Cheat sheet: The Pearlfishers
Everything you need to know about Bizet's opera with that famous duet
Georges Bizet (birth name: Alexandre César Léopold Bizet) was born to a wigmaker-turned-singing-teacher father, and a mother who was an accomplished pianist.
He was a gifted pianist and composer, but was generally unlucky in his lifetime. A prolific composer, he frequently entered competitions (but rarely won prizes), and premièred new orchestral and vocal works (but rarely won praise). He found he could make more money arranging other people’s music than composing his own.
His untimely death at 36 was actually the best thing that could have happened to his career: just three months after Carmen had premièred to a disparaging press, a special performance of his last opera in honour of his death won public hearts.
Georges Bizet, pictured in 1875. Copyright: public domain.
At the start of the pearl fishing season in Ceylon, the profiteer Nourabad brings the beautiful, mysterious Leïla to the temple to bless the season. Her beautiful singing and vows of chastity will protect the divers, but before the night is out, she'll drive a wedge between two friends.
Nadir and Zurga have a passionate relationship, but were once both entranced by a woman singing in a temple. Nadir betrayed Zurga and pursued her, and now he recognises her voice in the mysterious woman.
They meet under cover of night, and Leïla is tempted. But their romance is under threat: Nadir's betrayal sparks terrible jealousy in Zurga, and Nourabad will stop at nothing to protect his pearl fishing profits.
Leïla: a beautiful woman, a stranger in Ceylon, brought to the coast as a priestess to bless the pearl fishing season
Nadir: an old-time friend of Zurga, a hunter
Zurga: the local administrator, named ‘King’ for the pearl fishing season
Nourabad: a profiteer, who brings Leïla to Ceylon
'Au fond du temple saint' is one of opera’s most beautiful duets, about the power of friendship. The title translates to 'In the depths of the temple'.
Where have I heard that before?
Probably everywhere! Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill’s 1951 recording topped the charts of their day and brought the opera duet into homes of even non-opera fans everywhere.
Peter Weir used it to devastating effect in his film Gallipoli.
Something to listen out for
- Bizet sets the scene of an ‘exotic world’ in his music. Listen out for the prominent tambourine rhythm in the opening chorus, which gives the energy of dance to the music. An energetic tambourine dance rhythm was a popular musical motif to represent non-Europeans during the 19th century.
- If you only know the famous duet, it’s worth getting to know 'Je crois entendre encore' so you can look forward to this gorgeous tenor aria, as Nadir reflects on listening to Leila sing.
- When Nadir serenades Leila in Act II, listen out for two brief minutes of musical ecstasy. As he sings, she punctuates his melody, getting higher and higher until she sings "Ah" on a high A, and he immediately follows with the same, ecstatic note.
A brand new production by gifted storyteller Michael Gow and designer Robert Kemp. Fascinated by the gruesome history of the pearl fishing trade in Ceylon, Gow is determined to tell a story with a little more gravitas than the usual exotic, colourful display. He taps into the history of Ceylon’s colonial past, and shows the little pearl fishing village as a place of both beauty and terror, grandeur and decay.
Kemp has created a beautiful set for this production, including a decaying ancient temple on a beautiful beach, and a colonial manor where Zurga runs his administration.
Robert Kemp's costume designs for this new production of The Pearlfishers. L-R: Leila, Ladies Chorus, Nadir.
Bizet struggled to get noticed as a young composer in Paris, but in 1862, the manager of the Théâtre Lyrique approached him with a commission for a new three-act opera. It was an exciting opportunity for the then 24-year-old, who saw the potential for a real success.
The commission came with a libretto: an exotic story set in Ceylon, written by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon. The story is based on an earlier opera, La Vestale, about a Roman general and his flame, who became a vestal virgin when he goes off to war. It’s a very imperfect libretto, and the librettists themselves admitted they might have taken more care if they knew of Bizet’s talents when they offered it. It tapped into the European fascination with all things foreign and exotic—the ‘orientalism’ of the East. In fact, the libretto started life set in Mexico!
First performed on 30 September 1863 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, it was well-received by the audience, but not the critics. It wasn’t revived in Bizet’s lifetime.
An illustration by Antonio Bonamore of the final scene of Act 1, as produced at La Scala in 1886. Copyright: public domain.
The Pearlfishers duet was always a show stopper—it was even performed at Bizet’s funeral service.
- Bizet named his dog after the character of Zurga.
There is no complete, original score of The Pearlfishers written in Bizet’s hand. Other composers have added to it over the years – but in the 1970s a conducting score was found in which Bizet had marked some orchestrations. Since then, lots of opera houses have attempted to perform the work as Bizet might have intended it. (But of course, it’s hard to know exactly what he wanted).
Bizet described his chosen profession as “a splendid art, but a sad trade”. He never made a lot of money!
The composer: Georges Bizet. French. 19th Century. Also famous for Carmen.
The music: French romantic with a few 'exotic' flourishes thrown in to set the scene (listen out for tambourines).
The big hit: the duet 'Au fond du temple saint'. Opera just made for the charts.
The setting: Ceylon (colonial Sri Lanka). Bizet takes a very romanticised view of the coastal pearlfishing industry.
The tragedy: Bizet died not knowing his operas would become famous classics. Critics panned The Pearlfishers at its première.
A quirky fact to impress your date: The famous duet was always a show-stopper—it was performed at Bizet's funeral.