The making of La voix humaine

19 November 2020

We spoke to David Massey the digital mastermind behind Welsh National Opera’s film performance piece La voix humaine about how such an innovative performance came about, what the challenges were and some backstage secrets!

How did the idea of creating a film based on WNO’s 5-star production of La voix humaine come about?

It sprung from the concept of producing a one person opera, focusing on the topical theme of isolation. La voix humaine quickly arose as an option as WNO had already worked on as a site specific production in 2016. This piece was perfect as we already had a creative team in place to start immediately; director David Pountney, soprano Claire Booth and pianist Chris Glynn, who knew the piece inside out, were ready to go.

Why was it the perfect piece to be adapted digitally?

The original production engaged with the audience directly, set up as a house party with the audience becoming the guests. We took that concept but changed it to L preparing for a Zoom party instead, which allowed us to play with La voix humaine’s uncomfortable themes of voyeurism. We used cameras which were set up to imitate the web cams, camera phones and other devices that we rely on to keep in touch during this pandemic, so that we could enable the audience to become part of the experience.

How was the piece filmed?

We filmed the piece over just two days with a crew of only three at Claire’s house in Oxford. Chris was based on the ground floor and Claire was on the first floor fitted with an earpiece so they could hear one another and Chris could also see a visual of Claire on a screen as she travelled around the room. When I was on site, I spent most of the time in the garden! We also worked hard on devising a workable way to record the sound so that it’s ‘liveness’ would translate well to film in order to give the audience the sense they were watching the dramatic events unfold in real time.

What challenges did you face?

Our original intention was to film remotely, in isolation, with no crew having any form of contact with Claire and Chris. We worked closely together to create a workflow for capturing the piece, but after creating some socially and location distanced audio-visual vignettes it became clear that there would be some timing issues. Ultimately, without skilled professionals involved we realised we wouldn't be able to do justice to our vision for the project. After a significant period of discussion and experimentation we decided that our best option was to wait for restrictions to relax slightly and film the piece ‘live’ on location with a very small production team.

Do you have a highlight from creating the piece? Any behind the scenes secrets?

A highlight was working with such a creative team, who were open to adapt to the many challenges we faced. Working so closely with such a small but brilliantly talented team was a fantastic experience. It was great to make something that we are all proud of during this challenging time for the arts. As for behind the scene secrets I did hear that Claire's husband reported his best week's sleep in years thanks to their bedroom windows being covered in tin foil for filming!