Review: The Pearl Fishers by Austin Opera
by Michael Meigs

Will Liverman, David Portillo (capture from AO video)Georges Bizet's 1836 Pearl Fishers (Les pecheurs de perles) is as good an illustration as opera scoffers will ever get of the fantastical irreality of the art form. Having received the Prix de Rome, a sort of one-year fellowship to study in the Eternal City, because of some quirky funding stipulations, Bizet received an offer from the Théâtre Lyrique of Paris to compose the score for a bizarre script set in virtually unknown Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). Talk about orientallism! One could scarcely get farther from reality and from the western world than this libretto in which former best friends separated by their passions for a beautiful women are unexpectedly set at odds. The luscious soprano is brought veiled to the primitive village of pearl fishers, where she must remain supremely chaste in order to assure the success of the pearl fishing season. 


Before the lady arrives, the best buds swear their reconciliation and eternal fealty; once she's processed onstage, elegantly mute, it becomes clear that tenor Nadir (David Portillo) has in fact arrived in quest of the lovely Leila (Madison Leonard), not just to make amends with his former buddy Zurga (Will Liverman), just elected chief of the pearl fishers' village. Jealousy rampant will rule the plot, despite the efforts of Hindu priest Nourabad (Hidenori Inoue) to cotrol the situation.


What do you do to rescue Bizet's soaring music from the swamp of such currently unacceptable fantasy? 


San Diego Opera and the Michigan Opera Theatre made a vigorous effort on the design front. The set commissioned from reputed UK designer Zondra Rhodes is just as fantastical as the libretto's concept -- a wonderful swirl of decoration that evoked for me both Peter Max of the Beatles era and the absurd visuals of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Her visual imaginings are gorgeous in themselves, piling colors and images in delicious excess (too bad that the available photos don't capture the frankly trippy temple interiors). Costume designs from San Diego Opera have a similar vibe. The cleverly calibrated lighting by Anshuman Bhatia further adds to the sense of otherworldliness.


Will Liverman, Hidenori Inoue (photo by Erich Schlegel)Austin Opera goes one better in undercutting orientalism by contracting Black baritone Will Liverman as village leader Zurga and Japanese bass-baritone Hidenori Inoue as the Hindu priest, neatly turning inside-out the offenses of the original libretto. Librettists Michel Carré and Eugène Carmon wrote roles for European singers to imitate vaguely apprehended Ceylonese; Austin Opera cast ferociously talented, internationally acclaimed artists—a Black American and a Japanese—into those roles. The original concept was flawed, so AO checkmated it with vigorous moves in the opposite direction. And, for good measure, the program features the essay Beyond Exoticism: Opera and Representation by UT's Dr. Charles Carson and Korean national Helen Sohyun Park, recently awarded her doctorate in opera direction. Go to the 6:30 pre-performance talk; Carson, who presents, has the engaging ease of a stand-up comic and the erudition of the learned academic that he is.


Will Liverman is the standout in the power quartet at the heart of Bizet's opera. He has the presence; he has the voice; and anyone in the hall who really knows the French language will tell you that his command of the vowels and conventions of sung French far outshines that of the others, who neveretheless provide beautifully melodious "opera French." All four of the leads appear in these roles for the first time and one hopes not for the last.



Choreography by Anuradha Naimpally (photos by Erich Schlegel)

Austin Opera adds further flair by employing choregraphy of longtime Austin artist Anuradha Naimpally of Austin Dance India, incorporating both Indian and Sri Lankan dance modes—another clever reversal of orientalism, relocating the artistic locus from provinicial Paris of the 1800's to modern South Asia. Naimpally's elegant moves often mirror the emotions and conflicts expressed by the principals in song. I had the honor of endorsing Robert Faires's nomination of Ms Naimpally to the Austin Critics Table Arts Hall of Fame, so I was doubly delighted to witness both her choreography and her personal participation in it.


The work was originally written in three acts; Austin Opera presents it with a single intermission. Total run time is just over two hours.


The Pearl Fishers is lyric opera, without recitative, so the audience floats on the inebriating rush of Bizet's music, not terribly concerned about the orientalism of the plot. The opera deals in brotherhood, jealousy, forgivenness, heroism, and absurd coincidence. Like life itself. Or, at least, like life as one would wish it to be.



Click to view Austin Opera's program for The Pearl Fishers

Click to view a short excerpt of an aria by soprano Madison Leonard as Leila, posted on Facebook

Click to view duet of Will Liveran (as Zurga) and David Portillo (as Nadir): Au fond du temple saint




The Pearl FIshers
by Georges Bizet
Austin Opera

Thursdays, Saturdays-Sundays,
April 29 - May 07, 2023
Long Center
701 West Riverside Drive
Austin, TX, 78704