Spotlight On: THE PEARL FISHERS

The Pearl Fishers

At Seattle Opera October 2015

Music by Georges Bizet

The Story

Long Story Short:

Best friends become rivals over a forbidden beauty; sacrilege, sacrifice, and sexy singing ensue.

The Pearl Fishers at San Diego Opera. Ken Howard, photo

Who’s Who?

Leïla, a beautiful young woman, becomes a priestess who is supposed to abjure the company of men and dedicate her life to prayer. Long ago, her bravery saved Zurga’s life.

Nadir, a hunter of jungle felines, also likes to hunt beautiful women.

Zurga, Nadir’s childhood friend, is the chosen leader of his people.

Nourabad is the local High Priest.

The other characters are pearl fishers, priests and priestesses, and villagers.

Where & When?

A fishing community on the coast of Sri Lanka.

What’s Going On?

Nadir and Zurga have been friends since childhood. On their last adventure, they happened upon a temple where the most gorgeous woman either had ever seen was leading the prayers. Both fell in love with her; but, knowing she could destroy their friendship, they vowed not to pursue her. Nadir, who is a hunter (and the more nomadic of the pair), broke his vow. So far, however, he hasn’t gotten very far with the girl: he has followed her and spied upon her, but only because he likes to listen to her ravishing singing. She knows the handsome hunter has been pursuing her; what’s more, she quite likes it.

Nadir and Zurga meet again, as the opera opens, because Nadir has followed the girl to Zurga’s village. She is there to be their guardian priestess that season: the local custom is to consecrate a virgin to the gods each year, who will live in seclusion and pray for the pearl fishers during the dangerous months when they are diving. If her prayers guard them successfully, they will give her the most beautiful pearl they find that year; but if she betrays them, and fails to maintain her seclusion, she will be put to death. The brave Leïla gladly accepts the challenge—even though, just as she is swearing the oath, she catches sight of Nadir.

Sure enough, the minute the villagers leave Leïla in seclusion, Nadir is upon her, ardently wooing the beautiful priestess. Nourabad, the High Priest, catches them making love, and prepares to put them both to death. The only person who can save them is Zurga, who is at first furious that his friend has betrayed him, and wants nothing more than to watch them both die. But then he realizes that Leïla is the woman who saved his life, many years earlier. In the end, he chooses to sacrifice his position, his village, and even his life to save Leïla and Nadir.

The "Friendship" Duet

The famous duet for Nadir and Zurga, “Au fond du temple saint,” is one of opera’s all-time greatest hits. Every Pearl Fishers audience looks forward to this number, which the tenor and baritone sing about halfway through the first act, and recognizes the beautiful tune each time it reappears thereafter. The words of the duet remember the time Nadir and Zurga first laid eyes on the gorgeous Leïla; but the music, which has the baritone and tenor voices caressing and wrapping around each other over a soft bed of orchestral sound, portrays their love and devotion to each other in no uncertain terms.

William Burden and Brett Polegato sing "Au fond du temple saint".

Brian Stucki and David Adam Moore sang the Friendship Duet at Seattle Opera in 2009. Rozarii Lynch, photo

Although some contemporary audiences, reading between the lines, infer that the two guys are also in love with each other, Bizet and his librettists weren’t striving for an erotic effect with “Au fond du temple saint.” Rather, this duet follows in the great nineteenth-century tradition of operatic “Friendship” duets, which typically feature tenor and baritone singing complementary, not parallel, musical lines. In French opera, the tradition stretches back to the Pylades-Orestes scenes in Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris and includes the politically-charged tenor-baritone duets in Auber’s Muette de Portici and Verdi’s Don Carlos. In both of these scenes, tenor and baritone are friends who enthusiastically pledge themselves to liberal political action; in fact, the Auber duet was so incendiary it sparked a riot, at a performance in Brussels in 1830, which ignited the revolution in which Belgium broke away from the Netherlands and established itself as an independent state.

About the Composer

The life of the young Georges Bizet was filled with music. Both his parents were musicians, and just before he turned ten he entered the Paris Conservatory. He studied with Gounod and the other important French opera composers, won all sorts of prizes in school, and made some money on the side arranging scores and playing piano at opera rehearsals. One of his first, frothiest, and most operetta-like compositions, Docteur Miracle, won a competition at the Bouffes-Parisiens theater in 1856. It proceeded to win the Prix de Rome as well, and Bizet followed his luck to Italy for three years, where he soaked up the Mediterranean sun and Mediterranean musical culture.

