Let me start by saying I am not an opera buff. I had never been when I lived in Australia and up until about a year ago, I had seen only The Magic Flute and Tosca in the 11 years I’d lived in London. I did enjoy them (more so The Magic Flute) but did not really fall in love with opera and the high ticket prices made me question whether I was really up for exploring more.
However opera has gotten savvy and has been reaching out to woo new audiences with Live Screenings. Streaming from the English National Opera at the London Coliseum or Glyndebourne on England’s South Downs, local cinemas have become the new place to experience opera and at a far more accessible price. Aside from getting a fantastic ‘close-up’ view, there are usually introductions to the story, interviews with the stars and creative team and subtitles throughout so it is a gently educational experience as well. I’ve become a bit of a fan and have enjoyed Mozart’s The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, a Ravel double bill – L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortileges – and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.
Last night I paid a visit to my local cinema, The Phoenix in East Finchley, and added another to my repertoire: The Pearl Fishers. Les Pecheurs de Perles was composed by Frenchman Georges Bizet and was first performed in Paris in 1863. It’s a love triangle set in ancient Ceylon (now Sri Lanka): The story of two pearl divers, Nadir and Zurga, and the consequences of their love for the priestess Leila. Bizet had some public success when this opened but critics were not so enamoured – in fact, Bizet struggled to reach any sort of critical acclaim in his career until Carmen, which opened ten years later.
Last night’s performance was by the MET Opera in New York. It was beautiful – a visual feast with an intricate tiered set, spectacular lighting and video effects and cast with a clamour of ‘villagers’. The opening score was accompanied by the most breathtaking ‘underwater’ sequence…two pearl divers, swimming in soft blue and lit from above to replicate the sun on the water – this stunning piece of choreography really set the tone for the rest of the production.
Musically it was glorious too. The score washed over the auditorium, ebbing and flowing much like the waves lapping the shores of the village, and voices were exquisite. The three lead roles comprise a soprano (Leila), a tenor (Nadir) and a baritone (Zurga). The Friendship Duet sung by Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) and Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga), the pearl fishers, was full of poignant promise and as Leila, Diana Damrau played her soprano more like an instrument than merely a voice.
During the intermission, there were interviews with the three stars and the conductor as well as a look at how the stunning opening sequence – those underwater pearl divers – was created including a chat with the divers themselves. In the past, I’ve felt a bit put off by opera’s diva reputation but the interviews revealed passionate, everyday and extraordinarily talented people.
After two and a half hours, I made my way home feeling completely delighted by the whole experience. The Pearl Fishers has become my favourite opera and I would never have discovered it if the only route open to me was the traditional, opera-house visit. It put me in two minds, the first being wanting to see more and so this morning I booked to see the MET’s live screening of Elektra in April. But the second is that last night has inspired me to visit the traditional – I would love to experience The Pearl Fishers live.
So opera – by making access to its artistry local and affordable – has managed to tap a potentially richer seam in this patron’s future pockets.
Clever, clever opera.