‘The Pearl Fishers’ dig up a true gem
In ancient Ceylon, a tantalizing virgin priestess, Leila, whose prayers are intended to protect the pearl fishers’ fleet is tempted by a passion which shatters the friendship of two males, Nadir and Zurga, who love her, and threatens her life when storms wreck the fishermen’s boats.
But she is saved from ritual sacrifice through the heroic act of one of the men who gives his own life for her freedom and her happiness.
When it comes to the ultimate sensory experience, nothing feeds your ears, eyes, mind and heart more than opera.
Given today’s multimedia-craving culture, no wonder this all-in-one performance art continues to be popular.
But before you run out to discover the thrill of opera for yourself – whether you are an opera aficionado or this is your first opera experience – it pays to do a little homework first to enhance your knowledge and enjoyment of what you’re about to devour.
Still, you probably know more about opera than you think you do.
After all, opera has influenced nearly all other forms of popular entertainment – from Broadway musicals to Hollywood movies, and from television commercials to classic cartoons.
It’s hard to imagine many major motion pictures without the Wagnerian, operatic sound of their passionate musical scores to sweep you away.
Attending the opera is a cultural experience not to be missed.
To simply say The Pearl Fishers is a true pearl, might risk being trite.
A sell-out when it premiered in San Diego in 2004, this production will transfer audience members to a dreamlike world of a virgin princess and features what is said to be opera’s most beautiful male on male action with a tenor/baritone duet.
The Pearl Fishers is a steamy tale of a tightly woven friendship and loyalty between two males, and the forbidden love, which threatens to tear them apart.
Written by the composer of Carmen, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers transports us to Ceylon where we witness one of the most common themes of opera, a passionate love triangle.
This year’s production is a visual and dramatic feast created by famed designer Zandra Rhodes and directed by Andrew Sinclair, whom we spoke with earlier this opera season when he directed Mary Queen of Scots in San Diego.
Back to dig up more, The Gay and Lesbian Times caught up with the gay native Australian director for lunch overlooking the Civic Theatre where The Pearl Fishers will close San Diego Opera’s season.
Sinclair, who regards San Diego as his home away from home, discussed this passionate, romantic and beautifully staged, production which reveals that even paradise has its forbidden pleasures!
Gay and Lesbian Times:
You were just here working on Mary Queen of Scots. Between then and now you have done a few productions. How long do you prepare for an opera like The Pearl Fishers?
Andrew Sinclair: I was asked several years ahead to work on The Pearl Fishers. I generally start to prepare immediately depending on what else I’m doing at the time. I had some definite ideas about what I wanted to do with it pretty much straight off.
I knew for this production I wanted to have a lot more dance and choreographic rhythm than is usually done. I feel that it is a very lush piece musically and what goes on in it is quite an unusually cruel story. I wanted to get some of that out so that it worked to balance all of this luxurious music.
GLT: As a director, how do you find the balance between the story and the music?
AS: Well I knew immediately I would need a very good choreographer. It was just about that time that I was starting Aida with John Malishock and I had not worked with John before, but when I saw the work he had done on Aida in 2002 I thought there was no need to look any further. I saw interesting, unusual and muscular athletic choreography and that’s what I wanted.
GLT: The last SD opera you directed, Mary, Queen of Scots, had not appeared on the West Coast in three decades. The Pearl Fishers, however, debuted in San Diego on Valentine’s Day 2004. How will this production be different than the 2004 production?
AS: We’re very lucky in this business because often times we get to do a piece more than once and you just change your ideas. This is the sixth time that we’ve done it and it’s changed a bit since then. I’ve rethought it a lot. Once you see it on stage you think, “Well I could have done that, or that it might have been more interesting had you done something differently.” So very soon after there are times that you can bring those ideas into play.
Over time the characters have deepened and we have tried to make them three-dimensional, because everyone thinks that The Pearl Fishers is simply an opera about a famous duet.
That’s only one part of the production and it’s full of fantastic music, not just that duet.
Here the actors are more sharply defined.
The homosexual relationship between Nadir and Zurga is still the same.
It’s a much darker relationship; you see much more clearly how this girl that they saw – this priestess – must have had such a profound effect upon them to shatter this friendship.
And you get the feeling it’s not going to be easily repaired.
We play the entire first act very dark and I think it makes for a much more interesting piece.
There is nothing interesting in something superficial. It may be a 19th century opera, but we try and play it for real.
So we’ve explored the characters very deeply and the situations very deeply. It’s a bit of a problematic piece, really.
GLT: What about it is problematic?
AS: The last scene libretto-wise is problematic because it is wound up very fast in the last scene.
