Cocteau sought to reduce his drama to the "simplest of forms".[1] Indeed, the one-act play involves a single character in a single room with a telephone. The character—an anonymous woman referred to only as "Elle" ("she" in French)—has been abandoned by her lover and reveals that she has attempted to commit suicide. The play consists of her last conversation with her lover.[1] As a one-act play, the drama lacks the breaks that would traditionally determine its structure. Instead, Cocteau suggests that the actress's different poses represent different "phases" of the monologue.[2] The structure of the play is further delineated by the phone cutting off frequently without warning.[3]


Upon the success of his second opera Dialogues des Carmélites in 1957, Poulenc was encouraged to compose more works in the genre. Hervé Dugardin, the Paris director of Ricordi Publishers, suggested that Poulenc set Cocteau's monodrama to music, with Greek-American soprano Maria Callas singing the role of Elle.[3] Poulenc, however, wrote the opera specifically for Denise Duval, who had starred as Blanche de la Force in the Paris Opéra premiere of Dialogues. Poulenc's close work with Duval helped his compositional process because he "knew the details of the soprano's stormy love life, and this helped to cultivate a sense of specificity in the opera."[4] Poulenc also identified with Elle's situation, which allowed him to "pour immense anguish into his opera… Like her he abused sleeping pills, tranquilizers and anti-depressants."[4] He thus immersed himself in a deeply personal project with which he easily connected.

Adapting Cocteau's text

Poulenc met Cocteau early in his career because of the latter's close relationship with Les Six, a group of six French composers of which Poulenc was a member. The two maintained a close friendship throughout their lives, but Poulenc did not set many of Cocteau's texts prior the composition of La voix humaine, about forty years after their first encounter.[n 1] Poulenc himself explained that he waited so many years to set Cocteau's play because he felt that he needed a great deal of experience to perfectly construct such a work.[6]

In composing La voix humaine, Poulenc strove to maintain the emotional effectiveness of Cocteau's original drama. He very carefully adapted Cocteau's text, omitting only those passages that he believed would reduce the emotional tension of the opera.[7] In his article on Poulenc and Cocteau, Denis Waleckx proposes that there are five types of "phases" in Cocteau's play. These phases deal with chronology, psychological evolution, social interaction, telephone problems, and the "remembrance of past happiness."[8] [n 2] Poulenc left the chronology, telephone problem, and past happiness phases mostly intact, but cut down on or entirely omitted many of the psychological or social phases. This resulted in a protagonist who was "quieter, more modest, less hysterical, less unbearable, and thereby probably more touching than Cocteau's."[9] Poulenc thereby focused on the relationship of the woman and her lover, while still retaining the key points and overall character of Cocteau's play.


Poulenc viewed the soprano singing the role of Elle as "a co-composer" of the part. Because Poulenc wrote the role specifically for Duval, the French soprano was his original "co-composer."[10] Duval also helped Poulenc with his adaptation of Cocteau's text.[n 3] Upon the opera's completion, Poulenc and Duval visited Cocteau, who was responsible for directing and designing costumes and stage décor for the premiere. Cocteau worked closely with Duval and adapted his directions for lighting and costuming to complement her physical attributes.[11]


Poulenc finished his score for voice and piano on 2 June 1958[12] and spent the next two months orchestrating the work, completing the version for full orchestra on 7 August 1958.[13] The tragédie-lyrique was premiered on 6 February 1959 at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, with Georges Prêtre conducting and Duval performing the role of Elle. The opera met immediate success and went on to be performed at La Scala in Milan, as well as in Portugal, Britain, and the United States.[12]