Georges Bizet’s classic tale of forbidden love unfolds on an island fishing village, cloaked in mystique. Pearl fishermen Zurga and Nadir, are old friends who swore an oath to never pursue the beautiful Leila, with whom they are both in love. In preparation for a fishing trip, an anonymous veiled virgin arrives to pray for the fleet’s safety. When the two men learn of the virgin’s true identity, they become locked in a bitter love triangle that tests the bonds of friendship and loyalty.
This brand new production is brought to life on stage by the debuting team of conductor Anne Manson and director Tazewell Thompson. Sought-after soprano Heather Buck (Orphée, 2012) returns as the mysterious priestess, Leila, while tenor Chad A. Johnson (Don Giovanni, 2010) and baritone David Pershall (Emerging Artist Program, 2008) play her suitors in this exotic tale of secret passions betrayed.
A group of pearl fishers stand on a beach. They have gathered to elect a new leader, and choose Zurga to be their king. Shortly, another man joins the group standing on the beach. Zurga cries out to him in welcome—he is Nadir, Zurga's friend, who has been living in the forest for the past year.
The two men reminisce about the time they spent in the city of Kandy. Their friendship had come close to being destroyed, as they had both fallen in love with a beautiful woman who they only saw briefly. In the end, they made a pact that neither would pursue the woman, in order to preserve their friendship.
A boat arrives on the shore, carrying a veiled virgin priestess. Zurga explains that she has been brought from a neighboring island to pray for the safety of the pearl fishermen in their upcoming expedition. Before ascending to the temple, Zurga has her swear an oath on her life that she will remain pure during her vigil. Though she pauses, glancing at Nadir, she agrees, and Zurga and the rest of the fishermen depart, leaving Nadir alone on the beach.
Nadir is bereft. While in Kandy, he broke the pact and pursued the young woman. Now he has come not to visit his friend, but because he has heard rumors that she might be nearby.
The priestess remains alone in the temple, singing and praying. Nadir awakes, hears the singing coming from the temple, and recognizes the voice. Entering the temple, the priestess briefly draws aside her veil, and Nadir realizes that it is the woman from Kandy, Leila. The two declare their renewed love.
Leila remains in the temple with Nourabad, and admits she is fearful of being left alone there. Nourabad advises her to be brave and maintain her vows to Brahama. To prove her bravery, Leila tells Nourabad a story about when she was young—a fugitive had come to her begging that she hide him, and she did not reveal him to his enemies, even when they threatened to kill her. She still wears the necklace he gave her in thanks. As she kept her promise then, she will also keep her vows now.
Shortly after Nourabad leaves the temple, Nadir arrives. Fearful of the consequences of being caught together, Leila begs him to leave. At first Nadir refuses, but eventually leaves with a promise to return the following night. On his journey from the temple, however, he is captured by the fishermen. They demand his death, but Zurga intervenes, saying that as leader he can spare his friend. But then Leila's veil falls aside and Zurga, recognizing her, becomes enraged and declares that both she and Nadir be executed.
Zurga sits in his tent on the beach. Some of his anger has abated, but when Leila enters pleading for Nadir's life, his jealousy takes over again, and he refuses to be merciful. While Leila is being led to the pyre, she gives one of the fishermen her necklace, asking it be returned to her mother. Zurga notices the necklace, and runs out to take it from the fisherman.
The pyre burns brightly outside the temple. Nadir and Leila stand by it, resigned to their deaths, as the villagers dance and sing in exultation at the double execution. But another glow on the horizon distracts them, and Zurga rushes in, yelling that the village is on fire. As everyone rushes to save their homes, Zurga is left with Nadir and Leila. He releases their bonds, and tells them that he set the fire to give them a chance to escape. Turning to Leila, he returns her necklace, revealing that he was the fugitive that she saved as a child. Zurga gives Nadir and Leila his blessing and remains on the beach, waiting for the villagers to return as the couple run off to start their new life.
- Claire Marie Blaustein
Even the greats had to start somewhere. Although today Bizet's Carmen is today practically synonymous with "opera," when he was a young man of 24 and actively writing, he was still a nobody. Not that he didn't have an excellent musical pedigree—the son of a pianist (who had left a prior profession as a wig maker), Bizet had shown much early talent. He was accepted into the Conservatoire de Paris when he was nine, and won several awards for piano and composition, the greatest of these being the Prix de Rome in 1857. The award came with a large stipend, and Bizet spent several years studying and composing in Italy. In 1860 he returned, prepared to make an impression on the musical scene of Paris.
