THE PEARL FISHERS (2010/2016 English National Opera, 2015 Metropolitan Opera, 2017 Los Angeles Opera).
While I was still rehearsing Doctor Atomic at the Met, John Berry, then Artistic Director at ENO asked whether I would like to direct something from the traditional repertory. He suggested The Pearl Fishers. I was startled, I only knew the famous duet for baritone and tenor and had an image of something rather camp and exotic, not my kind of thing at all. Anyway I went out and bought the CD. As I listened to the overture an image floated into my mind of a woman diving from the top left corner of the proscenium arch and swimming down to the stage behind some kind of water projection to collect pearls. It came out of nowhere and I wanted to see it! And that's why I agreed to stage it.
The Pearl Fishers is a love triangle, two friends who love the same woman. It’s about friendship and betrayal and it’s also about rising sea levels. So despite all the mixed metaphors and the nineteenth century orientalism there are universal themes and a lot of great tunes.
Dick Bird and I found images of rickety villages on stilts and thought about those people most at risk from climate change in the Indian sub-continent. We started creating a world but we still had a problem about how to represent the sea, our fourth main character.
I visited artist Annette Messenger’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London and saw a piece with some billowing pink silk that looked like waves. I got very excited and ran back to ENO to tell John Berry that I had a brilliant idea for the sea. We’d do it by blowing air into silk! He laughed. Apparently this is an old fashioned theatre trick that has been around for hundreds of years so nobody uses it any more. So although I hadn’t invented it I think we brought it back! The Pearl Fishers has a mix of very low tech, silk and sets that are dragged about manually and high tech film projections. This is a bit like poor countries where poverty stricken shanties have open sewers alongside smart phones and fast broadband.
Audiences love this production on both sides of the Atlantic, the English critics hate the opera but the New York critics were much more generous.
You can see a film of the production on the Met website where you can also buy the DVD here.
or buy from Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/pêcheurs-Matthew-Polenzani-Kwiecien-Metropolian/dp/B01MXE4EVV/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1514039085&sr=8-1-fkmr1&keywords=the+pearl+fishers+dvd+metropolitan+opera
THE PEARL FISHERS
(written for the ENO and LA Opera brochures)
Interpreting The Pearl Fishers
An image I wanted to see onstage floated into my mind during the short prelude to The Pearl Fishers, and when I listened attentively to a recording of the entire opera, I was completely won over. Received knowledge is that The Pearl Fishers has one fabulous duet and that’s the end of it.
It really does have a plethora of beautiful arias, duets, choral and orchestral music and buried deep in all of them are catchy tunes that spawn earworms. An earworm, from the German Ohrwurm, is a piece of music that burrows inside one’s mind and repeats compulsively over and over. The psychoanalyst Theodor Reik coined the phrase “haunting melody,” accurately describing the phenomenon. I have been woken up at intervals on many nights by noisy fragments of haunting melodies, although strangely the one tune that has never woken me up is the famous duet. Still, here’s a warning: despite the tunes, this piece is not all sweetness and light. In fact, it leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth.
At its heart, there is a painful love triangle, a tale of lust and rejection, loss and longing, religious strictures, forbidden sex and lonely nights. This dark story takes place against a backdrop of extreme poverty, flimsy shacks easily washed away at any second by the colossal power of the sea. The private desires of Leïla, Nadir and Zurga are played out in a ramshackle fishing village inhabited by destitute families pinning their hopes on the songs of a priestess to defend them as they try and scrape a living by diving for pearls on a breath. There is no mention of a single pearl ever being found.
The Pearl Fishers has struggled to be taken seriously under a tremendous soup of cultural signifiers: heavy black eyeliner is de rigueur for both men and women, lots of pink and blue drapes, buckets of glitter and tinsel, miles of silk and chiffon, dry smoke, flashy costume jewelry, fake tans, turbans and dodgy dancing.
