The first piece in this series of co-presentations between Leeds Playhouse and Opera North was certainly one to snap us out of our lockdown torpor. It is a one person opera, lasting 40 minutes with not a second wasted.
The work was written by Francis Poulenc and is based on a short play by Jean Cocteau. It is about a woman, simply known as Elle, who is awaiting a telephone call from her erstwhile lover who, because of something she has done, has found someone else with whom he is now happily settled down. Sadly, Elle still holds a candle for him and the phone call is one to make arrangements for her ex-beau to collect a box of letters which are still at her home.
Between his leaving and the phone call, Elle has attempted suicide but even though her love is unrequited she feels the need to tell him that she still has strong feelings for him.
There are several interruptions to the phone call, in fact it takes a while before it actually happens as Elle keeps getting a crossed line and spends some time trying to convince the woman with whom she has been inadvertently connected, that she is not a doctor and the switchboard is at fault. For anyone fortunate enough to be under the age of 50 crossed lines were fairly commonplace when everyone had landlines with fairly basic technology. They were especially prevalent if you had a shared service known as a party line. Anyway, there are also instances when, once she is speaking with her ex, the call is disconnected. This normally happens just as she has told him that she still loves him so it is not clear as to whether the cut offs are mechanical or he has hung up on her.
The play consists of one phone call but here there are three, each on a different instrument, the first is a pre-war candlestick style with separate earpiece, the second a 1960s model phone and the third a mobile. As the first performance of the work was staged in 1959 I took this to show that a one-way love is as devastating now as it has ever been.
What with my warped sense of humour and the fact that there had been problems with the previous calls, when the mobile rang I couldn’t help thinking it would be someone asking if Elle had recently been involved in an accident which wasn’t her fault. Fortunately it wasn’t.
The original version of the opera was performed with a full orchestra but here it was a socially distanced affair, the accompaniment being provided by Annette Saunders on piano. She was superb in setting the tones from the depths of despair to the light tinkling of the telephones ringing. As the setting was in the intimate space of the Barber Studio it worked wonderfully.
Elle was sung by Gillene Butterfield whose range, clarity and strength of voice was something to behold. She conveyed the full gamut of emotions from the frustration with the rogue woman caller, through the despair at being left for another woman to the hope gleaned from interpreting something her ex had said as showing that he still loved her.
Once I had recovered from the oddity of someone singing down the telephone Ms Butterfield made the process seem perfectly natural. I sometimes wish that all opera were sung in a foreign language so that there would be subtitles meaning I could follow the libretto better, but here every word was perfectly delivered so I had no trouble at all.
The piece was directed by Sameena Hussain, who utilised the space perfectly with three mini-sets where each of the phones were situated, and by tweaking the original to become more universal rather than being set in one particular period of time.
The production team comprised Stage Managers Kate Davy and Abby Jones whilst the Technician was Keiran Meadowcroft. All of whom made the performance a reminder of what we had been missing for the last seven months.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all of the staff at Leeds Playhouse for the hard work they put in, not only to make sure that we were all as safe as possible during our visit, but also for the smiles and quips which reminded us that this is still a place in which to enjoy ourselves. You are all amazing.
Feature photograph is of Gillene Butterfield by Anthony Robling
For more details of Connecting Voices please go to
COVID-19 protocols are in place and followed rigorously including mandatory hand sanitising and a temperature check before entry.