Roman Fever and La Voix Humaine Preview

Starting on Friday 12 April Pegasus Opera Company and Hagemann Rosenthal Associates will bring together in a double bill for the first time two unique 20thcentury female-driven stories: Philip Hagemann’s Roman Fever and Francis Poulenc’s The Human Voice (La Voix Humaine), both directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE and conducted by Rebecca Tong.

Josette Bushell-Mingo. Photo by Maryam Barari.
Josette Bushell-Mingo. Photo by Maryam Barari.

LondonTheatre1 caught up with producer Murry Rosenthal and director Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE whilst the production was in rehearsal. Rosenthal explained that when he first read the Edith Wharton story on which Hagemann based, Roman Fever, he was so overcome by its drama he dropped the book, urging the composer “Go to it! Write the music for these words!” Having previously collaborated on operatic adaptations of Henry James, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, Rosenthal explained that this opera based on Edith Wharton’s short story was like nothing the composer had written before. Yet, with source material so rich in social satire, heartbreak and emotion – all from the viewpoint of its two female protagonists – it’s now a vital part of Hagemann’s oeuvre. Alison Buchanan, a world-renowned soprano and the Artistic Director of Pegasus Opera Company will star in the production.

Rosenthal began his quest to find a companion piece to pair with Roman Fever and describes a light bulb moment when he saw Ruth Wilson on the London stage in a 2022 prose production of Jean Cocteau’s Human Voice (La Voix Humaine). Francis Poulenc was apparently similarly moved by Cocteau’s work upon encountering it in 1930 when it premiered but he would wait until 1959 to premiere his 40-minute operatic adaption of the one-act play. Rosenthal points out that Poulenc himself over 25 years to set Cocteau’s play because he wanted enough life experience to do justice to it. The Cocteau story has found numerous adaptions and homages, including Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. However, it appears the story of “Elle” (She) as she speaks to her lover for the last time, alone, on the telephone has seldom if ever been directed by a woman in its near 100-year-old history. Josette Bushell-Mingo, directing soprano Nadine Benjamin MBE in the role, and a team of accomplished women creatives, is changing the work’s previously masculine leadership with her new production.

Bushell-Mingo describes her directorial process as involving “holding space with everyone in the room.” With a storied career as a performer, as well as a director, Bushell-Mingo credits her experience of being directed by leading female directors, amongst others, as helping her to see when “the opera singers I’m working with are hungry for deep character work; deep physical work and a sense of autonomy and agency in the rehearsal room that, when I’ve been inspired by women directors, and men, but women directors [in particular] have given me these skills (which I’ve been able to develop myself and add my own flavour). I realise there is a need in these spaces for opera singers — for women opera singers to be able to create their best. I think it’s timely that, as so many of our civil rights are being eroded, that we are able to centre voices that are being erased or destroyed or manipulated or thrown back at us. It is as it should be: these voices centred on these stages more and more.

Roman Fever and The Human Voice (La Voix Humaine) will be staged at Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone Road, London NW1 5HT on Friday 12 April, 7.30pm, Saturday 13 April 7.30pm and Sunday 14 April, 2.30pm 2024. Tickets are £15 conc, £25, £35.

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