The problem was, the musical institutions of Paris were not all that interested in producing the work of a relative newcomer. There were two major opera houses at the time, and both principally performed standard reperertorie, and rarely ventured into new works by new composers. Lucky for Bizet, his standing as a winner of the Prix de Rome put him in the sights of Léon Carvalho, manager of the independent Théâtre Lyrique company. Carvalho had received a grant from the Minister of Culture, which stipulated that each year he must produce a new, three-act opera, written by a Prix de Rome prize winner.Carvalho approached Bizet, who actually at that moment was in rehearsals of a one-act opera for Opéra-Comique (which had a similar stipulation of performing the work of Prix de Rome winners). Bizet quickly withdrew from the Opéra-Comique to allow him to work on the larger opera for Théâtre Lyrique. The commission for Les pêcheurs de perles(The Pearl Fishers) came in April, with a premiere scheduled for September, so Bizet had to begin work immediately to complete the work on time. Carvalho had provided Bizet a libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré (Carré would later work on the libretti for Faust and Les contes d'Hoffmann). In the somewhat manufactured story, set on the beaches of Ceylon, two best friends would be torn apart by the love of the same woman. The work was a perfect vehicle for a young opera composer of the day—exotic, passionate, dramatic—everything the audience could want.
The audience did enjoy The Pearl Fishers, but the press was generally unimpressed. They found the libretto full of plot holes, and the music uninspired. They even objected to Bizet's manners at the premiere, when, at the urging of the audience, Bizet took the stage at the end of the performance—something they felt was above the station of such a young composer. One reporter wrote "this sort of exhibition is admissible only for a most extraordinary success, and even then we prefer to have the composer dragged on in spite of himself, or at least pretending to be." Despite the press' reaction, in its initial run The Pearl Fishers ran for a respectable eighteen performances, (alternating with Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, also to be seen at Virginia Opera this season). It also earned Bizet respect amongst his peers, including Hector Berlioz, who was a lone supporter in the newspapers, saying that "The score of Les pêcheurs de perles does M. Bizet the greatest honour."
The Pearl Fishers did not bring Bizet much else during his lifetime—it was not performed again until 1886, eleven years after the composer's death. Bizet never really saw great critical acclaim from any of his operas, even Carmen—his greatest caused a scandal for its risqué content, was denounced by the press, and then Bizet died only three months after the premiere. But in the posthumous appreciation of Bizet's great talent in crafting dramatic tension and ability to write incredibly memorable tunes has brought both works back into the repertoire, and, almost 150 years later, allows us to give a young man his due.
Georges Bizet, born October 25, 1838, was named Alexandre César Léopold Bizet. However, he was christened "Georges" and that became the name he used. Like many other well-known composers he was born into a musical family. His father, Adolphe Bizet, was a voice teacher. His mother came from the famous musical family Delsarte and was an excellent pianist. Georges' uncle, Francois Delsarte, was a celebrated singer. It came as no surprise when Georges showed signs of musical talent at a very early age. He was admitted to the Paris Conservatory at the age of nine.
He quickly rose to prominence in the school. His most important teacher was Jacques Halévy, who taught Charles Gounod, and was a prominent opera composer. Bizet was mentored by Gounod as well. At age eighteen he competed for the coveted Prix de Rome. The judges awarded no first prize that year and Bizet won second prize. He entered again the following year, 1857, and won. The Prix de Rome, founded in 1666 by Louis XIV, was a scholarship that could be awarded to musicians, painters, sculptors or architects. In the 1850s the winner spent time abroad, particularly in Rome, studying in their field. In addition, living expenses were provided for five years. At the end of each year the student had to submit a specified work so that the judges could determine their progress. Other famous Prix winners were Berlioz, Massenet, Gounod and Debussy.
In 1857, Bizet departed for Rome and spent three years there. He studied the landscape, the culture, Italian literature and art. Musically he studied the scores of the great masters. At the end of the first year he was asked to submit a religious work as his required composition. As a self-described atheist, Bizet felt uneasy and hypocritical writing a religious piece. Instead, he submitted a comic opera. Publicly, the committee accepted, acknowledging his musical talent. Privately, the committee conveyed their displeasure. Thus, early in his career, Bizet displayed an independent spirit that would be reflected in innovative ideas in his opera composition.
When Bizet returned to Paris and became self-supporting, he composed, gave piano lessons, produced orchestrations and piano transcriptions and wrote operas. Financially, he found his chosen profession "a splendid art, but a sad trade." He endured no less than five operatic failures before writing Carmen, but his critics clearly recognized his abilities as a composer. In 1867 he became engaged briefly to Géneviève Halévy, the daughter of the noted composer of La Juive, his former teacher at the Paris Conservatory. The family of Bizet's mother objected to the marriage because the Halévy's were Jewish and the Halévy family objected because of Bizet's atheism, bohemian lifestyle and financial irresponsibility. The two finally married in 1869 but it was not to be a happy marriage. A son was born in 1872.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 spurred Bizet's patriot spirit and he joined the National Guard in defense of Paris. The war also had an effect on the opera world. Prior to the war, composer Jacques Offenbach had reigned in Paris. After the war, his light-hearted satires were no longer as appealing to the Parisians. Bizet was asked to write a one-act comic opera for the Opera-Comique in 1872. It was a failure, but the work won high praise for its music. As a result Bizet was commissioned to write a full, three-act opera by the Opera-Comique. The libretto was to be furnished by Ludovic Halévy, Géneviève's cousin, and Henri Meilhac, a very popular libretto team of the time. The novel Carmen by Prosper Mérimée was chosen as the source for the opera. This "nouvelle," written in 1845, contained sex, dishonor and murder. The management of the Comique was very unhappy with the subject matter. Their patrons were used to respectable family entertainment. Blatant sexuality and a violent on-stage murder had never been seen on the stage of the Comique.
