Minnesota Opera’s “The Pearl Fishers”


The Minnesota Opera has just wrapped a two-weekend run of “The Pearl Fishers,” a 19th century grand opera by Georges Bizet. My wife and I spent the equivalent of 2.5 weeks of grocery budget to get two pleasantly surprising seats in the mid price range. Take note, grand opera is GRANDE, in the French sense of the word, meaning big, expensive, multi-disciplinary, long, and what you might call “spectacle-oriented.”

going through the movements is the blog of john munger, one of seven bloggers covering the minnesota fringe festival for the daily planet.

What the heck was a dance guy like me doing bankrupting himself (and wearing formal slacks and a coat, for godssake) at the Ordway (for godssake again) watching a highly trained chorus of supposed fisherfolk standing stiltedly (more on that word later) and belting out stuff I couldn’t possibly sing?

Well, there were several reasons. For one, there was dance by Zenon Dance Company, plus guests, with choreography by my old acquaintance and colleague John Malashock of San Diego. For another, both my wife and I are musically literate and we dearly love both Symphony in C by Bizet (which George Balanchine brilliantly choreographed) and Bizet’s more famous opera, “Carmen.” For a third, “Pearl Fishers” has one frequently sung male duet (“C’est La Deesse”) but is rarely performed in its entirety. We HAD to go to see the whole thing. We’re not quite on Social Security yet.

Here’s the nutshell. The dancing and the dancers were fabulous and would have stolen the show entirely if it were not for two other strong suits. Bizet’s music and some admirably understated but committed and engaging performances by the four lead singers.

Full disclosure here. First, I teach dance technique at Zenon, so I have discernible bias. Second, I know something about opera. Not as much as people in the Minnesota Opera do, but enough to feel some ground under my words. With all due perspective, I’m willing to speak up.

I’ve performed as a dancer in about six or seven operas, including “Aida,” “The Child and the Sorcerers,” an historic revival of Handel’s “Xerxes,” Verdi’s “MacBeth” and a few others, all under the direction of legendary choreographer Hanya Holm (“My Fair Lady,” “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” “Camelot”). She was my mentor, oh so long ago, not for opera but for dance.  I have also served as a supernumerary in several operas including “La Boheme,” “La Traviata”  and “L’Histoire du Soldat.”And I made my pitiful living for a year as the Stage Manager of the Colorado Springs Opera, running “Tosca,” “L’Elisir d’Amore,” “Madame Butterfly,” and (god help us) “Paint Your Wagon.” In short, I’ve dealt with some operas both backstage and out front. Also, parenthetically, I’ve produced over 50 full productions of my own dance and dance-theater work over the past 35 years. 

What choreographer John Malashock did for Zenon and The Minnesota Opera was to postulate a group of 10 dancers as members of the fishing village. (Note parenthetically that this production has appeared in several communities, most with varying local casts). Our cast included six members of Zenon Dance Company (Mary Ann Bradley, Bryan Godbout, Leslie O’Neill, Eddie Oroyan, Stephen Shroeder and Greg Waletski)  plus four exquisitely chosen additional performers (Samantha Collen, Bryan Gerber, Colleen Mclellan Ueland, and Jeffrey Peterson). John’s assistant Michael Mizeranky set much of the material then John flew up for several days to refine and crystallize it.

And I thought it was a triumph. The choreography evoked athletic movement that young and energetic fishermen and fisherwomen might do when they’re on shore, drunk, horny and partying. But it also drew subtly on the rambunctious behavior of children at play and on elements of folkdance at some points and ritualistic primitive religious dance at one other. It was appropriate to the opera, it was physically challenging and exciting to watch, and yet it was plausible within the (willing suspension of disbelief) operatic setting of a Ceylonese fishing village. It brought the village to life on many levels, including the cheerful, the ritualistic and the brutal. Without them the village would have been just as well off wearing robes, holding music, and singing on risers, at least in the first Act. But yes, they sang beautifully.

The village needed the dancers. As we got into the second Act and after intermission into the third, I began to appreciate the Stage Director’s work. But the opening scene of the village on a bright sunny day anointing a new leader reminded me too much of what we might call “stage-direction 101”. Basically the chorus, who sang a lot and very well, stood in either a semi circle or a V, leaving the center of the stage open and the up-center entrance well-framed and available. That’s the “101.” Well, yes, you do have to do that from time to time. But only as needed.

I was taught that a symmetrical structure was the least forward-moving of visual elements. It lands solidly and cannot be tipped off its equilibrium unless a powerful outside force convincingly tips it. It’s a good way to end a piece, if appropriate. Ah! We have arrived!  Further, if such a tipping force arrives, you have to show its effect by breaking the symmetrical balance clearly and convincingly.

Symmetry, in fact, is usually a questionable way to begin and then anchor the general stage picture of an entire and lengthy first Act. Especially if it’s supposed to be a rough-hewn village instead of a royal court. Especially if there’s an issue and people are excited, and if there’s news about a new priestess, and if an unexpected newcomer slightly derails the proceedings, and if life or death for a dangerous occupation are all at issue. So what do you do?  You want to set up tension and imbalance and questions. You don’t plant 30 people right from the outset in a formal, static, symmetrically anchored and mostly motionless structure. Ahem.

OK, that’s enough of me on my Monday-morning-quarterback-stage-director high horse. And yes, stage direction for the chorus got better as things went along. Also, I thought the use of space and movement for the leads in their duet, trio and quartet situations was often very effective.

I won’t comment about sets, costumes, lights or live music because that’s not my department. I thought some were fantastic and some were not as much to my own personal and less informed taste.

Zenon and John Malashock, I personally think what you did was superb, even on short rehearsal time. I’ve said some hard things about this production, but I don’t mean this as a “pan.” It was a good show. And I’m glad I went, even at the price of two to three weeks of groceries.