Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, our fall opera, belongs to a popular sub-genre of the great European operatic tradition known as orientalism: western works which use images derived from eastern cultures.
Orientalism is a useful term of art, even though in English, we stopped using the words “Orient” and “Oriental” decades ago. Those antiquated words bear negative connotations and can perpetuate stereotypes. Westerners today have much more information about and access to the cultures and peoples of the east than earlier generations, so we now use language which is respectful, accurate, and specific when referring to the diverse cultures of Asia.
Historically and artistically, orientalist operas occupy a curious position. These works were created during a period of enormous western imperial expansion, when European powers were racing each other to establish colonies all over the world. The folks back home had plenty of curiosity about the non-western world, but their access to real information was extremely limited. That didn’t stop them from writing all these operas; and since they were writing mostly from their imaginations, to appreciate these works today we must approach them as fantasies.
The Pearl Fishers is a dreamy escape to a beautiful world full of lush melodies, spicy breezes, vibrant colors, and strong passions. Its faraway setting offers an opportunity for a glorious game of “Let’s Pretend”: a place where life is more full, more intense, than dull everyday reality. Today, when our story-tellers want to play ‘Let’s Pretend,’ they set their works on the Planet Pandora, or in Narnia, or in an alternate-reality version of Forks, Washington full of vampires and werewolves.
And just as modern works of fantasy and science fiction borrow liberally from each other—Harry Potter’s horcruxes have more to do with Frodo Baggins’ magic ring than with anything in the real world—so orientalist operas share plenty of standard tropes, scenes, and ideas, whether they pretend to be taking place in Africa (The Magic Flute), the Middle East (Nabucco), Asia (The Pearl Fishers), or even Spain (Carmen). Here, with illustrative musical examples drawn from the Seattle Opera archives, are some basic characteristics of the fantastic world where these operas take place:Breathtaking beauty.
Fantasy worlds tend to be prettier than the real world, and the reason these orientalist operas are still so popular is they’re really beautiful, both in terms of the visuals and the music. Often, the stories are actually about beauty, or how we react to it. The character of Vasco da Gama, in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, speaks for the audience in his aria, “O Paradis”: “O paradise, emerging from the sea, sky so blue, so clear, you ravish my eyes, you belong to me!” The Pearl Fishers is about the effects of beauty: the plot begins when best friends Nadir and Zurga both fall madly in love at first sight with an incomparably lovely woman, just as Puccini’s Turandot concerns a woman so irresistible any man who sees her will eagerly lay down his life for her. Among fictional western beauties, only Helen of Troy could compete.
Here’s a famous passage from an orientalist opera whose only raison d’être is its beauty: the duet for the inaccessibly lovely priestess Lakmé and her mezzo friend Mallika, from Délibes’ Lakmé (1883). Apart from indicating just how tantalizingly gorgeous these young ladies must be, this duet doesn’t advance the story of the opera one bit. Yet it’s the beauty of this duet that makes people buy tickets for Lakmé.
Religion is of course a loaded topic, and operas with European settings tend to deal with it very carefully. But in orientalist fantasies, representations of religion are often laughably inaccurate, not to mention exaggerated for dramatic effect. Whether they’re worshipping Baal (as in Nabucco), Dagon (in Samson et Dalila), or Diane (in Iphigénie en Tauride), the cults in these operas are always big on superstition and human sacrifice, and led by power-hungry fanatics. In The Pearl Fishers, not only do the grim priest Nourabad and his people worship easily irritated weather gods using the names of Hindu deities, they do so with extremely Catholic music. For the big choral hymn to Brahma, Bizet recycled music he had originally written for a Te Deum. You can all but smell the incense in the aisles of Nôtre Dame as Bizet’s pearl fishers pray for the gods not to smite them with lightning.
In an orientalist opera written a few years later, a more experienced composer found a clever way around the question of how to write music for an invented religion and culture. For Aida (1871), Verdi invented a strange musical world full of pungent harmonies and curling arabesques to give the offstage chanting of his high priestess its eerie character:Prayers to Ptah from Verdi’s Aida, Act 1 Scene 2, sung by Priti Gandhi, conducted by Riccardo Frizza Unrestrained sensuality.
