The Pearl Fishers and the Exotic
The Pearl Fishers was produced in a time period in which Europe was as a whole becoming fascinated with faraway cultures and locations, particularly in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. This fascination was due in no small part to the expansion of European colonial empires in these areas, and the increased importation of products, curiosities, and people from newly conquered lands. Additionally, composers and musicians who were given to travel brought back musical ideas from their sojourns. The most notable was Félicien David’s choral symphony Le désert (1844), a mélange of faux-Arabic musical ideas inspired by the composer’s travels in Egypt and the Holy Land. Although it’s not often performed today, Le désert was a phenomenon in mid-19th century Paris and sparked a fad for orientalist works among other French composers.
The cultures of Asia, Africa, and the Americas also held a certain exoticist allure for opera composers and audiences because it allowed them to indulge in fantasies of eroticism and brutal violence while firmly locating the events elsewhere. A similar tactic was used in the Verdi operas Rigoletto and La Traviata, in which local censors obliged the composer to re-locate his action in terms of geography and time, moving Rigoletto from France to the extinct dukedom of Mantua and setting La Traviata about 150 years in the past. Removing such stories from “here and now” allows the audience to observe from a distance and be titillated by the events onstage without feeling as though they are implicated in the proceedings. Indeed, such a presentation of a cultural Other is also an inverse presentation of one’s Self, an assertion of what the audience is not. In the case of orientalist works, these depictions of foreign cultures work to confirm the audience’s identity as Europeans, and in the process perhaps also affirming their superiority as a “civilized” people who should rightly hold dominion over such “savages.” In some cases this implicit goal was foregrounded. In Vienna throughout the 18th century, for example, there was a continuing vogue for “Turkish” pieces (like Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” from 1784’s Piano Sonata no. 11) that lampooned their former military rivals who were defeated in the Battle of Vienna in 1683.
In such a situation, accurate representation of specific musical traditions of a foreign culture is actually not particularly important for either the composer or the audience. All that matters is that the music registers as “foreign.” In The Pearl Fishers, there is little in the libretto or score that indicates “Sri Lanka,” and it would seem that the action could take place in any rural fishing village on any continent. Indeed, the opera was originally planned to be set in Mexico but was changed more or less on a whim. The orientalist musical language of Le désert, The Pearl Fishers, and similar works became essentially a catch-all musical signifier for any foreign culture full of danger, violence, superstition, taut tanned bodies, and permissive sensuality.
As the exotic became fashionable, more conservative Parisian critics even criticized those composers who attempted to imitate foreign musical styles accurately, preferring instead music that attempted to represent a collective portrait of a far-off land without obscuring the composer’s own sense of “French-ness.” To this end, opera producers, librettists, and designers were tasked with creating a sense of exotic “space” within which fairly minimal musical gestures towards foreign music could play on the imaginations of the audience (Lacombe 194 – 205). Timbre, instrumentation, and dance rhythms (most often from Spain) became particularly important tools in conveying a sense of the exotic that remained intelligible to a Parisian audience. The accompaniments of “exotic” melodies often relied on drone pitches and fairly static rhythms as a way to lend a “primitive” touch. More extreme musical devices like modal mixtures, lowered leading tones, and other sorts of altered harmonies eventually became a part of the orientalist sonic palette over the latter half of the 19th century. Just as exoticism became a vehicle for characters and plots that broke with the norms of European society, it also eventually became a justification for expanding on the conventions of European music.
Over the latter half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, the trend of exoticism gradually became more location-specific and imbued its characters with greater cultural depth and sensitivity than is found in The Pearl Fishers. In Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen, the gypsy Carmen is proud of her life at the margins of society and Bizet’s music for her is drawn from Spanish folksongs and dance rhythms. In probably the best example of this later exoticism, Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly weaves a complicated web of cultural signifiers in its tale of the marriage between the American sailor Pinkerton and the Japanese geisha Butterfly. Butterfly’s music contains excerpts of the Japanese folksong “Sakura,” although with Westernized harmonies, suggesting that the music is evocative not only of Japan but also of the way in which Butterfly wishes to present herself to Pinkerton as the fulfillment of his idealized Japanese woman. Similarly, Puccini uses fragments of “The Star Spangled Banner” as a way to signify American-ness and perhaps reference American imperialism for an Italian audience. For operas like Carmen and Madama Butterfly, the locations and the cultural traditions of the characters play a vital role in the dramatic proceedings and demand to be reflected in the music. The Pearl Fishers’ music, on the other hand, only needs to convey a generalized sense of foreignness and primitiveness.
For a 21st-century opera company, an orientalist opera like The Pearl Fishers creates a few unique considerations. In particular, the fact that the world has gotten a lot “smaller” over the intervening generations doesn’t do these exoticist works any favors. For that matter, many of these regions (India in particular) are now also self-actualized nations as opposed to colonial states run for profit by European countries and companies. Indian culture is also much less alien to an opera audience today than it would have been in 19th century Paris. Multiple generations of Indian immigrants to the West have made Indian culture a fairly normalized presence in Europe and the U.S.A.. Indian musical traditions are also more widely known thanks to Indian classical musicians like sitarist Ravi Shankar and tabla player Zakir Hussain, the increased availability of music from the Bollywood film industry, and the syncretic global fusions of expatriate pop star M.I.A.. With this in mind, perhaps it is to our benefit that Bizet did not attempt to mimic Indian musical aesthetics (assuming he had ever even had the opportunity to hear Indian music), as the result would likely seem hackneyed and awkward today.
In the absence of musical gestures towards India or Sri Lanka, productions of The Pearl Fishers (including Utah Opera’s) often employ Indian-inspired set design, costumes, and vaguely Carnatic choreography in an effort to authenticate the opera’s setting with more specificity and realism. However, this becomes something of a tightrope act in the 21st century given that the American stage (to say nothing of the film and cartoon industries) has a long and sordid history of white performers satirizing African-Americans and other non-white cultures in the name of ethnic subjugation. It may be that any period-faithful production of The Pearl Fishers in which a cast of white singers attempts to look “Indian” risks being received as an exercise in “brown-face.” Conversely, one could attempt to dodge the issue entirely by setting The Pearl Fishers in a sort of blank “postmodern” space without any cultural identifiers, given the lack of specific references to Sri Lanka in the score. Something about that idea feels slightly dishonest, though. It reminds of perennial attempts to purge school curricula of Huckleberry Finn and other works of literature that employ racist language; the goal is ostensibly to keep from offending modern sensibilities, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that at heart it’s a deliberate attempt to purge these uncomfortable inheritances entirely from our cultural memory. Regardless of the path taken by an individual production, it is useful to remember that The Pearl Fishers was designed to appeal to the imaginations, prejudices, and preconceptions of a 19th century Parisian audience. Acknowledging the desires of the original audience perhaps creates a measure of critical distance and allows the audience to appreciate the opera without denying its place in the lineup of vaguely colonialist and patronizing works from the time period.