Veteran soprano Jessye Norman calls her upcoming performances in Tokyo and Nagoya a “big challenge.”
She has certainly set herself a formidable task. In a single evening she will be performing not one but two short operas composed for a solo singer, Arnold Schonberg’s “Erwartung (Expectation)” (1909) and Francis Poulenc’s “La voix humaine” (1958).
The heroines of both works are troubled women who have lost their lovers — one through death, the other through rejection. “There must be embedded masochism in me,” Norman said jokingly at a recent news conference in Tokyo.
This isn’t the first time Norman has performed the double-bill. It was a hit for the Thea^tre du Cha^telet, Paris, during the 2002-03 opera season. The director of both the Paris and Tokyo productions is Andre Heller, an Austrian multimedia artist with an interesting resume, which has included work as a singer-songwriter, a movie director, a garden designer and a circus director.
“It is interesting to delve into a production with a different idea and with a different director,” Norman said.
Born Sept. 15, 1945, in Augusta, Ga., Norman made her debut in 1969 as Elisabeth in Wagner’s “Tanhauser” in Berlin. She has garnered international acclaim not only for her majestic voice and stage presence but also for her broad repertoire, which ranges from the 18th-century baroque works of Rameau to the experimental, atonal compositions of Schonberg.
“Erwartung,” which is about 30 minutes long and was first staged in Prague in 1924, was Schonberg’s first opera. The libretto was written by Marie Pappenheim, a young medical student, and shows the influence of Sigmund Freud’s explorations of the unconsciousness.
Loneliness, fear and apprehension grip the heroine, who enters woods in search of her lover and stumbles upon his murdered body. Norman said there is room for various interpretations. Did the heroine kill the man? Did she see the man being murdered? Did she want to see the man dead? Or does everything happen only in her head?
For each performance, Norman said she will decide which interpretation to take on the spot. Heller has no preconception of what an opera singer should be like, she explained, freeing her to explore her acting as much as her singing.
“La voix humaine,” which is just over 40 minutes long and was first staged in Paris in 1959, is the French composer Poulenc’s last opera. Jean Cocteau wrote the libretto in 1939.
The opera depicts the heroine’s last conversation over the telephone with her lover, who has decided to end their five-year relationship and marry someone else. The betrayal is devastating. Thrown into despair, the spurned woman hints that she might commit suicide.
Norman said that personal experience of love and lost love is not enough to build up the characters of these two heroines. A singer needs, in addition, technical prowess and a careful understanding of the text. Describing her preparation, Norman cited a radio-broadcast recording of Simone Signoret, a French actress, playing the role of the heroine of “La voix humaine,” saying that she learned much from Signoret’s “use of language, the way her voice changes when betrayed.”
The reaction of Poulenc’s heroine may be difficult for people today to understand, Norman said, but one has to take into consideration the fact that the events unfold at a time when most women did not have careers and marriage to a good man was very important.
Asked if she personally had experienced heartbreak, Norman said, “Of course. It would be tragic if not.”
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