It’s not surprising since stage directions in the original libretto describe a beach where giant cacti and palm trees sprout under the ruins of an Indian temple with massive crumbling columns, entwined with lianas bursting with exotic flowers. In the distance, a blue sea sparkles under a radiant sun. Although apparently this is Ceylon (renamed Sri Lanka in 1972), “Indians” drink and dance in a “savage” landscape while playing an assortment of “indous et chinois” musical instruments. Cultural confusion continues in “Au fond du temple saint” (“From deep within the shrine”) as Zurga and Nadir sing about their conflicted memories of glimpsing Leïla at the temple in Kandy. Religious references in The Pearl Fishers are exclusively Hindu—to Brahma and Shiva—and yet the celebrated temple in Kandy is Buddhist and houses a precious sacred relic, the upper left canine tooth of the Buddha. But there is a Tamil Hindu minority in Kandy and some small Hindu temples.
“Orientalism” is the term used for the study and depiction of Eastern cultures by Western artists and scholars. Bizet (born 1838) finished The Pearl Fishers in 1863, the year after Ingres painted The Turkish Bath. The Pearl Fishers sits firmly in this orientalist tradition, in an imaginary geography inhabited by ignorant, superstitious people often engaged in transgressive sexual practices. Leïla the sexy Virgin Goddess, Salome’s necrophilia, and the borderline pedophilia in Madama Butterfly can all be explored salaciously and without guilt because they are not like us. Other operas in this vein include Nabucco (1844), Aïda (1871), Lakmé (1883) and Turandot (1926). Productions of Aïda continue being gloriously and uncritically camp, offering as many naked slaves as the budget can afford upon which to feast the eye. The women in these operas are all highly sexualized: vulnerable and seductive like Butterfly or cruel and perverse like Turandot. In the visual arts, painters like Ingres and Delacroix reveled in the opportunity to paint acres of languid female flesh lolling about in extravagant harems. When East meets West, the East is firmly on its knees, as in Thomas Barker’s The Secret of England’s Greatness (1863), depicting a radiant Queen Victoria presenting a Bible to a dark-skinned chief draped in silk and feathers, gratefully kneeling before her. Films like The Sheik (1921) with Rudolph Valentino and the various remakes of The Thief of Bagdad (1924, 1961, 1978) continue to entice.
It’s been almost 40 years since Edward Said’s critique Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978), in which he argued that Orientalist scholarship and everything it drags in its wake takes place within an imperialist paradigm of conquest and colonialism designed to exoticize and diminish its subjects. The man is generally weak and erratically dangerous, the woman—usually veiled—is a passive or castrating sexpot, and the culture in which they suffer and enjoy their crazy and unusual passion is despotic and backward.
Subaltern studies aspire to tell the story from the point of view of those without agency and without a voice. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), a seminal essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, suggests that subaltern studies itself is deeply compromised by taking upon itself the mantle of interpreting and speaking for the voiceless, continuing the assumption that “the subaltern has no history and cannot speak.” She also makes an interesting distinction between “representation” as “speaking for,” as in politics, and “re-presentation,” as in art or philosophy.
In re-presenting The Pearl Fishers, we have an intractable text: the villagers are given a collective voice that lurches violently from simple pleasure to fear, from murderous rage to humble submission. Humanizing them is a challenge, doomed perhaps but worth pursuing since the opera ends with the burning of a village where small children are sleeping. This is hardly meant to register at all, just as we are not meant to mind that 1,000 dead Somalis are swatted like flies in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down while the 19 young Americans who die are properly mourned and individuated: “No one gets left behind, you know that,” as Major Garrison remarks, and his “no one” is very specific. Other deaths never matter because they were never named, never acknowledged, and so they were never really there in the first place.
The casualties that count are not just our own. And since art is an encounter and does not exist in a vacuum, then new narratives and geographies can be reimagined to seek to make the space between audience and singers more energetic and alive.
Despite its genesis, the preoccupations of The Pearl Fishers are fiercely contemporary. Climate change and rising sea levels have made ten million people homeless in the Bangladesh Delta alone and they survive on a wing and a prayer. Injunctions in which women must remain veiled in male company are not a thing of the past. And after all, the sea rises higher, we still fall in love with people we’re not supposed to fall in love with, and irrational behavior is not the exclusive province of others.