While there he made an unsuccessful attempt at writing a comic opera in the Italian style, Don Procopio. He also had trouble writing in the more lofty German style. He was always coming up with ideas for operas, including such substantial stories as Hamlet, Macbeth, Don Quixote, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but he never got very far. He even attempted to write his own opera libretto, an adaptation of a play by Molière, but gave up before finishing it.

His first successful opera, the exotic Pearl Fishers of 1863, demonstrated his gift for writing beautiful melodies; but it was only performed eighteen times, probably due to the inferiority of its libretto. The libretto rehashes the plots of two earlier operas, Bellini’s Norma and Spontini’s La Vestale. The librettists later confessed that they would have worked harder on The Pearl Fishers if they had understood the scope of Bizet’s genius.

The chorus that concludes Act 2 of The Pearl Fishers

According to theatrical legend, their inability to agree on an ending for the story infuriated the producer, who, at a late-night post-rehearsal meeting, screamed at them to throw their libretto onto the fire. Misunderstanding this comment, they created the scene at the end, when Zurga sets the village on fire in order to create a diversion so Nadir and Leïla can escape. To this day, there exist several competing versions of the opera’s final scene.

Bizet’s next opera, The Fair Maid of Perth, appeared four years later. It, too, received only eighteen performances. In 1872, Bizet’s opera Djamileh, based on a story by his friend Alfred de Musset, was received with indifference. The period between these operas was filled with half-completed operas, discussions about potential operas, inspirations, dreams, and disappointments. Bizet had trouble concentrating; although he had plenty of great ideas, they never seemed to add up to anything. He was plagued by uncertainty about the value of his work and found dealing with the business and management side of the theater extremely aggravating. Eventually, all these issues hindered his ability to compose. He wrote a total of seventeen operas, almost half of which were never performed.

His personal life, too, was plagued by bad luck. His disastrous affair with his mother’s maid resulted in a son he couldn’t acknowledge, and in 1869 he married the twenty-year-old Geneviève Halévy, the mentally unstable daughter of his teacher. Together they had a son who later committed suicide.

Georges Bizet died at the tragically early age of 36, three months after the unsuccessful opening of Carmen. When he died, he believed he had failed again; the poor man had no idea of the immense popularity Carmen would enjoy today. Many historians of music speculate that Bizet was headed for a brilliant career full of successful operas.

The Music of The Pearl Fishers

For many years, The Pearl Fishers was performed infrequently. But opera audiences knew and adored its most popular pieces, the tenor-baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint” and Nadir’s ravishing aria “Je crois entendre encor”, in which he rhapsodizes about the experience of spying on Leïla and listening to her singing. (Generations of Italian tenors sang Nadir’s aria in Italian translation, with no reference whatsoever to the original opera.) As with Bizet’s later masterwork, Carmen, it’s the extreme popularity of these hit tunes which has guaranteed Pearl Fishers a place in the hearts of generations of listeners.

William Burden sings "Je crois entendre encor"

Like Carmen, the entire opera has an organic unity and a distinctive, individual sound. Had he survived, Bizet may very well have gone on to become France’s greatest opera composer. His music is as French as Verdi’s is Italian. In the French language, extreme care is taken to make sure that the sounds flow along in a way that pleases the French ear: many written consonants are not pronounced, and vowels are constantly eliding or making liaisons to ensure a smoothly flowing sound. Similarly, French music generally has a smooth, flowing character; French composers value balance above everything else, and try to make sure that no one element can overpower all the others. In French opera, for instance, composers write music which does not overwhelm the words. You’ll hear fewer flamboyant high notes, for instance, than you might in an Italian opera, or notes stretched out forever and ever...if you miss those, quel dommage!

In The Pearl Fishers, Bizet is able to put the patented flow of French music to good use depicting the opera’s maritime setting. As the sea ebbs and flows in the background of the stage picture, so the waves gently slosh back and forth in the sound of the orchestra throughout the opera. The Pearl Fishers’ dances and choral ensembles are also French through and through. French opera had featured ballet since Day One, and the ritual dances in The Pearl Fishers allowed the French balletomanes in those first audiences to enjoy ogling the bodies of the scantily-clad native Sri Lankans. And when Bizet’s chorus of Hindu villagers is praying, it sounds suspiciously like the kind of music nineteenth-century French Catholics would have used to worship at Notre Dame.

