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The Pearl Fishers: more than a duet

As we prepare to open The Pearl Fishers, director Matthew Eberhardt and conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren tell us why Bizet’s music has captivated people for over 150 years – and what audiences should listen out for in Opera North’s new production.

The Pearl Fishers was written in 1863 when Bizet was just 24 years old. Despite his youth, he’d already won the prestigious Prix de Rome and was generally regarded as a prodigious talent, something which is already evident in this early opera. As Matthew Eberhardt says:

“This piece challenges and excites in so many different ways. What’s brilliant about it, and what I’m loving, is that it’s like a riddle. We’re in a world that is deeply layered and complex, dealing with people who are trying to find their way through it. There are so many twists and turns, understandings and misunderstandings, all of which are reflected in the music.”

For Matthew Kofi Waldren, what is particularly striking is how often the music references ‘Au fond du temple saint’, the famous and instantly recognisable duet between the two main male characters: Nadir (a tenor) and Zurga (a baritone):

“The famous theme that we all know and love from the duet returns again and again throughout the piece in different guises, but always at moments of psychological tension. We’re used to hearing this duet as a standalone concert number, but it’s actually a subtle exploration of memory – and later on it becomes about loss and unrequited desire.”

In directing the piece, Matthew Eberhardt has found that the way the duet echoes throughout the opera has helped him interpret the story:

“Every time Bizet brings the tune back, it’s not about just these two men and their experience of glimpsing this woman at the temple – it’s about all three characters and their relationship to each other. Every time there’s a revelation that changes their understanding of the moment when they were all in the temple together. So, in a way, Bizet invites us to follow this musical breadcrumb trail in order to understand all the different parts of the narrative. I think the structure of the opera is really helpful in that regard.”

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

Memory is explored in the opera in another quietly ground-breaking aria as Matthew Kofi Waldren explains:

‘Je crois entendre encore’, Nadir’s aria in Act 1 is actually very unusual for 19th century operatic writing. It’s not a heroic tenor aria but incredibly perfumed, delicate and intimate which is a different sound world for opera to be moving into at that time. There are definitely moments in this piece where Bizet’s trying to find a different language and that language is often associated with memory.”

This reflective musical moment is one of Matthew Eberhardt’s favourite parts too:

“I really love that aria – it’s extraordinary. The name Nadir in Arabic comes from the word ‘opposite’. and I think what’s so interesting about Nadir and Zurga is that they have both had this shared experience in the temple but then their lives have gone in two completely different directions. Nadir’s life has expanded, whereas Zurga has been elected the leader of this community and stayed put. There’s no way that Zurga could sing Nadir’s aria. It’s not his world any more.”

Matthew Kofi Waldren conducting rehearsals for The Pearl Fishers © Tom Arber

Both agree that the most challenging aspect of the score nowadays is where instruments such as the tam tam and tambourine are used to suggest the exotic or ‘other’. Setting the action in a country no-one was likely to have visited and also ‘in ancient times’ undoubtedly allowed Bizet to explore what would have been unfamiliar musical styles in the 19th century, but for contemporary audiences, these sections often strike a jarring note. Matthew Eberhardt explains his approach:

The Pearl Fishers is deeply complicated and there are elements of it that are really uncomfortable. What I have tried to do though is to interpret that sense of the exotic as the deeper psychological sense of ‘other’ that sits within all of us and that these characters are trying to get to.

“We don’t try and undo any of the issues surrounding this piece. We are in a post-colonial world and we understand the discomfort around the stereotyping, but I hope that there are other things in this production, and that the audience will understand that discomfort in relation to these characters and their journey.”

Matthew Kofi Waldren adds:

“I’ve conducted The Pearl Fishers once before. Even then, when the production was very different to this one, the only way I could approach it was from a psychological point of view. I don’t believe Bizet intended it musically to feel as if it were a postcard to Ceylon but more as an exploration of what makes people tick.”

Marking up The Pearl Fishers score in the rehearsal room © Tom Arber

Despite these difficulties, working with the score has been a interesting journey for Matthew Eberhardt, enabling him to reflect on many philosophical issues not least the way in which the outer world can reflect our inner selves – something which Bizet skilfully suggests in his music:

“I do think Bizet’s score is extraordinary. There are these moments of big anthem-like music, where everyone sings together in unison and then there are these moments of absolute exquisite beauty with the sound of one instrument coming from a distance. It feels like Bizet references the big world we’re in, and then brings it right back to something very small and very beautiful and very detailed. That is what I’d love people to take away with them.”

The Pearl Fishers opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Tuesday 16 May. After its run in Leeds, it will tour as a concert performance to Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, Sage Gateshead, Hull City Hall and Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall.

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