The Human Voice

Classic Arts Features   The Human Voice
Robert Sandla meets Audra McDonald and her fellow creative spirits behind Houston Grand Opera's double bill of Poulenc's La Voix Humaine and Michael John LaChiusa's Send (who are you? I love you).

The glamorous diva who keeps us spellbound in darkness with a rapturous note spun out into eternity; the tenor who holds a crowd in the palm of his hand; the violinist who can break hearts by bringing new life to an ancient tune. There's nothing like the direct communication, the laser-like clarity, of the single performer caught in the glare of the solo spotlight‹the feeling that an artist is making art right here, right now, just for you.

But the fact is, there's no such thing as a solo performer. Behind every great star there's a great team: the composer, lyricist, director, conductor, and the host of artisans who know how to make a star shine. A luminous performer can generate a lot of wattage, but someone's got to give the singer a song to sing, figure out where he or she should stand, lead the band.

So when Audra McDonald seizes the stage in Houston Grand Opera's extraordinary one-woman double-bill of Francis Poulenc and Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice (La voix humaine and Michael John LaChiusa's new Send (who are you? I love you), a world premiere commissioned for her by HGO, expect the singer to be no less than astonishing. McDonald always is; just ask the theater pros who hand her a Tony Award almost every time she sets foot on a Broadway stage. Tackling The Human Voice by itself is a test for any singer; the work's modernist lyricism, soaring and stopping with the speed of thought, demands vocal virtuosity, while the work's central conceit‹a despairing woman has a one-sided phone conversation with her absent lover‹takes real acting chops. Couple that with a brand-new one-woman opera in which the character attempts to begin a romance over the Internet, sung in LaChiusa's alternately hard-edged and swooningly gorgeous idiom, and you've got a challenge for an artist. McDonald has got to stand and deliver. She won't be doing it alone.

A trio of some of the contemporary American musical theater's most gifted artists is creating the frame for the evening. And the funny thing is, they all go way back, and have worked together frequently. To hear this team tell it, they form a mutual admiration society; for all the glossy résumés and high-profile credentials, these are people who trust each other and enjoy making art together.

"When I get the chance to write for Audra, I simply love to," says LaChiusa. "It's work but it's not; it's play. Not that she plays safe. For instance, I'll offer her a passage of notes that I know will be difficult to manage, say, in a particular register. Still, she'll work on it. And work on it. And work on it. Either she'll negotiate it, or help me to realize that she can't‹better yet, that the character shouldn't be singing these notes. Audra sings in character. Her innate sense of theater is astounding. She understands that every note she sings must sound as though as it were being created in the moment. It's an organic approach, as well it should be. In these days of faux performances, Audra is an anomaly."

LaChiusa and McDonald are frequent collaborators; perhaps most notably, he wrote Marie Christine, a searing treatment of the Medea legend set in the American South, for McDonald as a Broadway vehicle. McDonald has performed LaChiusa's songs on her bestselling debut album, How Glory Goes, and her most recent CD, Happy Songs.

How did the two first meet? "It happened in the basement of Lincoln Center Theatre," he recalls. "She was auditioning for a role in my [1994] show, Hello Again. Audra's a recent Juilliard graduate, there's buzz about her, she comes in to sing. But of course, she more than sings‹she blows our brains out. She murders every preconceived idea I have about what artistry should be. She reinvents it. She's too young for the role she's auditioning for, but right there and then, I swear I will write a show for her‹if she'll let me. It's an elated, helpless feeling of being in the presence of a true artist: you're inspired and extremely humbled."

When creating a new, full-length work for a performer, how closely does LaChiusa consider that person's strengths? Does he aim to stretch the performer in unexpected directions? "Only a singer should test his or her own strengths," LaChiusa asserts. "A composer has to be in tune with a singer's strengths and try to enhance them‹nothing more. The singer's job is to interpret the composer. If the singer is up for a challenge, it's up to the composer to provide it. It's a symbiotic relationship: a composer enhances a singer's gifts and the singer challenges the composer to provide the context."

