Love, desire and betrayal lie at the very heart of The Pearl Fishers, Bizet’s exploration of a friendship tested to the limit.

Here are our top five reasons why we think you’ll want to catch our brand new production of this opera classic.

1. The Composer of Carmen

You may know Georges Bizet as the man who wrote Carmen, but that was actually written a decade after The Pearl Fishers which Bizet composed when he was only 24 years old. Despite being a relative newcomer to the art-form, his striking lyrical gifts are already very much in evidence – perhaps not surprisingly for someone who entered the Paris Conservatoire at the tender age of ten!

So what can you expect from this earlier work? During The Pearl Fishers, you can look forward to beautiful melodies, magnificent choruses, imaginative orchestration and music that stays with you long after the performance has finished.

Georges Bizet, 1875 © Étienne Carjat

2. A Dazzling Duet

While you may not think you know ‘Au fond du temple saint’, we guarantee you’ll have heard it before. One of the most recognisable tunes in opera, this famous friendship duet is sung by the tenor (Nico Darmanin) and baritone (Quirijn de Lang) who play Nadir and Zurga, two male friends whose relationship is put to the test when both become entranced by the priestess Leïla (Sophia Theodorides).

Thanks to its beauty and power, the duet was chosen by Peter Weir for the film Gallipoli when two young Australian soldiers swear fidelity to their friendship until death – and it was even performed at the composer’s own funeral service.

3. A Pearl of a Staging

Rather than being located in a specific place or time, the Leeds staging is set in an abstracted, dreamlike space. Pearls are used as a metaphor for something precious and covetable, for memories we constantly revisit, and also as a symbol of global trade and exploitation – referencing the fact that the opera was set within Bizet’s idealized view of Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), a place he never actually visited.

Director Matthew Eberhardt explains: “We use the act of pearl fishing as a metaphor; just as pearls are pulled up from the seabed, so are the memories of the central characters exposed. Whilst the pearl represents beauty and desire, it also tells the story of obsession and greed. Our otherworldly space will allow our audience to sink deeper into this dark psychological story, allowing Bizet’s score to resonate with them.”

Director Matthew Eberhardt with Quirijn de Lang as Zurga in rehearsal for The Pearl Fishers © Tom Arber

4. What Lies Beneath

Bizet is a master at probing what makes people tick. Through the compelling story of male friendship in The Pearl Fishers, he takes us on a journey into people’s desires and the damage these can do, while also exploring how memory can and does deceive us.

The three main characters in The Pearl Fishers are connected by the same back story but each has responded to it in a different way and with varying degrees of self awareness. Zurga, for example, is a man who thinks he knows himself, but the narrative reveals that this simply isn’t true and how what we believe can easily be based on the falsehoods we ourselves have created. This is certainly a piece to get you thinking!

Quirijn de Lang as Zurga © James Glossop

5. Explore More

Written in the mid-19th Century, The Pearl Fishers’ setting in an exoticised pre-colonial Sri Lanka presents challenges for contemporary opera companies and audiences. It is Bizet’s imagined Sri Lanka that the opera depicts rather than anything rooted in reality. Acknowledging this, a series of connected events will offer a space for reflection and debate.

These include an exhibition exploring race, representation and authenticity in partnership with the University of Leeds, a series of post-colonial films in the Howard Assembly Room providing a thoughtful counterbalance to The Pearl Fishers, and a concert with Carnatic singer Yarlinie Thanabalasingam presenting music rooted in the region in which Bizet set his opera.

Carnatic singer Yarlinie Thanabalasingam will present a performance of music rooted in the region in which Bizet set his opera © Tristram Kenton

The Pearl Fishers opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Tuesday 16 May 7pm. The production will run in Leeds until Friday 2 June after which it will tour as a concert performance to Bridgewater Hall, Sage Gateshead, Hull City Hall and Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham.

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