Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: Penny Woolcock

Penny Woolcock

Penny Woolcock

After her successful staging of Adams’ Doctor Atomic, acclaimed British director Penny Woolcock returns to the Coliseum to direct a new production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. We caught up with her just before opening night to see what had inspired her staging.

Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers is sometimes associated with kitsch, glitter, fake tans and extravagance. Independent film maker Penny Woolcock is interested in social issues, and directed John Adams’s Dr Atomic, where a scientist faces the dilemma of having made nuclear war possible. So what will she make of The Pearl Fishers?

“When John Berry suggested it to me,” she says “I was surprised, but then I listened carefully. It’s a very dark story, with wonderful choruses and interludes, even though ‘Au fond du temple saint’ gets more attention.”

“At its heart is the love triangle. Such things cause pain and destruction. Then, there’s the struggle between the villagers and the ocean. These people are very poor. They live in flimsy dwellings and are at the mercy of storms. And the burning of the village. If you think of the villagers as real people, with children, it’s dreadful! So we’re taking the story seriously, bringing out the dark undercurrents”.

In Bizet’s time, anything exotic worked as fantasy. People didn’t know much about foreign climes. “The setting’s supposed to be ‘savage’, natives playing strange instruments, cacti growing with palm trees. But now we know what these fishing villages are really like. Our set, designed by Dick Bird, shows houses built on stilts, precariously standing over the water”.

Woolcock thinks of the roles not as stereotypes, but as personalities, ordinary people in extraordinary situations. “Hanan Alattar, who sings Leila, and I thought at an early stage, ‘Leila’s a piece of work, a liar’. But we visited a Hindu temple, where some priests were chosen from childhood. So Leila might have been a poor girl, trained to be a priestess. She has power, but she’s not free. She has a duty to the villagers, who need to believe in her, because their lives are so difficult. But inside, she’s a normal woman who falls in love”

“Nadir is relatively straightforward, but Alfie Boe is singing, and he’s wonderful. It’s great to be working with a young cast, because they’re so enthusiastic”.

“Zurga on the other hand is totally tormented. He cares about Leila, but it’s Nadir whose love is true, for he immediately recognizes her. Zurga owes her because she once saved him, but perhaps his real feelings are for Nadir. Quinn Kelsey, who’s singing the first 7 performances, has to show the guilt and confusion. After all, Zurga’s the king, yet he torches the village, killing all those people just so Nadir and Leila can get away”.

“There’s contemporary relevance, too. In places like Bangladesh, villages get swept away several times a year, sinking because of rising sea levels. Excess consumption in the West contributes to climate change, which affects people far away. And pearls are bought by the rich, but the profits don’t go to the struggling fishermen”.

Woolcock is a director who works closely with her team, making her take on Bizet’s opera very interesting indeed. Make sure you get to the ENO for this staging ofThe Pearl Fishers, as it promises to be more substance than fluff.

Penny Woolcock’s new staging of The Pearl Fishers, conducted by Rory Macdonald and starring Alfie Boe, Hanan Alattar and Quinn Kelsey opens on 1 June 2010 at ENO.


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