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Reunion

Reunion: Denise Duval

by STEPHEN J. MUDGE

Duval Now   
 
In a recent family photo taken at home in Bex,
Switzerland

Courtesy of Denise Duval
 
 
I have known Denise Duval for more than thirty years. I met her back in the day when, as a timid young tenor, I was encouraged to sing an extract from Britten's Les Illuminations at the home of some mutual friends. The diva listened quizzically. Then she asked me what language I was singing. There followed an intensive session on improving my sung French. I realized afterwards that I had been granted the rare privilege of a moment of insight from one of the legendary figures of twentieth-century music. Not only was Duval a major inspiration to Poulenc - she created the roles of Thérèse/Tirésias in Les Mamelles de Tirésias and Elle in La Voix Humaine, sang Blanche de la Force in the French premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites and gave the first performance of "La Dame de Monte Carlo" - she was also a memorable Mélisande at Glyndebourne and creator of works by Germaine Tailleferre and Darius Milhaud. When her career ended prematurely after an illness in 1965, when she was just forty-four, Duval abandoned not only the stage but any active role in the music world. Ever since, her attitude to her career has remained enigmatic. She is proud of her achievements, but they belong to a past that is kept securely in its compartment. Aside from a filmed master class on La Voix Humaine a few years back, she neither teaches nor attends the opera. In 2009, I find that Duval prefers talking about her close family or her friends, who include 107-year-old tenor Hugues Cuénod, to talking about music.

We meet up for lunch in Cannes, where Duval is visiting her son Richard Schilling, who as a baby was the dedicatee of Poulenc's song cycle La Courte Paille, and who now manages one of the famous hotels on the Croisette. The former soprano remains a definition of Parisian chic, looking decades younger than her age. After lunch on the beach, we adjourn to a quiet corner for a chat about her career.

Duval and Poulenc  
 
The soprano, muse of composer Francis Poulenc
Manceaux Photographe/OPERA NEWS Archives
 
 
OPERA NEWS: The first Mélisande, Mary Garden, said that Debussy told her, "Nobody sings my music like you, because you don't sing my music - you speak it." Do you think that Poulenc found the same sort of directness when you sang his music?

DENISE DUVAL:
Yes, absolutely. He always wanted singers to articulate clearly. Always.

ON:
When he heard you sing for the first time at the Opéra Comique, you were rehearsing Cio-Cio-San in Butterfly. How did he react?

DD:
I don't know. He was happy to have found a soprano for Les Mamelles. Later, we cried so much together during the composition of La Voix Humaine. He'd been dumped by someone, and I'd just broken up with the man I was with. When writing, he would phone me every three or four bars, ask me to come around, and we would cry together. It was really an opera he composed when we were both going through the same emotional turmoil.

ON:
And did you ever discuss vocal matters with Poulenc?

DD:
The only thing we discussed about La Voix Humaine was on my birthday. I said to him, "You are going to give me a wonderful present - you are going to cut the scene about the dog." Every time we performed the work, I heard the audience getting restless and clearing their throats at this moment. It was a concert performance, and I said, "Let's just try it, and afterwards you can decide," and as he was a wonderful man of the theater, he immediately heard that it was better without that scene about the dog.

ON:
And I remember he changed something in "La Dame de Monte Carlo" at your suggestion.

DD:
Yes. It ended "Monte Carlo" … boom, boom, boom [three long final chords]. I said, "Poupoule [the diva's pet name for the composer], you can't end like that, you must cut the last two chords." He protested, but as it was the dress rehearsal, we tried it, and he recognized it was a better ending.

ON:
If Francis Poulenc hadn't heard you at the Opéra Comique, what would you have sung?

DD:
I wouldn't have sung at all. I wanted to act, and if Cocteau hadn't died, I would have given up singing and performed his plays. I always detested singing. I undertook a singing career, but I always detested it. I worked for three days on the score of La Voix Humaine with Cocteau and Poulenc in the south of France. Cocteau did not know the score at all. We divided it into three parts, and after three days, he knew it by heart - a remarkable man, who knew when I genuinely felt a passage or didn't feel a passage. He saw I had something in my guts.

We got on well, but even at the third rehearsal he had his first internal hemorrhage. He went quite white, and I asked Poulenc if we should stop, but they wanted to go on. He was so kind, and completely unaffected. Every day he gave me a drawing, slipping it under my bedroom door, so I didn't have to thank him.

ON:
Did Poulenc write La Voix Humaine for a young woman?

