Diana Damrau, who stars as Leïla in Penny Woolcock’s production, explains why Bizet’s heroine is stronger than she seems.
The last time the Met performed The Pearl Fishers was in 1916. What excites you most about this first production in 100 years?
I just adore this opera. When the Met asked me what I would love to sing, it was actually my idea to do it. It’s a special piece for me. I sang it in 2000 for New Year’s in Germany, so I started the new century with it. And then last year we did it in Vienna. I love the music. You can literally feel India in it, the heat,
the humid air, the perfumes. Sure, it’s exoticism, which was a great theme in Bizet’s days. But it’s still fascinating
for us. I’m happy we’re doing this production. It’s set in modern times, but still within the traditions and the religion of Hinduism. So you have the colors of India and the richness of today’s culture, combined with Bizet.
Not many people are familiar with this opera, but the first thing they’ll tell you is how beautiful the music is. Why do you think it’s not performed more often?
I think people assume there’s a certain weakness in the libretto. But this is just a plain, beautiful love story, filled with emotions and problems we all have. It’s about trust, betrayal, friendship, religion—and most of all it’s about love.
Tell us about the character of Leïla.
For the first half of the piece, she is the priestess who has to stay true to her culture and its ancient ways. She has to do what’s expected of her, but eventually she stands up to the community. She is quite strong and also very passionate. For Leïla, the story is quite simple, because she doesn’t know about the vow between the two men, all she knows is that Nadir has finally come back. They fell in love, and now she’s afraid, but she knows there’s still this love. She’s a very young girl and she’s really hoping. She wants him to be back and feels comfort, knowing that he’s near. At the end she’s ready to die for him. She has this fragility, but she’s still a very strong character. It’s a wonderful role to play, really.
The two men get to sing the opera’s most famous number, but you also have some spectacular music.
Leïla is a lyric coloratura, and when she’s praying at the end of Act I, her music has all these eastern ornaments. That actually plays a big role, because she’s singing as a priestess, in character. Then there’s her big aria at the top of the second act, with beautiful lyrical lines. It’s not as stratospheric. And by the end she gets quite feisty, especially in the duet with Zurga. It’s a very intense, fantastic scene, not just to sing but also to act. So much is happening in that moment. In this production, she escapes the guards to make her way through to Zurga, so she’s really going for it. That’s what I’m really looking forward to!
The opera’s third male character, the priest Nourabad, is played by your husband, bass Nicolas Testé. What’s it like to perform together?
It’s wonderful. We’ve sung together quite a bit, but we never get to kiss each other. That’s good actually, it should stay private, we don’t want to show that on stage. It’s just wonderful to be able to work together on these interesting projects, especially this time of year.
Your past Met roles are fairly well balanced between Italian, French, and German operas. What goes into deciding on how you develop and extend your repertoire?
First of all I sing what is good for my voice at a specific point in time. I sang my last Queen of the Night here, and Zerbinetta [in Ariadne auf Naxos] is also no longer on my schedule. There are so many things to discover. I started my journey on these three tracks, if you will—German, French, and Italian—but also with lied recitals and church music. I’m a curious person and I want to explore things. I never got to sing much Baroque music, and that would also be something for my voice. But my heart goes toward the Romantics. Now is the time that I can do all the great Italian and French roles, so I continue on all three tracks, step by step. —Philipp Brieler