The Pearlfishers belongs to a long list of works cashing in on 19th century audiences’ fascination with all things oriental.
But these works were not accurate portraits of far flung countries, many of them now colonies of European powers. What mattered was a general air of The Exotic, not specific peoples or cultures. Indeed the first version of this libretto was actually set in Ancient Mexico, requiring only a change of locale and new names for Bizet to start work.
This led to some terrible inaccuracies, the worst and most obvious being the holy Buddhist city of Kandy here described as a centre of Hindu worship. And the character names chosen are from all over the East near and far; Léïla is Persian, Nadir is Arabic, Nourabad is vaguely Indian and Zurga is, interestingly, a Portuguese surname (the Portuguese were the first Europeans to colonise Ceylon).
To give some reality to the characters, to give their story some reality and truth, I’ve made the men colonial Europeans, from the time of the opera’s composition, the early 1860s. This idea became very clear when I read a story by Leonard Woolf. Between Cambridge and becoming a major figure in the Bloomsbury Group, Woolf served in the Ceylon Civil Service and actually oversaw a pearling season. In a terrifying story called Pearls and Swine he described a character like this.
He hadn’t succeeded as a gentleman at home, so they sent him to travel in the East. He liked it, it suited him. So he became a planter in Assam. That was fifteen years ago, but he didn’t like Assam; the luck was against him – it always was – and he began to roll; and when a man starts rolling, in India, well – he had been a clerk in merchants’ offices; he had served in a draper’s shop in Calcutta; but the luck was always against him. Then he tramped up and down India, through Ceylon, Burma; he had got at one time or another to the Malay States, and when he was very bad one day, he talked of cultivating camphor in Java. He had been a sailor on a coasting tramp; he had sold horses (which didn’t belong to him) in the Deccan somewhere; he had tramped day after day begging his way for months in native bazaars; he had lived for six months with, and on, a Tamil woman in some little village down in the south. Now he was ‘dealing in pearls’. “India’s got hold of me”, he’d say, “India’s got hold of me and the East.”
Reading this story I recognised a world that was familiar; still an imaginary, literary world, but nonetheless a world full of people at least based in reality. It’s the world of Woolf’s Ceylon stories, of Brecht’s amoral Surabaya Johnny, Orwell’s angry novel Burmese Days, of Forster’s India, of Joseph Conrad’s half crazed obsessives in novels like Victory; shysters, racketeers, planters, hunters, drunks, dealers in everything that can be sold, all sick with fever and too much sun, all revolving around Léïla, wanting her, using her, not understanding her or her world.
Director – The Pearlfishers
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Above image by James Rogers. Rehearsal imagery (top) by Stephen Henry