Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Philip Hagemann and Murray Rosenthal: Roman Fever and The Human Voice

By | Published on Monday 8 April 2024

I was really excited to hear about the latest double bill production from Pegasus Opera, co-produced with Hagemann Rosenthal Associates, not least because of the representation offered: the company’s aim is to champion diversity in opera and promote emerging artists of African and Asian heritage, and this particular production is very much focused on women. 

And, of course, the operas in question tell brilliant stories set to brilliant music, plus they are directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo, and star Alison Buchanan, Nadine Benjamin and Bernadine Pritchett.

‘The Human Voice’ is based on Jean Cocteau’s play and created by the late Francis Poulenc, while frequent Pegasus collaborator Philip Hagemann is the composer who has created ‘Roman Fever’, based on Edith Wharton’s novel.  

I spoke to Philip and producer Murray Rosenthal ahead of the upcoming run. 

CM: Pegasus Opera’s upcoming show is a double bill of ‘Roman Fever’ and ‘The Human Voice’. Can you tell us a bit about the two operas?
PH&MR: ‘Roman Fever’ was composed in 1988 and is based on an acclaimed short story by the Pulitzer Prize winning American author Edith Wharton.

It takes place on an outdoor restaurant terrace in Rome with two wealthy middle aged women reminiscing about when they were in the city together over twenty years ago.

They were both in love with the same man, which posed a problem for both. The themes of the piece are secrecy, envy and the search for truth. This search exposes the ultimate truths in their relationship which are carefully peeled away during the course of the opera.

Philip’s composition follows closely Wharton’s words, using a conversational musical style without arias. The music builds as the truths are revealed. 

‘The Human Voice’ – or ‘La Voix Humaine’ – was originally a play by Jean Cocteau, written in 1928, and was last performed two years ago in London with Ruth Wilson. Francis Poulenc composed an opera based on the play with Cocteau helping to shape it.

The story is a monologue of a woman utilising the telephone to convince her lover that he should return to her, rather than marrying another woman.  

CM: What themes connect the two pieces? 
PH&MR: The loss of love and the threat of impending loneliness.  

CM: Can you tell us about your role in the proceedings?
MR: I selected this double bill, as I felt that ‘The Human Voice’ would demonstrate the passions of a woman losing her past lover, as might have happened with one of the women in ‘Roman Fever’.

I was also involved in the selection of the creative team and the artists, and have supported Pegasus in the administration of all aspects of producing this double bill.

CM: It’s a completely female cast. Do you think it’s important to showcase female voices specifically?
MR: Pegasus Opera Artistic Director Alison Buchanan and I both wanted to have an entire female ensemble for this production.

The acclaimed soprano Nadine Benjamin is the protagonist in ‘The Human Voice’. Alison herself performs in ‘Roman Fever’, alongside another renowned artist, Bernadine Pritchett.

Alison and Bernadine have starred in previous operas produced by Pegasus and Hagemann Rosenthal Associates, garnering very positive reviews.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the other creatives involved.
MR: They are also all female. Both pieces are directed by award winning actor and director Josette Bushell-Mingo, who is also the present CEO of the Royal Central School Of Speech And Drama.

The conductor is Rebecca Tong and scenic design is by Linbury prize winner Peiyoo Wang. The entire chamber orchestra is female, hence the subtitle ‘Toutes Les Femmes’ for this double bill.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your past? When did you know that this was a career option for you and what steps did you take to make it happen?
PH: I was educated as a music teacher and began to compose choral music for my students. My first choral piece, ‘Christopher Columbus’, was then published.

Over the next 20 years I had 75 pieces published, with a piece called ‘Fruitcake’ selling hundreds of thousands of copies. There are several videos on YouTube of ‘Fruitcake’. 

I then turned to opera, composing a dozen operas, of which this is the eighth presented by the Pegasus Opera Company.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
PH: I’m proud to say that I have many. Murray and I were producers of seven Broadway shows and two West End shows, garnering three Tony awards and one Olivier award. 

One highlight was accepting the Tony award on the stage of Radio City Music Hall for the play ‘Red’ and having our names called out by the lead producer, Arielle Tepper Madover.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
PH: I am now 91, so enjoying old age.

CM: Pegasus strives to make opera more inclusive: what are your thoughts about this and how do you ensure people who do not know a great deal about opera give it a go?
PH&MR: Coming from New York, where inclusion has been the norm in the theatre and opera world for a number of years, of course we feel that all artists should be able to be employed regardless of ethnicity.  We applaud Pegasus Opera for leading the way in this in the UK. 

Regarding getting people to become audience members and enjoy the shows, there are so many ways of doing this. One way is to bring school students to the opera as part of their education. Another is to ensure the venues are welcoming, and thirdly reaching out to everyone and demystifying opera.

Come along to see our double bill!

Pegasus Opera’s double bill of ‘Roman Fever’ and ‘The Human Voice’ is on at the Royal Academy Of Music’s Susie Sainsbury Theatre from 12-14 Apr. Click on this link here to book tickets.