DD:
He wanted a young woman, and when Dominique Delouche came to me to make his film I was forty-seven. I wasn't singing anymore, and I refused, but he kept on to such an extent that I finished by giving in. But of course it was very different for the film, as I was acting to a playback [of her original recording]. When you are live in the theater and have to sing "Faites qu'il me redemande" four times, and each time differently, you need more energy than when acting to a soundtrack. It should be a young woman. If she's old, it's normal that she's dumped, but if she's young, she doesn't understand. The scoop for your interview is that finally Delouche has acquired international distribution for our DVD of La Voix Humaine.

ON:
You began your career singing Lola in Cavalleria in Bordeaux?

DD:
My father already took a dim view of my acting and musical ambitions, but the director of the conservatory heard I had a pretty voice and asked me to sing him something, so I sang him a Jeanette MacDonald number, and I began studying singing and theater. I loved Butterfly and sang Cavalleria when I was only nineteen, because I was a good actress. There was also the joy of singing Tosca with André Pernet, who was an extraordinary baritone who showed me things that even Callas didn't do.

As Blanche  
 
As Blanche de la Force in the French premiere of
Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, in 1957

OPERA NEWS Archives
 
 
ON: It must have been a shock in Bordeaux when you took up a contract at the Folies Bergère.

DD:
Well, I went to Paris to sign a contract at the Opéra and signed up instead for the Folies Bergère. You can imagine the reaction of my singing teacher, and as for my parents - their daughter was dishonored!

The opera made me a very poor proposition, and some friends from Bordeaux knew Max Ruppat, the impresario of Maurice Chevalier, whom I met, not with the intention of singing at all. The first thing he said to me was "Take off your coat." He then asked me what I did, and after I explained my situation, he asked if I would like to audition at the Folies Bergère. I went along and sang the Butterfly aria and was asked to sign a contract. I sang the Butterfly aria and then performed a Chopin tableau. I learned my métier there. The public was only two or three meters away, and we did matinée and evening performances. It was like a big family with the girls, and contrary to what you may think, it was a very correct atmosphere. There was no question of receiving anyone in the dressing room. We had to go down to the director's office. I have kept a wonderful memory of this time.

ON:
A better atmosphere than in some opera houses!

DD:
Especially now, with these terrible productions. Before, there were such wonderful producers.

ON:
I suppose there must have been some bad ones then?

DD:
Yes, but they stayed in the provinces.

ON:
What do you think about singing today?

DD:
I find that they have excellent techniques and amazing breath control, much better than the norm in my day.

ON:
And diction?

DD:
I don't care about that. I had good diction, but I always admire these incredible sounds on the breath. Singers nowadays are young and slim. I was very much a special case, as most of the sopranos in my day were very plump. A lot of my success was based on the fact that I was young, slim, and I could act. When I sang Thaïs, I looked like Thaïs.

ON:
You are the only diva I know who doesn't live surrounded by photos or souvenirs of her career.

DD:
There isn't even a piano. I have one photo of Poulenc and me. I think it's so sad, all that memorabilia. Grotesque.

ON:
Tell me about your time in the U.S.

DD:
I adored America. I had a great friend and impresario Allen Oxenburg [founder of the American Opera Society], and it was he who organized my first visit to America, for Les Mamelles de Tirésias. I was told he would meet me at the airport, and when I saw this little man with a luggage trolley, I told him that I was meant to meet Mr. Oxenburg, and he replied it was him. There was a great public at Carnegie Hall, with fantastic singers, and we also did Dialogues des Carmélites in a concert version, and you have no idea of the intensity of that performance.

Poulenc told me that in America, if you were a French singer and had a flop, then you had to wait five years before you came back. When we went onstage for a recital, there was an enormous ovation for Poulenc. After the first half of the recital, which included melodies by Tailleferre, there was polite applause but nothing more. I wondered where Allen was, but he was nowhere to be seen, then in the second half we did La Voix Humaine, to an enormous ovation. Afterwards I saw Allen and said to him, "You could have come around in the interval." "No, it was bad. What could I have said?" He was so intelligent! Perhaps I wouldn't have done La Voix Humaine so well if we had spoken.

ON:
Which opera has given you the most pleasure?

DD:
La Voix Humaine. Blanche in Dialogues is a wonderful role, but it's not the best role, which was for Scharley [Denise Scharley, who sang Madame de Croissy], and after that for Liliane [Liliane Berthon, who sang Constance]. Blanche is in all the scenes, but there isn't a moment to transport the public. She is more of a constant physical presence. Speaking of the cast of Dialogues, I think it's incredible that France did not do more when Régine Crespin died. In Switzerland, if an actor dies, they change the program on television. In France, practically nothing.

STEPHEN J. MUDGE is OPERA NEWS's correspondent in Paris.

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