The Act 2 Finale at San Diego Opera. Ken Howard, photo

Bizet & Orientalism

The Pearl Fishers is what’s known as an “orientalist” work of art, a work created by the west, during the days of their colonial empires, depicting not the east itself, but rather western perceptions of the east. In nineteenth-century France, artists and audiences were crazy about this kind of subject. It allowed them to be an armchair (or opera-house box seat) traveler, to enjoy learning a little about the vast world that was opening up around them, and more importantly to fantasize about subjects (usually sexuality, despotism, and their intersection) that were taboo in western culture but theoretically out in the open in the ‘Orient.’

Georges Bizet dealt with Orientalist subjects in his other operas as well. Before writing The Pearl Fishers he was at work on an opera called The Guzla of the Emir. His short opera Djamileh is about a slave girl who’s in love with and manages to win the heart of her master, a wealthy Ottoman Turk. And Bizet’s masterpiece, Carmen, celebrates the threateningly bold sexuality of an extremely non-Western Spanish gypsy, and shows how a repressed Catholic boy disintegrates upon coming into contact with her.

Spain, Istanbul, ancient Ceylon...you could locate your ‘exotic’ or ‘Orientalist’ story wherever you liked, so long as it was far away from Paris, the geographic center of the artists’ and audience’s world. Originally, The Pearl Fishers was supposed to take place in pre-Colombian Mexico; but as the opera was being produced for the first time, diplomatic relations between Second Empire France and Mexico were breaking down. A year later, the French army would invade Mexico on behalf of France, Britain, and Spain and set up the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Emperor Franz Josef’s little brother as Emperor Maximilien I. (Four years later, he was executed by the Mexican Republic of Benito Juárez).

Christopher Feigum and Mary Dunleavy sing the Act 3 duet from Seattle Opera’s 2009 Pearl Fishers

William Burden and Mary Dunleavy sing a duet from Seattle Opera’s 2009 Pearl Fishers

French Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting of Bonaparte Before the Sphinx

In an effort to avoid rubbing the French government the wrong way, the canny producers at the Théâtre Lyrique switched the location of The Pearl Fishers from ancient Mexico to ancient Sri Lanka. Obviously, they knew very little about Sri Lanka, ancient or modern. The nonsense of ancient Sri Lankans worshipping their god with French Catholic music is compounded by the fact that the libretto has them worshipping the Hindu gods Brahma and Shiva. Sri Lanka, and especially the famous temple in Kandy referenced in the tenor-baritone duet, is by and large Buddhist. But then again, whoever said ‘Orientalist’ works were accurate sources of information about eastern nations?

Fishing for Pearls

Oddly enough, switching the location of the opera from Mexico to Sri Lanka makes sense in terms of the opera’s title; people have been diving for oysters and looking for pearls in many parts of the Americas, and in the Indian Ocean, for millennia.

Sri Lanka (originally called “Ceylon” in English, after a name given to the island by Portuguese explorers) looks across the Gulf of Mannar to southern India. These waters have long been famous for their oysters; in fact, Sri Lanka itself has been called “the Pearl of the Indian Ocean”. In some cases, pearl fishers are lucky enough to find oysters on shallow shelves. But more frequently they’re found at depths of 100 to 125 feet. And in the days before modern scuba gear, that made a pearl fisherman’s job dangerous indeed. There’s evidence that the Chinese developed long tubes that enabled pearl fishers to breathe back in the seventeenth century. Elsewhere, however, pearl fishers had to be able to grease themselves up, take a deep breath, and keep their eyes open in freezing cold salt water, while diving and collecting oysters with a net.

If you survived the waves, the cold, the current, and the sharks, there was still the danger of blacking out because of the change in pressure. It was an extremely hazardous way to make a living. That’s why, in the opera at least, the pearl fishers wanted to have the prettiest girl available in seclusion, praying for their safety!

Recommended Recordings

Philips, 1953 (Jean Fournet, with Pierette Alarie, Leopold Simoneau, and Rene Bianco)

EMI, 1990 (Michel Plasson, with Barbara Hendricks, John Aler, and Gino Quilico)


Additional Information

The Pearl Fishers was performed at Seattle Opera in 1994 and 2009. Explore the archived productions.

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