UPDATE 1/25: This article references baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, who has withdrawn from the production due to unforeseen personal circumstances. Alexander Birch Elliott will instead sing the role of Zurga in his HGO debut.
When Zandra Rhodes, the pink-haired designer who defined ‘70s new wave fashion, was asked by the San Diego Opera to design the costumes for a production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, it coincided with that time she was asked to judge the Miss India pageant. That’s whole other story, of course, but on her jaunt to India, she made a side trip to Sri Lanka, sketching women in brightly-hued saris.
That inspiration would turn out to serve her well, providing a foundation for the iteration of the opera opening this week at Houston Grand Opera, where her sets and costumes live on. HGO’s Pearl Fishers builds on San Diego’s, even as Rhodes gives it a whole new look.
“I do enjoy color,” she tells us, talking about the way she came to create her sets, “and since this takes place in Sri Lanka, I looked to the sea and the land for inspiration—and then, of course, I try to Zandrafy it.”
The sweep of opera, she feels, allows her to let her creativity fly.
“Why can’t the palm trees be shocking pink and turquoise?” she asks rhetorically. “I think that colors make people happy, and this isn’t a tragedy, so the sky is the limit.”
This Bizet opera is less well-known than the composer’s tour de force, Carmen, but it nonetheless provides big emotions and stunning beauty. It’s the story of Zurga, leader of the fishing village and his friend Nadir, and the love triangle that ensues when the priestess Leïla shows up to bless the pearl harvest. One of the opera’s most famous moments is the duet between Zurga and Nadir, “Au fond de temple saint,” in which the best friends—who were once at odds over a woman—sing of their loyalty to each other and vow never to let their friendship be threatened again.
For HGO, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien sings Zurga and tenor Lawrence Brownlee sings Nadir.
“We’re old friends and colleagues,” Brownlee says. “It’s nice to sing that duet with someone that you have a good experience with, that you trust. I know that he is going to deliver a dramatic and intention-filled that is going to help me and I also want to be that for him. We feed off each other.”
Brownlee and Kwiecien have both been on HGO’s stage numerous times, and their pairing should be a treat for operagoers. For his part, Brownlee is excited to be back in Houston performing with the company. A professional singer now for nearly two decades, his first performance with HGO was at a crucial point in his career as he segued out of being a professional at the beginning of his career to one cementing his place in opera. He’s sung at some on the world’s most well-known opera stages, at La Scala in Milan and at the Met. But he’s grateful for the belief HGO showed in him.
“Houston Grand Opera was very supportive of me, and they were people who gave me several opportunities,” he says. “They’re a company that believes in promoting young, American talent. To come back, to be among people who care about you, who cared about you before, and they continue to want to put us on the stage and bring the best talent in the world to this opera company…there’s a good feeling here.”
Brownlee hopes the audience feels engaged and involved with the story of The Pearl Fishers. And while he’s looking forward to performing and giving people what they want with that famous duet—and he said they should look out for the duet between the baritone and soprano as well—he noted that both HGO’s orchestra and chorus are doing a terrific job.
“The orchestra and chorus have a big part, so be involved in that,” he advised. “It’s a big chorus show, and I think a lot of people probably haven’t seen this show.”
Rhodes seconded that audiences are in for something special, being able to see a piece so rarely done.
“I hope they have a lovely experience, a wonderful evening,” she says. “It’s their chance to experience a feast of color on stage and see a lovely story.”
Jan. 25–Feb. 8. Tickets from $25. Wortham Center, 510 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org.