Emotions run high in one-act Poulenc opera at Whitney Center for the Arts

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PITTSFIELD — Chamber opera returns to the Whitney Center for the Arts Friday with the first of three weekend performances of the one-act solo opera "La voix humaine (The Human Voice)" by Francis Poulenc.

Mezzo-soprano Julie Rumbold, who previously appeared at The Whit in Opera Notte concerts of arias, will sing the role of Elle, an elegant woman talking on the phone with her unseen, unheard lover who has just left her.

In the five years since they met, "he is her life, she loves him more than anything else in the world." Rumbold explained by phone. As their relationship crumbles, "she's in denial and will say or do anything to get him back."

Emotions run high, swirling from seduction to despair.

Composed in 1958, Poulenc based the 45-minute opera on a 1936 play by controversial French playwright and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, using his text for libretto. Throughout, phone calls spur the dramatic action.

Rumbold learned of the English version from her friend and fellow singer Rachel Hanauer, who directs this production at the Whit.

"It's a beautiful piece, very powerful," Rumbold said. Being in English makes it appealing to people less familiar with opera, she added.

"You feel what Elle is feeling in the music," she noted, "there's sections where Elle is by herself and there's [no music] underneath her. And others so romantic where she's letting her heart out to the man she loves. When she tells the truth, it becomes this almost dance feeling."

Whit artistic director and opera singer Monica Bliss met Rumbold in 2016 in the chorus of Berkshire Opera Festival's "Madama Butterfly."

"She has an absolutely exquisite voice with a dark tone that is just beautiful," Bliss observed. At Opera Notte, "she was really a crowd favorite."

Rumbold is delighted to be back at the Whit. "It's a great venue to act in," she said, "so intimate, the audience is right on top of you and can feel the emotion of the character."

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"I love that personal connection, seeing their expressions when something dramatic happens or they think something is so beautiful. It warms my heart to see that reaction."

Rumbold has been singing since she was a child. "I was loud like my father, he was a sportscaster in the CT area, I had big lungs like him."

After an early voice teacher steered her towards classical music and opera, she learned her craft working for smaller companies, with plenty of Gilbert and Sullivan to boost her acting skills.

"To me, opera is one of the best art forms," she said, "it's full volume, a big, powerful voice" — and no microphones like a Broadway singer.

"The 1950s is such an interesting time in French film and music," she noted. In "La voix humaine," "some themes sound very similar to other composers of the day that Poulenc inspired" — including one a lot like John Williams' Harry Potter, she observed.

Rumbold will be accompanied by pianist Corbin Beisner, who has performed across the US and Europe and won the 2018 London Liszt Society Competition.

The evening begins with a prelude by Vermont violinist Emma Piazza, a Bennington College graduate who has appeared throughout the region and at Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre in Cambduige, N.Y., Mahlerfest in Boulder, Colo., and Mediterranean Opera Festival in Italy.

When Pittsfield native Lisa Whitney founded the Whit in 2012 in historic Thomas Colt House, opera was a core part of the programming, Bliss said. The Opera Notte series was inspired by opera bars Whitney frequented in New York City, where professional singers regale patrons in an informal setting. Fully-staged opera debuted last year with Menotti's "The Old Maid and the Thief."

Singing at Opera Notte performances was how both Bliss and Rumbold connected to the Whit. "It really opened that door," Bliss said. "I love being part of an organization that has a commitment to opera."

Like so many operas before it, "the story of 'La voix humaine' may be sad, but the music is so beautiful I fell in love with it," Rumbold said.

"The human voice is one of the most powerful things — we can say one word and everything changes in front of you."


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