Bizet was enthusiastic and took an active part in writing the libretto. He was committed to the realistic nature of the characters and the plot. Bizet's music captured the exoticism and flair of Spain while remaining true to his lyrical French roots. His brilliant orchestration and originality brought a new dimension to the operatic stage. By the time the opera went into rehearsal a furor had arisen over it. Management tried to change the ending and newspapers were suggesting that the Opera-Comique would no longer be a family theater. In rehearsal chorus members were unhappy being asked to move about the stage freely and act while they sang. The orchestra found the music "unplayable." By the night of the opening, however, everyone involved with the production was fully supportive.
On March 3, 1875, the opera had its premiere. It was deemed a colossal failure. Bizet's music was assailed, the character Carmen was too lewd and the whole event was too sordid for the respectable public. It did have forty-eight performances, but played to smaller and smaller audiences. Bizet's health, never robust, suffered, and he became depressed. Georges Bizet died at his country estate on June 3, 1875, believing he was a failure. It was three months to the day of the opera's premiere, and it was also his sixth wedding anniversary. He was thirty-six years old. Four thousand people attended his funeral, and Charles Gounod served as one of the pallbearers.
CONDUCTOR • Anne Manson
STAGE DIRECTOR • Tazewell Thompson
SCENIC DESIGNER • Donald Eastman
COSTUME DESIGNER • Merrily Murray-Walsh
LIGHTING DESIGNER • Robert Wierzel
WIG & MAKEUP DESIGNER • James McGough
In the 2011-12 season Heather Buck sang as La Princesse in her debut with Virginia Opera in Glass’ Orphée; Hero in Béatrice et Bénédict in a return to Opera Boston; as soloist in “Mediamaterial,” by Dusapin with Teatr Wieki, Opera Naradowa (Warsaw, Poland); in Carmina Burana with North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, under Grant Llewellyn; and as soloist in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 at Yale University. Recent engagements include her return to the roster of the Metropolitan Opera for its production of Nixon in China; her reprisal of the role of Angel in Dusapin’s Faustus: The Last Night at the Concertgebouw.
In season 2012-13 Chad Johnson sings as Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de perles with Opera Carolina. Career highlights include Ferrando in Così fan tutte (Tanglewood, under James Levine), Gėrald in Lakmė (Minnesota and Florida Grand operas), Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni (New Orleans Opera), and Ruggero in La Rondine (Lyric Opera San Diego). He recently sang Emilio in Il Sogno di Scipione (Gotham Chamber Opera), Duke in Rigoletto (Pensacola Opera), as soloist in concert (Alabama Symphony), in Mozart’s Requiem (Modesto Symphony Orchestra), in a “pops” program (Long Beach Symphony), and Lysander in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Boston Lyric Opera).
Performances include La Boheme with Den Norske Opera, Schmidt’s Notre Dame in Carnegie Hall, Lucia di Lammermoor with Opera Theater of Connecticut, Wonderful Town with the Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra di Milano, Vaughn-Williams’ Sea Symphony with Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, Carmina Burana with Hartford Symphony Orchestra, and a recording of L’amore dei tre re at the Beethoven Easter Festival in Warsaw with the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra. This season he joins The Met for Maria Stuarda in addition to concerts with Dallas Opera and débuting with Opera Nancy Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest. In 2014 he will record Iphigenie in Tauride for Naxos.
In 2010-11 Nathan Stark sang Monterone in Rigoletto (Cincinnati Opera);Sparafucile in Rigoletto (Virginia Opera); Bonze in Madama Butterfly and Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia (Kentucky Opera);Philip II in Don Carlo (Opera in the Heights); in Elijah (Modesto Symphony Orchestra); and Mozart’s Requiem and Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia (Canton Symphony Orchestra). Recent highlights: Otello (Cincinnati Opera); Don Giovanni and La bohème (Virginia Opera); Don Quichotte auf der Hochzeit (Kentucky Opera); Il viaggio a Reims (Music Academy of the West); Semele and Die Schweigsame Frau (Long Beach Opera); and Falstaff, Il barbiere di Siviglia, L’incoronazione di Poppea (Cincinnati Conservatory of Music).
