When Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers last premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on November 13, 1916, Enrico Caruso sang the lead role of Nadir, Woodrow Wilson had just been elected President, and the battles of the Somme and Verdun were still raging in Europe. After the Met opened the first new production of the opera in a century on New Years’ Eve, the big question is: why the heck did it take so long?All but eclipsed by Bizet’s more famous Carmen, The Pearl Fishers tells the story of two Sri Lankan divers, Nadir and Zurga, who both fell in love with the same Hindu priestess, Leila. For the sake of their friendship, they vowed not to pursue her—but when Leila (soprano Diana Damrau) comes to their village, Nadir (tenor Matthew Polenzani) is unable to help himself. The villagers catch the couple in flagrante delicto in the midst of a tempest, blame the destructive storm on Leila’s failure to keep her vow of virginity, and demand the pair be put to death. Overwhelmed by jealousy, Zurga (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien), who has recently been appointed village chieftain, condemns the two. Just as Nadir and Leila are about to be burned alive, however, Zurga bursts back onstage with news that the village is aflame. While villagers rush to save their children, he cuts his old friend and his beloved free, confiding that it was he who set the fire. The couple flees to live in happiness, while Zurga remains to face his fate.The traditional rap on Pearl Fishers is that it has a weak libretto and brilliant but uneven music. But the Met’s new staging, directed by Penny Woolcock, reveals unexpected dramatic depth as well as moments of intense lyric beauty, all brought to life by a stunning set (by Dick Bird) and strong acting. At its New Years’ Eve gala opening, the new Pearl Fishers received ovation after ovation. All of which leads us back to the original question—why did this lie unperformed for 100 years? The question is not, as it turns out, rhetorical. Answering it will tell us a great deal about the state of modern opera.The Pearl Fishers’ long drought at the Met—15 years longer than the Boston Red Sox’s 1918–2004 World Series drought, seven years (and counting) shorter than the Cubs’—is representative both of its place in the tradition-bound opera world and of the changing fortunes of popular entertainment. Though it has not always been quite so thoroughly ignored by other American or European companies, Pearl Fishers is not generally considered among the 50 to 60-odd classics that make up the opera “repertory.” These are the big hits, such as Aida and Don Giovanni, that any singer or fan is expected to be familiar with and that make up the bulk of each season in every major opera house. When you consider that the Met puts on about 25 shows per season, and other big U.S. houses run 8–12, this is not a very deep well to draw from. But until recently, economic conditions in the opera world, as well as broader cultural trends, virtually forced companies to operate this way, with little room for new works or those by old masters that were thought to be less than perfect. In other words, the Met—and other houses—could stage Pearl Fishers in 1916 and in 2016 for reasons that obtained on either of those dates, but perhaps not in between.
If we look at the Met’s audience in 1916, we’d see the cheap seats populated by immigrants who spoke the traditional languages of opera—Italian, German, French. For them, this was popular entertainment. At the front of the house, American quasi-aristocrats of the Gilded Age were still doing their best to echo European tastes—hiring away European artists and conductors (such as Caruso or, a few years earlier, Gustav Mahler) just as they bought art and furniture from decaying European country houses. The Met put on new productions (it would stage the world premiere of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi two years after Pearl Fishers, in 1918), while racing to catch up with old ones. Since it had been founded several hundred years after the start of opera, there was a voluminous catalogue of works that had never been staged in the New World before. As a result, there was a rich and varied selection of works on at any time.But after the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act shut down U.S. immigration from Europe almost completely, the number of immigrants for whom opera was accessible, first-language entertainment began to dwindle. Meanwhile, the Depression significantly affected financial support. By the time that crisis was over, an increasingly self-confident, broader, and less aristocratic U.S. elite felt less obliged to follow European tastes. And as the radical composers of the Second Viennese School and their heirs divorced the intellectual appeal of classical music from the “gut” pull that many feel from the music of Mozart or Verdi, the children of the operagoers who had awaited every new Puccini opera turned to more accessible entertainments.Under these circumstances, opera houses survived by staging those works that had the broadest possible appeal to the middle and upper classes. (A sign of the audiences that were lost and gained: my immigrant, barely-educated, Italian-speaking great-grandmother frequented the 5-cent family circle seats at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music with her friends. I, on the other hand, became an opera fan only after playing the violin for a dozen years in private school.) Opera houses chose operas that the audience could appreciate without being able to understand the language, which meant works that were either really famous or really self-explanatory, with the lavish spectacle compensating for occasional befuddlement. But those trade-offs worked only if the music was consistently excellent throughout: not just good, but so superlative that you would happily listen for three straight hours to a language you didn’t understand, and to plots that often appeared (especially given the demand for spectacle) ridiculous. Bizet’s Carmen, written just before his untimely death at 36, is one such opera—but Pearl Fishers is not.This approach ensured opera’s survival in the United States, but it came with significant costs. If you believe that opera is dead and that opera houses are essentially museums of an art form whose best years are past, then this means we’ve taken an incredibly restrictive approach to preserving something of which we have a limited supply. No curator would pay to have Starry Night preserved and exhibited while leaving a lesser van Gogh, such as The Potato Eaters, to molder unseen in a damp basement; yet for three generations now, the opera community has taken exactly this approach to the lesser works of even the greatest of masters. Conversely, if you think opera is still kicking (or might wake back up), then we’ve created an impossibly high standard, one whereby new compositions need to meet or exceed not just Bizet’s works, but the best of Bizet’s works, to be good enough to keep around.But the rise of two technologies now seems to be helping the opera world break out of its programmatic rut. As Walter Russell Mead wrote in September:
The widespread adoption of supertitles (or, in the Met’s case, those wonderfully inconspicuous back-of-the-seat panels that discreetly flash the libretto in English translation), has changed the relationship of the audience to the drama. More than ever before in its history, opera today is a dramatic performance; audiences chortle, weep, and gasp in response to events on the stage, and singers are under more pressure than ever before to act convincingly. At the same time, the dramatic improvements in sound and video recording quality mean that high-definition broadcast and recorded versions of great opera performances can be enjoyed at a reasonable price by people all over the country.
