September 30, 2012

Pearl Fishers: Hey - could THIS be Leila's temple??

Shortly after Zurga and Nadir sing their famous and well-loved duet "Au fond du temple saint" in Act I of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, Zurga (who has just been named the new Chief of the tribe of fisherman in ancient Ceylon) prepares to welcome a new Hindu priestess whose boat is approaching the shore. Of course, at this point neither Zurga nor his long-lost friend Nadir know that this priestess is none other than the  beautiful Leila, the same woman who almost caused them to come to blows years before.

The Sigiriya
(Blog digression: all three characters are still young and on the make, so when did all this back-story take place - in junior high? Oh, never mind, I'm probably just being dense here. Back to the blog!)

Facade of the Sigiriya
Anyways, Zurga describes how the deal works: all he knows is that she was selected by tribal elders; she's devout, wise and beautiful, and her duties will consist of praying to Lord Brahma for the protection of the brave men who dive after those pearls. He goes on to say that she must remain veiled at all times; no one is permitted to approach her or see her unveiled.

Then he says something that caught my eye. Zurga explains that as the men dive, the priestess will stand "on a rock", praying and singing above them.

Wouldn't this make a perfect temple for prayer?
"On a rock"? Well, that makes sense. As chief bad-weather-keeping-away-person, Leila would want a bird's eye view of all these guys as they dive into the sea. It's a big ocean, people - so the higher the rock, the better she can keep tabs on the whole scene, right? Right.

Well, GUESS WHAT? I think I found it - no kidding!

On the island nation of Sri Lanka (the modern-day name for old Ceylon), there is a natural wonder called the Sigiriya. It's a massively huge rock-ish thingy formed eons and eons ago from volcanic magma; a "magma plug", I'm given to understand... whatever that is...

Ancient fresco of Nadir and Leila (maybe). Wow- she's HOT!!

Visiting the Sigiriya is quite the touristy thing to do in Sri Lanka and, as the photos on this page indicate, for good reason. As the centuries rolled on like Ol' Man River, various civilizations (some Hindu, some Buddhist) transformed the Sigiriya into a combination fort, city, art gallery, and anything else they could dream up. There are frescoes adorning the thing  It was the Royal Citadel of one King Kasyapa, who ruled Ceylon from 479-496 A.D. Artisans from centuries ago carved staircases into caves; the main entrance of the ruined castle of the Sigiriya  is flanked by giant carvings of a lion's paw. This so-called "Eighth Wonder of the World" (I thought that was the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, but never mind... never mind...) featured a complex network of gardens, reservoirs and who knows - probably the ancient equivalent of a food court. Quizno's has been around longer than you'd think...

My thinking? This would make a totally cool, very functional temple for a priestess like Leila! For one thing, it certainly serves as the rock mentioned by Zurga; for another, anyone atop the Sigiriya would feel they were whispering in the gods' ears, so to speak. Ancient people believed that the higher your altitude, the greater your proximity to Divinity, and thus the greater your own divinity.

Big rock... big, big rock...
Now, there will be annoyingly picky readers among you who will research the Sigiriya and note that it is situated in the interior of Sri Lanka, and therefore not ideally located for looking after fishermen on the coast. Wanna know what I say to that? Big deal - that's what I say. We're dealing with librettists here! Throughout opera history, librettists have played fast and loose with world history, religion, geography, and a thousand other aspects of reality (which, as we all know, bites). Why should this be any different? Call it poetic license; call it what you will. I LIKE my theory and I'm STICKING TO IT!!

It is now a well-documented fact (this is me documenting it right now) that Leila, Hindu priestess and heroine of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, scaled The Sigiriya for her temple of prayer on Ceylon. The matter is settled.

(NOTE: All images courtesy of Bernard Gagnon)

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020.

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