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This exhibition exists in connection with Cape Town Opera’s presentation of George Bizet’s masterful French opera The Pearl Fishers at Artscape from 10 – 14 May 2023. The all-star cast is led by Operalia 2017 winner Levy Sekgapane in his debut as Nadir. 

Courtesy of the artist and Everard Read Gallery.

The highly anticipated season (which returns two years after pandemic restrictions cut short the first run) also features Cape Town Opera soloist and celebrated tenor Lukhanyo Moyake reprising his role as Nadir, and Fleur du Cap winners Conroy Scott and Brittany Smith as Zurga and Leïla respectively. 

The Pearl Fishers will once again be directed by Elisabeth Manduell with Matthew Wild’s original concept enhanced by exquisite imagery by celebrated artist Shakil Solanki, whose work has been a source of great inspiration for Manduell’s 2023 staging. Solanki’s series of vivid paintings, rendered in his signature blue palette, encapsulates the turmoil between the opera’s characters, inviting the audience to be immersed in a dreamlike world. 

Pearl fishers
In azure seas
Deep waters
Washing the isle of the dead

We lie there
Fanned by the billowing
Sails of forgotten ships

Deep love drifting on the tide forever.’  – Derek Jarman, Chroma (1993)

These words by Derek Jarman, taken from ‘Chroma’ – a melancholic meditation on the colour spectrum-inspired the original series of 10 paintings, produced for ‘The Pearl Fishers’ in 2021. In returning to this oeuvre, these verses, once more, were the driving force of this romantic quartet of gouache works.

Jarman’s words provided me the most poetic approach to the canvas of Georges Bizet’s opera. Through their lens, I fleshed out a queer subversion of the latter’s tragic love triangle, building upon the homoeroticism, and unrequited passions which I found intrinsic to his narrative. The queerness beneath Bizet’s script was waiting to be tapped, I felt – a classic backdrop to, what could be, a most contemporary interpretation of male intimacy, overarching friendship and sacrifice. Bizet’s rendering, as well as his haunting melodies, establish a landscape of desire, rage and tragedy, spread across the ever-changing tides of a sapphire ocean.

This series offers a more nuanced slant to The Pearl Fishers’ synopsis, with a primary focus on the intimate dynamic of the opera’s three focal characters, and the mortal love triangle which develops through its scenes. The building of this amatory, fantastic diorama meant the binding of queerness and mythology; each character becomes a sensual, regal deity, in their own right, trapped within bittersweet webs (or nets, perhaps) of yearning, affection and grief. The ocean too, becomes a critical identity in its own right – a blue-hued motif of queerness, a vital stage of romance and boundless desire, precisely as Jarman had contextualised it. It shifts with these characters, both graceful and benevolent, violent and tempestuous – mirroring the journeys of the three characters, evoking and embracing their conflicts and romances.

Through the melange of sorrow and fervour which grip the three characters, it seemed that a note of hope was necessary to close this quartet, however ambiguously, with the work, IV: A sumptuous palace opens itself to our gaze, Our rapid flight carries us off to the heavens.’ Here, the three central characters coexist in harmony – a sumptuous landscape of queer tenderness, beneath the depths of the ocean. Their ultimate fates remain unknown, yet their beauty remains consecrated within this liminal space, or enchanted reverie.

The exhibition will be on view from the 26th of April until the 13th of May, 2023. For more information, please visit Everard Read Gallery. To buy tickets for the Cape Town Opera, please click here.

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