The first supertitles were introduced in the early 1980s; the back-of-the-seat “Met Titles” came into use in 1995. That means we’re only one generation into a world in which American audience members can yet again understand the words they’re listening to. It took a while for the new possibilities to sink in for directors, for a new generation of singers trained to be as much actors as vocal stars to grow up, and for audiences to work through the old classics under new conditions. The first time they were intelligible to audiences in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the repertory standards must have seemed marvelously fresh. After a few reinterpretations of the same 40–60 works, though, it makes sense to start expanding our horizons.Similarly, the Met in HD program, which at ten years old is even younger, also disrupted old expectations. For one thing, you can now see a dozen or more operas a year without living in Manhattan or going bankrupt (but I repeat myself). For another, the pressure on singers to act increases when they know their facial expressions will be seen up close and in HD. When Pearl Fishers gets its turn for the Hollywood treatment on January 16, it will be broadcast to 2,000 cinemas and 70 continents—that’s a lot of close-ups.Together, these technologies have been changing the rules of the game. By removing the language barrier, supertitles (or the subtitles, in the case of the Met in HD broadcasts) allow for the rediscovery of operas as dramas—which expands the repertory. Take, for instance, Donizetti’s Tudor Queens trilogy, which we will continue to cover as the Met produces it this year (for the review of Anna Bolena, go here). Even though all three of these operas were written in the 1830s, they all received their first-ever productions at the Met only during the past five years (and have enjoyed something of a global revival in the same period). Their appeal seems due at least as much to their dramatic content as to the music—which, while gorgeous, historically was not considered equal the heights of the composer’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which was part of the repertory.All this gives us a different lens through which to examine the new performance of Pearl Fishers—not “did it live up to Carmen?” (it didn’t—nothing does) but “did it work as a whole?” On New Year’s Eve, there were times during Pearl Fishers when the libretto (despite its reputation as comparatively weak) carried the music as much as vice versa. The third act, for instance, was largely sustained by the dramatic tension between Damrau and Kwiecien, as Leila pled with a conflicted Zurga to spare her lover’s life. Conversely, the first act dragged a bit in spots poetically, but was more than redeemed by the (justly) famous duet Au fond du temple saint and Polenzani’s achingly gorgeous rendition of Je crois entendre encore. Viewed based on the libretto or the music alone—i.e., as a stage drama or concert—the night might have been a failure; success came from the way both worked together—which is to say, as an opera.This newfound appeal of Pearl Fishers as an opera—as that fusion between drama, music, and the visual artwork that goes into stage productions and costumes—is at once enabled and enhanced by the technologies that now allow English-speaking audiences to follow more closely. Certain complexities of the staging, for instance, are possible only because the director knows the audience is reading the text and following even the minutiae. Likewise, productions can make more nuanced and varied political and social comment under these circumstances. Woolcock made much use of the theme, already present in Pearl Fishers’ libretto, of the constant presence and threat of the ocean. The opera opened with a stunning technical display: a mid-air ballet, staged during the overture, in which pearl divers suspended from wires “dove” from the top of the proscenium arch down to the space above the stage, which was overlaid with a silk screen onto which the ocean was projected, complete with very convincing bubbles rising from the divers’ mouths. (The screens were by 59 Productions, choreography by Andrew Dawson.) The first two acts and the second half of the third were set in huts perched on bamboo poles atop realistic “water,” while the screen that hid the stage between the second and third acts displayed huge and growing waves, evoking the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. As a note in the program confirms, the visuals were meant to underscore the libretto’s persistent warning about the danger of the rising sea, and thus resonate with a contemporary audience’s concerns about global warming.But this wasn’t a screed; the show’s messages were mostly muted and arose organically from the libretto. Woolcock and Dick set the production in an undefined but modern time in an unspecified South-Asian location. In this context, various topics familiar to readers of our own Via Meadia bubble briefly to the surface: Hindu nationalism, religious conservatism, the role (and abuse) of women, and the prominence of local strongmen within nominally democratic societies. When Zurga asks the crowd to choose a leader, they “spontaneously” name him and pull out pre-printed Zurga posters. Act III is set in the sort of local party boss’ office in a concrete tower one might expect to see in Pakistan. The village mixes traditional dress (particularly among the women), religion, and bamboo huts with modern costumes and buildings. Ultimately, though, Pearl Fishers is great art infused with a universalist spirit. Two boys fighting over an unattainable girl and worrying about friendship and promises: these are concerns that speak to almost anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time.Pearl Fishers is not Carmen; no one will ever mistake it for one of the top ten operas ever written. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a work I want in my “museum,” and one which will inspire new artists. Kudos to the Met for this outstanding production, and here’s hoping we’ll continue to see more unexpected, newly unearthed, old treasures like it.