Saturday, 12 December 2020

Flexibility is her mantra: I chat to soprano Claire Booth about her recent film of Francis Poulenc's opera 'La voix humaine'

Poulenc: La voix humaine - Claire Booth - Welsh National Opera (Photo Polly Thomas)
Poulenc: La voix humaine - Claire Booth - Welsh National Opera in 2016 (Photo Polly Thomas)

Soprano Claire Booth features in a new video of Francis Poulenc's La voix humaine produced by Welsh National Opera (WNO), directed by David Pountney with Christopher Glynn (piano) and filmed in the soprano's own home. But Claire isn't just known for her 20th century opera, in the past we have caught her in Handel and in contemporary opera, and last she and Christopher Glynn issued a disc of Edvard Grieg's lyric music on Avie. We recently chatted over Zoom about Poulenc, what it's like to have an opera filmed in your house, and about roles and voices.

Poulenc's opera is one that Claire has a long history with as she performed in David Pountney's original intimate live production for WNO in 2016, and more recently as part of Grange Park Opera's 2020 Found Season. The opera is very much a piece for our time and fits the Zeitgeist extraordinarily, with its strong themes of loneliness, isolation, vulnerability and love, as well as the need to communicate via a less than perfect device.

Claire Booth
Claire Booth

Claire's first experience of the work was performing it in 2007 when she was seven months pregnant, which rather added pathos to the storyline. Claire also covered the work with Opera North, perhaps the most traditional production that she has been involved in, complete with a telephone with a wire (the work's original stage directions call for the protagonist to wrap the telephone's cord around her neck). As telephones rarely have cords any more, there is always the challenge as to how to re-visit it and make the piece modern. A production directed by Netia Jones in 2010 used Skype with multiple video screens.

Poulenc's opera (written in 1958) is based on a play by Jean Cocteau (which premiered in 1930), featuring a single protagonist, Elle, struggling both with her doomed relationship with her unseen lover and with a faulty telephone as the only medium in which to communicate with him. Though Claire has never seen the play live she has enjoyed many filmed performances, as a vehicle for incredible actresses such as Ingrid Bergman and Isabella Rossellini, and she is waiting with bated breath for the new film of the play directed by Pedro Almodovar with Tilda Swinton.

Cocteau's play gives the actor the extraordinary ability to use time as you see fit, whilst in the opera, Poulenc effectively directs this with the way he sets the words. So, when performing the opera you have to deal with whether to go with Poulenc or not. But Claire sees him as a genius, there is no need to subvert him.

With a performance like that of Ingrid Bergman, there is the reminder that it is possible to deliver the work in a relatively low-key manner, even in the heightened moments. But on the main stage of an opera house, the performance cannot be so intimate but Bergman is a reminder that you have to find light and shade in a work which people tend to make melodramatic and has been called 'a rant by a fish wife for 40 minutes'.

For the WNO film, the set was Claire's own house which she describes as absolutely brilliant, as well as somewhat extraordinary as WNO, unable to get into their own building suggested using her place! It was less of an operatic piece and more of a kitchen sink drama. After all, you cannot get more real than your own house. Away from the theatre, it was easy to make it relaxed with a sense of real life. David Pountney did something similar in his 2016 WNO production, which was site-specific and not in a theatre. Claire feels the work should feel voyeuristic, the audience is complicit in her downfall and should be uncomfortable. For the film, they used camera angles in a way to make it feel like surveillance, there was no playing to the camera. 

Of course, the filming was logistically difficult, at times like a Carry On film. With her husband banished to the basement, and children at school the house had to be re-sanitised for the film crew to set things up. The crew would then set up the shots in her room, but retire to the landing so that when filming took place Claire really was all alone, resulting in a lack of inhibition and a discovery of the joy of doing it on her own. Knowing that the camera would pick up on every little movement was illuminating, and so different from acting on stage. Of course, this would not work for every opera, but Claire would love to explore this style of performance more. And the music is live too, with Claire linked up to Christopher Glynn in his studio so that there is no lip-synch in the film, it shows that you can have a live operatic experience.

Handel: Berenice - Claire Booth, Alessandro Fisher, William Berger, James Laing, Patrick Terry, Rachael Lloyd - London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda
Handel: Berenice - Claire Booth, Alessandro Fisher, William Berger, James Laing, Patrick Terry, Rachael Lloyd - London Handel Festival, Royal Opera -(C) ROH 2019 Photo Clive Barda

Claire's CV includes a wide range of music from Handel (she sang the title role in Handel's Berenice at the Royal Opera House in 2019, see my review) to Poulenc, to Schoenberg to contemporary. She admits that everything interests her, and is never sure whether people specialise because they love a particular area or because audiences love hearing them in it. As for Claire, she loves the sheer breadth of her performances and enjoys anything which allows you to immerse yourself in good music. There is also the fact that one area can cross-pollinate another.

