Orientalism, the 19th century European fascination with Asian cultures, is controversial today. But in 19th century France, artists thought nothing of culturally appropriating themes and tropes from places like Egypt, Morocco and India, and, in fact, saw it as paying tribute to those rich cultures.
Set in ancient Ceylon and with a tragic plot involving a priestess of Brahma, Georges Bizet’s opera “The Pearl Fishers” is one of the finest examples of East meets West in European art.
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City will present “The Pearl Fishers” for four performances at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre beginning April 27.
Bizet wrote “The Pearl Fishers” 12 years before his beloved and much better-known “Carmen.” But in “The Pearl Fishers,” the 24-year-old Bizet created a work that is rich in melody and foretells his supreme operatic masterpiece.
The Lyric is utilizing a production from the San Diego Opera that features eye-popping sets and costumes designed by Zandra Rhodes, known as the “Princess of Punk.”
The fuschia-haired Rhodes has nine doctorates from universities in Great Britain and the U.S. and was made the Commander of the British Empire in 1997. Describing herself as “a textile designer who got into fashion,” Rhodes is one of the most lauded set and costume designers in the world today.
While designing “Pearl Fishers,” Rhodes was asked to judge the Miss India contest. When she went to India, she was able to tour a wide swath of the subcontinent, including Sri Lanka, i.e. ancient Ceylon. She researched fabrics and saris and returned to her drawing board full of inspiration.
Rhodes’ designs for “The Pearl Fishers” are full of fantasy and color, with pink palm trees that have turquoise trunks.
Leila, the priestess over whom Nadir, the pearl fisher, and Zurga, the village chieftain, compete for, wears a glittering orange and pink sari to contrast with the blues and greens of the chorus. Dance is an important part of “The Pearl Fishers,” as it was for many French operas of the 19th century and earlier, and Rhodes has provided the dancers with charming animal heads.
Rhodes says that when Ian Campbell, the general director of the San Diego Opera, asked her to design “Pearl Fishers,” he told her, “Bizet never went to Ceylon, so you don’t have to be totally strict. You can interpret it any way you like.”
Antony Walker will conduct the performances. He has extensive experience with “The Pearl Fishers,” having conducted this particular production several times. Three singers will be making their debuts with the Lyric, including Maeve Höglund as Leila, John Moore as Zurga, and Christian Zaremba as Nourabad.
“Carmen” might be a bigger hit, but “The Pearl Fishers” has charms and beauties of its own. It would be wonderful if some day the Lyric would explore similar repertoire, like Bizet’s “Djamileh” or Jules Massenet’s “Le Roi de Lahore.”
Until then, we can savor “The Pearl Fishers,” a gem of an opera as precious as the pearls for which they fished in old Ceylon.
7:30 p.m. April 27, May 1 and 3; 2 p.m. May 5. Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $35.50-$199.50. 816-471-7344 or www.kcopera.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the wrong conductor name for The Lyric Opera’s “The Pearl Fishers.”
KC Symphony at Mount St. Scholastica
The Benedictine sisters of Mount St. Scholastica have hired some Kansas City Symphony musicians to give a concert at the nunnery on April 27, and everyone can attend. In fact, the lovely sisters would be delighted to welcome as many people as possible.
On the first half, a quartet made up of symphony musicians — Sunho Kim, Stephanie Cathcart, Matthew Sinno and Maria Crosby — will perform Ravel’s String Quartet.
Ravel dedicated his quartet to Gabriel Fauré, who is reported to have disliked the work. Debussy, however, loved it, although Ravel said that his quartet was the “opposite to that of Debussy’s symbolism.”
On the second half of the program, pianist Sean Chen will join the quartet for Erno Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No. 1.
If you love Brahms’ chamber music, you’ll probably feel the same way for Dohnányi’s lush, romantic quintet. The first two movements are rather dark and somber, but in the third movement, the mood starts to lighten until we get to the final movement, which brings all of the varied emotions together into a triumphant finale.
3 p.m. April 27. St. Scholastica Chapel, 801 W. 8th St. Atchison, Kansas. $5-$12. Tickets available at the door. For more information, visit www.mountosb.org.