When tenor Chad A. Johnson found out he'd be performing in Virginia Opera's production of island fantasy "The Pearl Fishers," he acknowledges having some misgivings.
"Many times when they perform 'Pearl Fishers,' it's about showing off a bunch of hunky leading male guys to parade around in loincloths," he says. Which he was willing to do, he says — but the opera raised the bar. "Instead they had this beautiful concept," he says.
French composer Georges Bizet wrote the three-act opera when he was 25, more than a decade before he produced his masterwork "Carmen." Taking place in ancient Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), the story focuses on lifelong friends Zurga and Nadir, who have the misfortune to fall in love with the exotic virgin priestess Leila. The men swore an oath to renounce their love for her, but their bond is challenged when she comes to their pearl fishing village to ensure its safety. If Leila takes a lover, it will jeopardize the community's protection and could invite fearsome consequences from the Hindu god Brahma.
"It's almost like a fairy tale," director Tazewell Thompson says of the show's plot. "It's not a very complex piece. I think as a result of the composer's youth, he constructs a very straightforward and easy-to-follow story."
The opera, however, didn't opt for simplistic staging. Eschewing the Tarzan look, the company commissioned an artist to hand-paint colorful and period-authentic costumes for the show. The production's set also defies convention, using bamboo and a sloped orange stage to portray the seaside community.
"It's extremely difficult to walk and run on while making it look graceful," says Johnson, who plays Nadir. "It's all based on the concept of waves."
The stage's slant isn't the only difficulty the performers must overcome. While Bizet's score is melodic and beautiful, it has its problems for singers. Both Nadir's duet with Zurga and his aria are high for a tenor, and his trio in the final act with Zurga and Leila is no cakewalk either.
"It's just full-throttle, high B-flats, one after another," Johnson says. "When he wrote it, he didn't quite have a handle on how to write for singers just yet. It's got some real vocal challenges."
Conductor Anne Manson says the compositions for orchestra and chorus are terrific, and that "Pearl Fishers" is a good show for opera newcomers. "It's a really exciting, easy piece that you can immerse yourself in without any trouble at all," she says. "It's very lyrical and incredibly dramatic."
Heightening the drama in this production is its portrayal of this ancient community. "It's got darker, kind of tribal aspects," Johnson says. "It digs into the real time and grit of the story. At one point I'm going to be stoned to death. It's not your light and airy 'Pearl Fishers.'" S
"The Pearl Fishers" plays at Richmond CenterStage on Friday, Oct. 19, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 21, at 2 p.m. $20-$119. For information visit vaopera.org.