21 June 2019
From the Director's Chair: Shawna Lucey on "The Pearl Fishers"
By Shawna Lucey
When you think of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, most people immediately think of the glorious duet sung by Nadir and Zurga in Act I about the first time they laid eyes on the gorgeous priestess Leïla, the rift in their friendship because of their shared desire for her, and then their commitment to bros above romance (if you will). This opera certainly is about that interpersonal conflict – the classic love triangle. However, digging into the piece reveals the conflict is much greater than just why-does-she-love-you-and-not-me? The Pearl Fishers is a piece about the demands of leadership – the kind of sacrifices people in leadership positions must be willing to make in order to fulfill the role they’ve taken on. Over the course of the opera, Leïla teaches Zurga what it means to put community before self.
Zurga wants to lead his community in a just, fair way. The people immediately elect him as their leader – he is clever, a man of faith, honest and ethical. At the end of Act II, he restrains the population from a pogrom against Leïla and Nadir, until his own passion and ego are exposed. He then slips into craven, self-serving use of his office to satisfy his own desires. Though Leïla breaks her vows and violates her sworn role as virgin priestess, she admits fault, ready to receive her just punishment, even attempting to save Nadir though he is equally guilty. (Indeed, more so, since he tracked her down and broke in to seduce her). In the end, it is Leïla's inherent strength of character which she’s had since childhood that shows Zurga what true leadership is about – sacrificing personal safety and desires to serve the common good. He finally becomes the leader his people need and deserve – one who doesn’t abuse his office to serve his own benefit or whims. His actions at the end of the opera are complex and deserve discussion – but we shouldn’t give away the ending. Ultimately Zurga causes destruction to get himself where he should have been from the beginning. But we do understand that by owning up to his actions and misdeeds he finally can lay claim to a moral center and stand with strength before his community and before his god.
Nourabad also has a leadership role as the keeper/protector of Leïla. Their relationship is fraught from the first interaction we observe. He constantly undermines her, doubting her strength of character from the start. Somehow Nourabad escapes all blame despite the fact that Nadir was able to break in to get to Leïla only because Nourabad was not doing his job. Where was he? Having drinks with friends? Nourabad is the first and most vocal to denounce Leïla. By keeping the focus on her misstep, Nourabad avoids critique and possible indictment of his own role in this crisis.
Another aspect of the opera that haunts me is the exacting and pitiless standard to which female leadership is held. For this society, whose health and safety are inherently connected to nature (as we all are), a female religious leader is logical. Women give life. Our menstrual cycles link to the moon. We are connected to the natural world. The regulation (and often oppression) of female sexuality, eroticism, and subsequently reproduction, is common among almost all world religions. The rules about how, when and why women have sex have been systematically regulated by almost every culture and religion for all human history. Leïla's transgression – the suggestion of the mere POSSIBILITY of her sexual activity – can be absolved only through her death. Her strength is in admitting that she broke her vow and in attempting to shield her lover from death.
Though The Pearl Fishers is heralded as an opera about personal relationships, it also has much to say to our 2019 audience in the United States about true leadership. Leïla does break her covenant by agreeing to see Nadir and run away with him, but she never shirks her role as protector, trying to shield Nadir from punishment. Her attempt to save her lover would keep her community from having his blood on their hands. And she does not shy away from her own punishment. She models for Zurga how leaders fundamentally must take responsibility for their misdeeds and try to protect their people from harm. We need leaders like Leïla, who can teach the Zurgas and Nourabads of the world that by accepting the office, you agree to serve – which means putting the needs of community above your own.
The Pearl Fishers opens June 29 and runs until August 23, 2019. Conductor Timothy Myers and director Shawna Lucey lead this revival of our stunning 2012 production, which was called “The best of this summer’s season,” by The Wall Street Journal, “True to the letter and the spirit of the work,” by the Chicago Tribune, and “An unqualified success,” by the Denver Post. The cast includes Corinne Winters, Ilker Arcayürek, Anthony Clark Evans, and Robert Pomakov.