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Music, Collaboration, Representation — The Pearl Fishers at Austin Opera Excels on All Fronts

Bold costumes, strong vocals, magical dance

Alison Moritz directed a triumphant opening night of Austin Opera’s presentation of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. The successful run continued on May 4 and May 7.

It traced a melodramatic love triangle between two friends, both in love with a forbidden priestess.

Expert conductor Timothy Myers brought the opera to life.

The opera showcases some of the most celebrated voices in the craft today.

The Pearl Fishers Cheat Sheet

Baritone Will Liverman, the 2023 GRAMMY Best Opera Recording award winner, stars as Zurga, leader of a pearl fishing group.

Liverman made his Metropolitan Opera debut in Fire Shut Up in My Bones — the first-ever opera written by a Black composer performed at the Metropolitan Opera. (He will perform again at the Metropolian Opera in X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.)

Act I delights immediately with a standout duet between Zurga and his friend Nadir (David Portillo, tenor), “Au fond du temple saint.”

In the song, they affirm their friendship after years apart. But their competing love for Leїla (Madison Leonard, soprano), the opera’s love interest, threatens their bond.

Portillo’s beautiful voice brings depth to the character of Nadir. It highlights the priestess’s vulnerability and makes it clear how effortlessly she could be captivated by him.

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Austin Opera's The Pearl Fishers
Leїla (Madison Leonard, soprano) and Nadir (David Portillo, tenor).

Sets and Costumes by Zandra Rhodes

Set in a fairy-tale version of ancient Sri Lanka, the production features sets and costumes designed for the San Diego Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre.

Zandra Rhodes, the iconic pink-haired British designer and founder of London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, created the sets and costumes.

Rhodes skillfully drives the story forward with her bright set design, complementing the music. Mixing storybook and fauvist styles, her designs appear as if they were hand-drawn with bright colored markers.

In Act I, big palm trees in bold, almost-patterns of stripes and triangles frame a world where the larger than life events of the story take place.

In Act II, Rhodes’ large temple columns are decorated with figures reminiscent of those in Matisse’s painting The Dance, rendered in pastel blue with highlights of pink and yellow.

In partnership with Anshuman Bhatia’s brilliant lighting design, Rhodes’ backdrops simulate dramatic weather events. The troubled skies are depicted through black and gray slashes, accompanied by flashes and red lighting, transforming into bold flames.  

Austin Opera's The Pearl Fishers
Dancers with Zurga and Nadir.

Confronting The Pearl Fishers’ Orientalism

Acknowledging that Bizet never went to Sri Lanka, Austin Opera doesn’t shy away from the opera’s orientalist baggage.

A program essay by Charles D. Carson and Helen Sohyun Park notes that Bizet’s engagement with the island and its history was “superficial.”

In its early stages, the libretto was even set in Mexico (a choice abandoned for political reasons related to Napoleon III).

Bizet’s setting is intentionally flexible, embodying simplicity, purity and providing an escapist experience for his European audience.

Instead of drawing from Sri Lankan musical traditions, Bizet recycled his own work to compose the piece. He adapted the Catholic “Te Deum” into the Act II finale “Hymn to Brahma.”

Austin Opera maintains the otherworldly feel of the story while incorporating research-based Sri Lankan influences.

Costuming With Cultural Sensitivity

Rhodes drew inspiration from her travels in Sri Lanka and India, merging it with her design sense and the storytelling requirements.

To visually distinguish the pearl fishers from the priests and other religious figures in the opera, Rhodes dressed the pearl fishers in blue. The religious figures are clothed in shades of saffron, reminiscent of the robes worn by Theravada Buddhist monks in Southeast Asia.

Costumed in silky pink, Leila is separate from and connected to this group through color. She serves in a religious role but lives in isolated quarters.

Dancers wear sarees and blouses in bold colors. The young dancers wear white costumes inspired by traditional Sri Lankan outfits for special occasions, worn by young girls.

Austin Opera's The Pearl Fishers
A group of young dancers in traditional Sri Lankan outfits.

Don’t Forget the Dancing

The dancers have a significant role in the opera, collaborating with the chorus to create visually striking stage performances. They fulfill the singers’ request to “dance until evening.”

Anuradha Namipally, artistic director of Austin Dance India, incorporates elements of Sri Lankan Kandyan dance into her choreography. Additionally, she draws from South Indian Bharata Natyam traditions.

The Pearl Fishers is a wealth of talent. The production excels musically and embraces rewarding collaborations while addressing important questions of representation in the evolving art form.

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