There's almost always something in my brain, some terrible thing somebody's said, or a scene that I know cannot ever occur but I cannot un-imagine it, or the voice of a demon or maybe just me saying over and over the same old you're awful so why not just call it a day. And some other times, and these times are, by comparison, a relief, things like the Rice-A-Roni ("The San Francisco treat!") jingle or the "Yo-Ee-Oh, Yoooo-Oh" castle guard chorus from "The Wizard of Oz" fill up my head. These uninvited earworms drive me nuts.
I wish I could choose my earworms, and if I could, one of my first would be a few bars from "Au fond du temple saint" in The Pearl Fishers. The simple melody, which repeats throughout the opera, does what Western music is meant to do. It quiets you, then it swells, and then it makes you want to stand up like something's lifting you, arising you. It makes you yearn for something beautiful, unsayable, and sad.
The "friendship duet," as its known to opera fans, is first sung by two guys in Act I. The unfortunately named Nadir (tenor John Tessier) and Zurga (baritone Brett Polegato) remind themselves of the vow they made to each other when, after having both fallen in love with the same woman, they decided, for the sake of their friendship, that neither would pursue her. The woman not pursued is Léïla (soprano Maureen McKay in her Seattle Opera debut), who has also vowed, as a temple priestess in service to the community of pearl fishers, to be celibate. This is a story about what people do when different forms of love—erotic, spiritual, the love of community, the love between friends—collide. Those phrases from the "friendship duet" recur when someone is trying to understand how to live with their conflicting love and loyalties. We wonder, as the characters wonder too, which of the three will break which vow and when, or will they not.
Nineteenth-century uncomfortableness with passionate friendship between men may have been part of the reason 25-year-old Georges Bizet's opera got such a lukewarm critical reception. It was only after the composer's death, and the huge success of his last opera, Carmen, that The Pearl Fishers gradually entered the repertoire. While nowadays whether two guys are in love with each other or not is rarely troubling, few discussions of this work even consider the question of taking a vow of celibacy.
A lot of great music concerns, or has been inspired by, romantic triangles. When I realized that the object of the two men's desire was named "Léïla," I couldn't help but think of Eric Clapton's masterpiece "Layla," written for George Harrison's then-wife Pattie Boyd, the same woman who inspired Harrison's masterpiece "Something." The guitarists, despite their romantic rivalry, continued to love each other's work—performing on one another's albums and supporting each other in concert, as if their vows to music trumped whatever vow to sex or human love they made.
This production of The Pearl Fishers has, courtesy of British designer Zandra "High Priestess of Punk" Rhodes, wonderfully colorful, almost cartoony sets and costumes. These emphasize the coincidence-heavy cartoonishness of the plot. Even Bizet's composers, as soon as they heard his score, admitted that the story they'd written for him was ridiculous. But nobody goes to see opera for the reasonableness of the plot.
You go to opera for the irrational, the sweeping or pounding or lifting-up thing that only music can be, the blood and the breath, the unsayable thing that can drown out, at least for a while, the crapulous words in your head.