Send (who are you? I love you) was co-conceived by director Lonny Price and LaChiusa as counterpoint to The Human Voice, and Price will helm both works at Houston Grand Opera. He and McDonald work together often in concert stagings of Stephen Sondheim classics: McDonald was an alternately heartrending and humorous Beggar Woman in Price's electrifying Sweeney Todd with Patti LuPone and the New York Philharmonic, and he directed the Ravinia Festival's production of Sunday in the Park with George with McDonald as the painter's muse. The two also did Sondheim's Passion at Lincoln Center and Anyone Can Whistle at Ravinia, both with LuPone. "We all had a good time," McDonald remembers. "I love working with Patti LuPone‹we called ourselves the Bobsey Twins, since we've done a lot of shows together, usually directed by Lonny. He really knows how to work with actors."

Do the director and the performer discuss everything in advance, or just head into the rehearsal studio? "Well, we are great friends," she explains. "So we might be at dinner and all of a sudden one of us will say, 'Hey, you know what I think about such and such?' We explore ideas. When we get into the rehearsal room, it's very intense, very collaborative. I need a director who will be honest with me and push me, yet nurture me at the same time."

"Lonny is a wonderful collaborator," agrees LaChiusa. "He is pragmatic, stubborn, and very giving. We both work quickly. He'll suggest an idea; I'll write it. He'll suggest a rewrite; I'll rewrite. You have to understand, without an editor‹or in this case, a dramaturgically inclined director‹a writer prefers to be lazy.

"Lonny and I were interested in the idea of communication of identity on the Internet; I've written in the libretto: 'How can I be sure you're who you say you are? How can you be sure I am me?' And in that single-syllable string of thought, I hope to capture a modern dilemma. Keeping this piece in the here-and-now has been very important. If we've done our job right, it will seem as thematically relevant as the Cocteau/Poulenc work years from now. Audra was immediately receptive to the libretto. She recognized it as a prequel of sorts to The Human Voice."

McDonald's faith in her collaborators is strong. "Beyond initial discussions, I was not involved with the writing of the libretto for Send," she says. "As Michael John would go along he'd send me what he was working on. And I would just say, 'I love it, it's amazing, go, go, go!' I would gladly put myself in his hands any time. He's an incredibly collaborative composer who makes sure you are happy and comfortable with what it is you're doing."

Leading HGO's orchestra will be McDonald's longtime music director, Ted Sperling, one of Broadway's foremost conductors and arrangers‹and, like Price, an occasional onstage actor and singer. Sperling won the 2005 Tony and Drama Desk awards for his orchestrations of The Light in the Piazza, for which he was also music director, and has tons of other Broadway credits as music director, conductor, and pianist. He recently directed the world premiere of LaChiusa's See What I Wanna See.

Sperling and McDonald first worked together on a reading of the musical Ragtime in Toronto. "We might have met before but we never worked together until then," he says. "Lonny and I have known each other a long time. I had admired performances of his, and we first worked together on an off-Broadway production of William Finn's Falsettoland. I have known Michael John since my first year in New York, doing a reading of his in 1984. And we've all done a variety of workshops together.

"So it's great fun for all of us to be working on this new project for Houston Grand Opera. They have been doing a lot of the initial work, analyzing both pieces, since they exist only in the imagination of the actor. As we get closer to performances, I am much more involved, dealing with the musicians, working on the staging, working with Audra."

The two pieces pose their own difficulties. "The Human Voice is essentially a 35-minute recitative," Sperling explains. "For a conductor it's very challenging. Every four measures, there's a tempo change or a silence or an unmeasured moment. This is my first real, big opera. The size of the orchestra is not daunting since I have conducted large ensembles in symphonic appearances with Audra and I have done film scores. However, coming from the theater, where typically everyone knows everyone else, it's unusual to do a piece without knowing the musicians in advance. So there will be the process of the musicians and I getting to know each other. Plus, the orchestra and I are going to be onstage for both operas, behind Audra. We will not have direct eye contact. Michael John's piece has several pre-recorded elements, so we will have coordinate that. We may both have some video screens to help us to communicate."

All of which takes a lot of advance planning, and the almost psychic connection between conductor and performer that signifies the best artistic partnerships. "There is a lot of back and forth when we prepare for a performance," says Sperling. "It's like any good collaboration. Each of us on this team is approaching the piece from so many angles that we can all look out for it as a whole. Rather than one person dictating while everyone else meekly follows orders, we all share good ideas."

Robert Sandla is a frequent contributor to Playbill.

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