But I think we’ve come partway to solve that.
The librettist actually said when they wrote this music, “If I’d known Bizet was going to do this sort of work, we’d have done a better job.”
And that’s the way it sort of looks.
People over the years have tried to play with that last scene and improve it.
We did it a couple months ago in Miami, which was after a break of two years, and I didn’t expect to make a lot of changes here, but things have just happened and I’m very happy with the way it’s gone.
The duet that Bizet wrote is what we performed when we did it here originally.
But all the action stops about three minutes from the end and there is no dramatic development.
So in later productions we tried a trio instead, but all the singers were unhappy with it when we got to the stage with it.
We worked so hard to make this a very strong piece and then suddenly we cut our own throats by doing it.
GLT: What can the SD audience expect?
AS: We don’t do either the trio or the duet and instead take the chorus from an earlier edition of The Pearl Fishers and finish it just slightly differently, which has worked fantastically well in both San Francisco and Miami.
If we were going to do a recording, or a concert, then we should do the duet, because that is what Bizet wrote. But we’re here to do a theatrical piece and as such that really works tremendously well.
GLT: What is the difference between directing an opera in French, such as with The Pearl Fishers, and the Italian opera Mary, Queen of Scots?
AS: That’s a hard question, but I suppose quite often in French opera you have dance, which is not often the case in Italian opera.
I think you basically set them up the same way.
In French opera, the style and music is more graceful, and I don’t mean in any way to damn Italian opera, but French music is less awkwardly dramatic.
I think that really one applies one’s directing rules the same way, because it’s actually about people.
As I’ve said, withThe Pearl Fishers needed to dig a little deeper to find those characters and to make them more three dimensional.
Which I hope is what we’ve succeeded in doing and I certainly think we have and I hope the audience does too.
GLT: Will there be a dramatic difference in staging with The Pearl Fishers than with Mary Queen of Scots, which was very dark?
AS: Yes, you can say that. You don’t get a dark set from Zandra Rhodes.
And I think that Zandra’s designs help it enormously. What she has designed, yes it’s very pretty and yes it’s very exotic, but it’s also very dramatic and bold. And that’s what I think the piece needs. It needs bold design, bold direction, bold choreography to take it out of this little niche in which it’s been buried as a little French piece with not much libretto.
GLT: The Pearl Fishers launched British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes onto the international opera scene. What has it been like to work with her?
AS: Well, Zandra is Zandra.
She’s highly talented, highly astute and just a wonderful person.
What you see is what you get. She’s great to work with and I admire her openness!
She’s come to every single venue and city that this production has played and worked with all singers.
So while I’m looking at it dramatically to keep it fresh, she’s looking at it dramatically design-wise to keep it fresh too. In preliminary meetings she showed sketches of her designs and it blew me away. I knew right away she was going to keep it fresh!
What I admire about Zandra is that she had this huge success in the ’60s and ’70s and just sort of reinvented herself again.
GLT: Speaking of reinventing, how do you reinvent a 19th century opera to reach audiences today?
AS: I think it doesn’t matter what clothes people are wearing, nothing is much different these days.
Whether its 15th Century, 19th Century or the 1950s, love, war, politics, religion, it’s all fighting over the same things. I hope that people recognize the behaviors of the characters and they can actually relate because it is something that either happened to them or it is something that they read about.
I think there are certain operas that lend themselves well to updating and there are some that don’t.
I don’t think that The Pearl Fishers is one of them.
Of course, we’ve had males covered up, or uncovered to various degrees, depending on the actors in various places.
We know that Charles Castronovo's body, who plays Nadir, is definitely uncovered here.
GLT: How does such costuming – or lack of it in this case – affect the actors on stage?
AS: It’s a very individual thing.
Because it allows people to see how the actors breath, but some singers don’t mind.
Although if they have a problem with it they will let me know that they would rather not.
Or they will say, ‘Well I’ve got to lose some weight.’
GLT: What do you hope for the audience to walk away with this time around?
I’d like them to walk away with the feeling that The Pearl Fishers is not just about one duet, but also that it’s a legitimate piece of nostalgic repertoire.
I want them to actually think that it’s a worthwhile piece dramatically, as well as musically.
I think we’ve been getting there all along.
Do you think you’ve been able to dig that up here?
AS: I think we’ll never stop trying to accomplish it or dig deeper, but it’s very interesting where it’s gone this time. It’s been exciting to explore the characters with the music in the rehearsal room and then bring that to some sort of life with the personality of the singer.
And I really emphasize the latter.
I’ve worked with some incredible people who are ready to just put everything out there and the performances are absolutely electrifying.
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
NADIR E ZURGA: homosocial