Opera Preview: Fishing for meaning through sights and sounds

The Pearl Fishers: The exotic set from “The Pearl Fishers.”    Photo Courtesy of The Opera Company of Philadelphia
The Pearl Fishers: The exotic set from “The Pearl Fishers.” Photo Courtesy of The Opera Company of Philadelphia
Try finding Ceylon on the map. For the typical geographically-challenged American, that may be difficult. A hint: The tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, struck two-thirds of the country’s coastline, killing more than 35,000 people, displacing more than half a million others and damaging or destroying more than 100,000 homes.

Ceylon is the old name of an island nation south of India that became the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972. Its proper name is now the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

In reality, this country with an exotic location has a rich history, but that’s not so important to the Kentucky Opera as it tries to orient the public to attend an opera that takes place on Ceylon. And the history wasn’t that important to Georges Bizet when he wrote “The Pearl Fishers,” which the Kentucky Opera performs on Feb. 2 and 4.

What is key to understanding “The Pearl Fishers” today are the historical and cultural events that shaped Bizet’s vision when he created the opera and that influenced other artists in 19th century Europe.

Enter the Kentucky Opera and the Speed Art Museum, which team up Sunday to explain these influences in an hour-long presentation entitled “Exoticism and the French,” as part of a regular lecture series called Sights & Sounds.

Sunday’s event will include a talk by art historian Lynn Meckler, who will discuss how and why foreign cultures with primeval qualities fascinated artists in the 1800s. It was a time when many European nations were building colonial empires abroad and European artists were exploring foreign cultures and themes. Meckler plans to discuss how international exhibitions introduced archaeological finds, animals and even people from faraway lands to Western cultures and how Europeans, in the early throes of industrialization, idealized what they saw as simpler cultures with customs linked largely to nature.

Meckler also will relate the work of painters Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Gustave Moreau and Alphonse Legros to the rise of exoticism.

Kimcherie Lloyd, the opera’s director of music, will speak about how these same cultural trends affected composers, including moving them to incorporate modal arrangements and instruments from foreign lands into their work. This includes Bizet, who is best known for his 1875 opera “Carmen.”

Bizet composed “The Pearl Fishers” in 1863 in the tradition of the Romantic grand opera style and integrated ideas stemming from exoticism. The libretto tells the story of two fishermen Nadir (William Joyner) and Zurga (Stephen Powell) who are ensnarled in love triangle with Leila (Barbara Shirvis), who was named the virgin protector of fishermen by the high priest Nourabad (Stephen Morscheck).

The event also includes a performance of the opera’s “Aux fond du temple saint” by Joyner and Powell with the production’s repetiteur, Danielle DeSwert.

The idea for Sights & Sounds emerged in 1999 when former Kentucky Opera general director Deborah Sandler and Steve Kelley, the organization’s previous marketing director, thought of the event as a way to complement opera performances and give audiences more insight into the times in which the composers created their works. Kelley discussed the idea with Lloyd, and they contacted the Speed, thinking lectures about opera and the fine arts would make a good match. So did the Speed, resulting in Sights & Sounds events before almost every Kentucky Opera production of the past six years. The event has caught on; Lloyd says it often attracts up to 100 people.

Contact the writer at [email protected]