Conductor Anne Manson, hailed by The New York Times for her "significant achievements in the international opera world", has come to the forefront as one of the most exciting interpreters of opera in America today. Of her recent performance in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites at The Juilliard School, the New York Daily News reported that Manson's "magnificent" conducting delivered "one of the most thrilling musical experiences I've ever had". Manson conducted and recorded Philip Glass' Orphée for Portland Opera, where she returned for productions of Madama Butterfly and and Glass's Galileo Galilei. Other recent opera projects include Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream for Canadian Opera Company, Barber's Vanessa for New York City Opera, Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and the U.S. premiere of Jonathan Dove's The Adventures of Pinocchio at Minnesota Opera; Mozart's Così fan tutte at San Francisco Opera; and Offenbach's Orphée aux Enfers, Ned Rorem's Our Town, and the U.S. premiere of Peter Maxwell-Davies' Kommilitonen!, all at The Julliard School.
Anne Manson is presently the Music Director of Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, with whom she has led two hugely successful tours with world famous soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie. She also recently made her debuts with the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, and she works regularly with the Orquesta de Extremadura in Spain.
Tazewell Thompson (director) opera productions: New York, Milan, Madrid, Paris, Tokyo, San Francisco, Vancouver, New Orleans, Portland, Los Angeles, Orange County, Columbus, Detroit, Newark, Boston and Cape Town. His New York City Opera production, Porgy and Bess, on PBS Television "Live from Lincoln Center," received Emmy nominations: Best Director and Best Classical Production; directed the box office sensation of NYC Opera's Margaret Garner by Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison; Aaron Copland's The Tender Land at Glimmerglass Opera; Copland's The Second Hurricane; Don Giovanni; A Midsummer Night's Dream at Boston Lyric Opera; Norma at Vancouver Opera; Blitzstein's Street Scene at University of Kansas/Lawrence; Dialogues of the Carmelites and Patience at both NYC and Glimmerglass Opera houses; Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice at Glimmerglass Opera; world premieres of: Stefan; As of a Dream; and Vanqui. Most recently he directed Lost in the Stars at Glimmerglass Opera.
Not only an acclaimed director for opera and theatre, Mr. Thompson is also an award winning playwright. His play Constant Star has had 14 major national productions garnering numerous awards. His new play, Mary T. & Lizzy K. will have its world premiere at Washington DC's Arena Stage, Spring 2013.
Donald Eastman (set design) made his Virginia Opera debut with Brittens' The Turn of the Screw and is thrilled to return with The Pearl Fishers. His work in opera/theatre include productions for the company's of San Francisco and Seattle, BAM, Lincoln Center Festival, NYCOpera, Glimmerglass Opera and The Spoleto Festival. Upcoming projects include My Fair Lady for Arena Stage and Don Quichotte for Canadian Opera Company. His designs for theatre have been seen on and off Broadway and with companies across America. Donald has received numerous awards including an OBIE Award for Sustained Excellence.
Film/TV credits: "Kingfish: A Story of Huey P. Long," "In Search of Dr. Suess', "The Murder of Mary Phagan," "The Glass Menagerie," "MGM: When the Lion Roared," "War Story: Vietnam," and "Miss Lonelyhearts." Opera designs: Vanqui at Opera Columbus, and Dialogues of the Carmelites, Patience, and Margaret Garner at Glimmerglass Opera and New York City Opera. Theater credits: The Speed of Darkness and Brothers on Broadway, and The Iceman Cometh at Abbey Theatre. Regional theatre work: Old Globe Theatre, South Coast Repertory, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Actor's Theatre of Louisville, Hartford Stage, Goodman Theatre, Williamstown, and Arena Stage, among others.
Mr. Wierzel has a long career working in the Theatre, Dance, Opera, and Museum worlds, with artists and directors from diverse disciplines and backgrounds, onstages throughout the country and abroad. He has designed productions with opera companies in New York, Paris, Cooperstown, Seattle, Tokyo, Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, Minneapolis, among many, many others. His other designs include the Broadway musical Fela! (Tony Award Nomination). Robert's dance work includes 26 years with the BTJ/AZ Dance Co. Mr. Wierzel has worked extensively in the Regional Theatre, at all major companies throughout the USA. Currently, Mr. Wierzel is in pre-production for the musical Superfly.
James P. McGough is pleased to return for his 15th season with the Virginia Opera. He is excited to work on new operas this year as well as revisiting some "old friends." He enjoys collaborating on both new, innovative productions as well as traditional approaches to the operas we present. During the off season, Jim is a designer and make-up artist for Fort Worth Opera Festival. Over a 25 year career Jim's work has been seen in theatres across the U.S. from Broadway to Regional productions. He dedicates this season to the loving memory of his parents.