People's techniques differ, and she is thrilled to still have a facility in Baroque coloratura which feeds into her performing those awkward pitches in more modern works, whilst a comfort with modern harmony imbues her exploration of the music of Janacek with depth. And the technique that she uses for singing Rossini should, in fact, be used in all singing. And, of course, it is important to keep the voice in good nick.

She does have a hit list of what she would like to achieve, but quite often roles and repertoire come because someone asks you to do something, and you say yes.  She feels that she is fortunate to be able to maintain such a breadth to her career and is rather thrilled to be described as difficult to pigeon-hole. Flexibility is her mantra.

Of course, there are some roles that you could sing but no-one would ask you. Technically the role of Susanna in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro is still in her range, but there is no longer a reason to perform it. And as you get older, hopefully, you get better and options open up; it is important to encourage organisations to see that you are moving on. There needs to be a sense of trust between and organisation and a singer to move to new roles (and thus avoiding the vicious circle of not being cast in a new role because no-one has heard you in it). That said, she does not feel she can be all things to all people, and despite her voice changing with age and having had children, she does not look at Brünnhilde (in Wagner's Ring Cycle) at bedtime! 

George Benjamin: Into the Little Hill - Claire Booth, Susan Bickley - The Opera Group 2018
George Benjamin: Into the Little Hill - Claire Booth, Susan Bickley - The Opera Group 2018

She has taken advantage of lockdown and the concomitant quietness in her diary to look at new repertoire and new roles. She has learned the whole of the title role in Alban Berg's Lulu (a role she would love to sing) during lockdown, adding that Berg and Mozart are both such different composers, yet each offers a fantastic technique to practice for singing. So that equally work on Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni will stand her in good stead, whether she sings the role or no.

Up to the age of 15, she wanted to be a concert pianist, though as she went to school in the Lake District she didn't really have any role models and certainly did not realise that you had to begin by the age of 12. At University, she studied history just for the love of it, but she was increasingly involved in music which only confirmed that she was not a concert pianist. She sang a lot and loved singing. She attributes her self-confidence in applying for music college to hanging around with choral scholars.

But getting to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on the Early Music course was something of a jolt, as she discovered that she had so much to learn. She cites her first lesson, when being played the overture to Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro she recognised it simply as the theme music from an Eddie Murphy film.

Poulenc: La voix humaine - Claire Booth - Welsh National Opera in 2020
Poulenc: La voix humaine - Claire Booth - Welsh National Opera in 2020

Claire has been lucky enough to have some work this year, and it has still been tough. She also points out that singers are just the tip of the iceberg, there are also stage-hands, designers, roadies and more who are also out of work. Some cancellations have come back into the diary, and Claire feels for arts organisations having to navigate the current situation. That said, organisations have responded to this year's challenges very differently, and it is lovely to see some organisations getting back out there.

Another conversation that she feels it is important to continue is about payment to artists for their contributions to on-line performances - a difficult and interesting discussion. This has been specially brought into focus this year as streamed performances are much more in the mix

She feels that filmed performances are one way forward, but that such filmed products need to have a strong visual element so that they can compete with the ordinary drama boxed sets. And moving forward this new and unusual platform is a way to reach out, but you have to work hard to ensure that the content is arresting. 

Poulenc: La voix humaine - Claire Booth - Welsh National Opera in 2020
Poulenc: La voix humaine - Claire Booth - Welsh National Opera in 2020

Coming up she has a Christmas programme with the BBC Philharmonic performing Thea Musgrave and George Benjamin, and then further ahead Stravinsky's Pulcinella with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. There are two premieres in 2021, delayed from this year, with music by Colin Matthews and by Mark-Anthony Turnage. And the WNO's 2016 production of La voix humaine will be revived at the Bath Festival.

Francis Poulenc: La voix humaine - L: Claire Booth, piano: Christopher Glynn, director: David Pountney, producer: David Massey, production design: Millie Tenant, director of photography: Harry Zundel, editor: Max Budget, post-production sound: James Clarke - available on-line until 25 April 2021.

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  • Back to its origins: Grange Park Opera returns Britten's television opera, Owen Wingrave, to its film roots in this darkly comic modern version - opera review
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  • In the depths of deep despair: James Cleverton and Nigel Foster premiere Iain Bell's song cycle based on Thom Gunn's collection The Man with Night Sweats - concert review
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  • Rediscovering Handel's keyboard music for a new generation: Pierre Hantaï's disc of the 1720 Suites de Pièces - CD review
  • Christmas CD roundup: carols ancient, modern and medieval, Christmas in Puebla,  a Georgian trilogy and much more - CD review
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