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Pearl Rising

Up-and-coming opera star Lee Poulis on his role in the Fort Worth Opera's The Pearl Fishers.



published Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lee Poulis

Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Opera is a lot like an operatic fortuneteller who can actually show you the future. The singers they bring are the ones that will be the major stars in the coming decades. They are not just the best of the current crop of young singers. Anyone can pick who is on that list. No, the FWO brings the up and coming singers with that something “extra” that marks them for great things. All four operas in this summer festival feature such singers and baritone Lee Poulis, who will sing the role of Zurga in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers is one of them.

In the few years that he has been singing professionally his busy schedule has taken him across the globe. In Europe, he has appeared with the Staatsoper Unter den Linden of Berlin, Teatro Real of Madrid, the Opera of Bilbao, and the Teatro Municipal of Santiago. In the U.S. his list is just as impressive, culminating with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. This weekend marks his Fort Worth opera (and Texas) debut.

Although it deserves to be, this opera is not as well known as Bizet’s Carmen, but then no opera is as well known as that masterpiece. It contains some of the composer’s most beautiful music. There is a duet for the tenor and baritone that is constantly excerpted, and many know that music, but have never seen the opera. It is not frequently performed. However, that appears to be changing and it is starting to appear on seasons around the world. There was a boffo production in Santa Fe Santa Fe last summer. My review is here. Also, the Sarasota Ppera did a fine production two years ago and Poulis was in it. He scored a hit in the leading role of Zurga and is eager to repeat the role here.

“Sarasota’s production was a more standard take on the opera,” Poulis says. “[The FWO] production is more representational in creating the sense of time and place. When you see the set, you feel the vastness of the horizon.”

The setting he is talking about is ancient Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. It is an island country off the southern coast of India so the vistas Poulis mentions are of the sea. In fact, the first act opens on the island’s shoreline. The nighttime starry sky in this production is breathtaking.

The story concerns two friends, Nadir and Zurga, who fell in love with the same woman, a priestess that they had barely glimpsed. They worked it out by agreeing not to see her again and Nadir takes off for places unknown. Things take a turn for the worse when Nadir reruns and, quite unexpectedly, the disputed priestess reappears. Zurga sees that she clearly loves Nadir and does some foolish things in a jealous rage. He repents in the end and tries to make amends—at least in the version FWO is producing. (There are some other versions where the ending is changed and Zurga’s fate is different.)

“Zurga is a great role,” Poulis says. “He has the most dramatic singing in the opera. He goes from thrilled to betrayed and from jealousy and revenge to regret. The theme from the big baritone tenor duet keeps reappearing to remind the audience what is really going on. In this, it is like Wagner’s use of leitmotifs.”

That duet comes early in the opera when the two friends are reunited. They recall the jealousy that drove them apart and swear to not let anything come between their friendship again. Of course, something does. So, the repeat of the tune Poulis mentions is a reminder of that vow and how difficult it is for the two men to keep.

Vocally, the role of Zurga is French opera, but the long shadow of Wagner was impossible for the 25-year-old Bizet to ignore. Thus, the role is very different from other roles in Poulis’ repertoire, such as Valentin in Gounod’s Faust. Most French opera is lighter than Zurga, whose music borders on the spinto or dramatic side.

“The role of Zurga has a lot of singing and two of the highest notes I have ever sung on stage,” he says. “Usually, a high G is the top in baritone roles. Bizet writes an optional A flat and an A natural. I am singing them because they fit in my voice and they are not in highly dramatic moments, where you would be tempted to oversing. I love this role.”

The opera is in French, a language Poulis doesn’t speak fluently, but he has a complete understanding of every word he sings. In some ways, it is like learning the language from a total immersion program. The more French opera he sings, the more fluent he becomes.

Singers have to study French, Italian and German to get a degree from any college or university. This requirement slipped by because Poulis was a political science and government major at Harvard.

“I sang roles in the operas while I was there, but my major was in politics,” he says. “I was thinking about a career in law or governmental service. But I kept getting cast in operas and soon found myself to be a professional opera singer.”

That is somewhat of a simplification. He attended the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, a famous incubator for future operatic talent.

After this, he is off to sing the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer in Dr. Atomic, an opera by John Adams, in Seville. That is quite a change in time frame, location and character, to go from ancient Ceylon and romantic jealousy to 1945 and mass destruction.

“I find it easy to adjust to different roles,” he says. “After all, there is time between opera productions to study the next score. Also, we usually have a three-week rehearsal period when you can submerge yourself in the role. By opening night, it feels like it is the only role in the world.”

» Here's a preview video for The Pearl Fishers:

 

» The Pearl Fishers runs in rotating repertory with the other productions in the 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival: Daniel Crozier and Peter M. Krask's With Blood, With Ink, Mozart's Così fan tutte and the regional premiere of Silent Night by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell. Frontiers, the showcase of snippets from new works, returns for a second year. Here's the complete schedule for the Fort Worth Opera Festival:

Friday, April 25           7:30 p.m.        McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, April 26       2:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, April 26       7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Così fan tutte
Sunday, April 27         2:00 p.m.         Bass Hall                     The Pearl Fishers
Sunday, April 27         7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Tuesday, April 29        7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Friday, May 2              7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                     The Pearl Fishers
Saturday, May 3         2:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 3         7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Così fan tutte
Sunday, May 4           2:00 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Silent Night
Sunday, May 4           7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Tuesday, May 6          7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Wednesday, May 7     7:30 p.m          McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Thursday, May 8         6:00 p.m          McDavid Studio          Frontiers Showcase #1
Friday, May 9              6:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          Frontiers Showcase #2
Friday, May 9             7:30 p.m.        McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10       2:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10       7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                    Silent Night
Sunday, May 11         2:00 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Così fan tutte

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Pearl Rising
Up-and-coming opera star Lee Poulis on his role in the Fort Worth Opera's The Pearl Fishers.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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