Fishing for pearls with Desiree Frahn

Playing Leïla in this year’s State Opera of South Australia production of The Pearl Fishers, soprano Desiree Frahn tells The Adelaide Review about inhabiting a character who becomes the unwitting focus of jealousy, temptation and regret.

Against the backdrop of a cut-throat pearl industry in colonial Ceylon, Georges Bizet’s 1863 opera The Pearl Fishers places the mysterious young priestess Leïla in a love triangle that stirs up history and rivalry between two local pearl fishers.

“Leïla, while a priestess, is also a young woman in love caught in a deadly struggle between two men, that she knows nothing about,” Frahn says. “She is always trying to do what is right, even if that may mean her death… The love triangle sets up the simmering tension that bubbles through the opera before exploding.

“[Director Michael Gow’s] decision to make the three male principles colonial men with power in a native society really kicks things up a notch and adds a whole new level of danger.”

A graduate of the Elder Conservatorium and a participant in the 2014–16 State Opera SA James and Diana Ramsey Foundation Opera Program, Frahn’s previous roles have included Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, Rose Pickles in the world premiere of Cloudstreet, Pamina in The Magic Flute and Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus.

“Behind every role there is months of work on language, technique, memorisation, and interpretive exploration before you even make it into the rehearsal room,” Frahn says. “Once you are there, each character finds its own unique physicality — they move differently. And then in the theatre you add costume, wigs, makeup and lights, and before you know it, there she is!

“The challenge for me personally is always the same no matter which role I’m singing: I have to remember not to get too emotionally involved so I can stay present and do justice to the music.”

Like so many artists, Bizet found posthumous fame with later audiences, and Frahn says there are plenty of themes in this work that will resonate with theatregoers in 2018.

The Pearl Fishers is a somewhat unique story in which the main catalyst is not something that occurs during the opera. It is instead a moment years in the past which is still impacting the lives of these three young people,” Frahn says.

“The opera explores the different ways one can proceed after a life-changing event, and I think modern audiences will definitely be able to relate to the characters’ individual journeys.”

Frahn says working with other artists — whether on the stage, in the pit or behind the scenes — to reach audiences through music is one of the thrills of performing.

“I love the physical challenge of singing opera, but the reason I get on that stage is the absolute joy of coming together with like-minded artists… to tell a story, to communicate with the audience and take them on an incredible emotional journey,” says Frahn.

“Bizet has written some of the most glorious melodies – and not just the famous one you might be expecting.”

The Pearl Fishers
Festival Theatre
Saturday, May 12 until Saturday, May 19
saopera.sa.gov.au

Photography: Bernard Hull

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