By our standards, nineteenth-century Europeans were pretty uptight about sex. Their strict moral codes governing proper behavior encouraged the displacement of otherwise unacceptable erotic fantasy into the world of art. In these orientalist operas, anything goes: femme fatales suck men dry and then toss the empties aside (see Bizet’s Carmen); masochistic slave girls yearn for their cruel masters (see Bizet’s Djamileh); and studly men ardently devote their lives to each other, eschewing the company of women (see Bizet’s Pearl Fishers). Dance, not always obligatory in opera, plays a big role in orientalist works, because it brings sensuality so vividly onstage. Can you imagine Samson and Dalila without its orgiastic bacchanal, or Prince Igor without its provocative Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens?
We could have put together a whole playlist of great dance sequences from French orientalist works, but instead here’s an excerpt from a German opera, the famous Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome by Richard Strauss (1905). Based on a play by Oscar Wilde, this opera, which sweats in a sultry atmosphere of homoeroticism, nymphomania, incest, pedophilia, and necrophilia, went on to inspire generations of film composers when orientalism came to Hollywood.Dance of the Seven Veils from Richard Strauss’sSalome, conducted by Gerard Schwarz Cruel tyrants.
What’s an escapist fantasy without an over-the-top villain, a Darth Vader or Magneto or Wicked Witch of the West? In orientalist opera, the bad guy tends to be a fearsome despot of legendary cruelty. The early days of the genre coincided with the vogue for “Rescue operas,” so in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio the tenor rescues his soprano from a Turkish pasha’s harem, foiling the lust of the villainous bass, while Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers rescues her tenor from slavery, escaping the lust of another villainous bass. But those are both light-hearted comic operas, with bad guys who are really pretty silly. Nabucco, Attila, Turandot, and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s King of Siam are more serious threats, while stern religious fanatics like Lakmé’s father or Madama Butterfly’s uncle are just plain bad news.
Here’s a wicked eastern tyrant from an opera predating the glory days of orientalist opera: Tolomeo, Cleopatra’s vicious little brother from Handel’s Giulio Cesare (1724), who greets Caesar upon his arrival in Egypt with the severed head of Pompey the Great. At least, here’s how Caesar describes Tolomeo, telling the audience all we need to know about this lascivious eastern villain: “I will say you are wicked. Get out of my sight! You are cruelty itself. A king is never harsh, and always knows mercy.””Empio, dirò, tu sei” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, sung by Ewa Podles, conducted by Gary Thor Wedow Incomparable splendor.
Realistic art, in nineteenth-century Europe, took as its subject the everyday life of poor people. But orientalist fantasy celebrates the opposite: lifestyles of the rich and powerful, drowning in wealth and enjoying outrageous adventures on the other side of the world. In addition to all the fun Arabian Nights stuff—lucky shipwrecks, wealthy caravans, sumptuous harems, and pirate treasure—these operas revel in scenes like Aida’s triumphal march, where the conquering army shows off all the treasures they’ve looted; or Herod’s long aria from Salome, in which the tyrant tries to tempt the girl with every item of value in his kingdom.
Here, from Puccini’s Turandot (1926), is a glorious musical processional into the sumptuous throne room at the heart of the legendary Forbidden City. Puccini had much more access to authentic Chinese music than earlier composers in this tradition; for this passage he stole some traditional tunes, invented others, and put it all together to powerful dramatic effect.Interlude from Act Two of Puccini’s Turandot, conducted by Asher Fisch
Orientalism inspired western artists to create some of their most beloved and beautiful works, and not just in music and theater; it’s also an important topic in the visual arts. But the world changed in the twentieth century. Fantasy moved off the map. Western composers starting writing operas about eastern characters and locations based on history and reality, not fantasy. But that doesn’t invalidate the work of those earlier generations. We see and love these old works in the context of when they were created, and today they are treasures belonging to everyone.