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Pearl Fisher: Using George Bizet's opera in the sound track

Pearl Fisher: Using George Bizet's opera in the sound track

by Dillon Bustin

Barney Bass and Les Pêcheurs de Perles

Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, or The Pearl Fishers in English, had its premiere at the Lyric Theater in Paris in 1863, portraying pearl divers in India. The first reviews by professional critics were scathingly dismissive, although the music eventually became popular with audiences in Europe and North America, containing some of the most beloved arias in the operatic repertoire.

I decided to use selections as soundtrack music for five reasons. First, because the story is set in Ceylon, which the British considered to be in the Hindustani part of their empire. Second, because Bizet was a Frenchman and a Roman Catholic, and that region of Indiana along the Wabash River and its tributaries had been initially settled by French Catholics, part of a trading network that stretched from Quebec to Louisiana and from Indiana to Missouri. Thirdly, obviously, because the film is concerned with dredging the rivers for clamshells and the occasional pearl.

When Documentary Educational Resources put The Pearl Fisher into distribution in 1986 I was criticized by certain colleagues in the American Folklore Society for juxtaposing Barney Bass, the pearl fisher documented in the film, with a French opera from the Romantic period. They didn’t appreciate the wry irony in the choice. I explained that I was responding to Laura Nader’s influential essay published in 1972, “Up the Anthropologist,” which advocated “studying up” and including middle-class and upper-class subjects in ethnographic films, rather than focusing exclusively on working-class people as had previously been the norm.

It’s true that Barney Bass was unfamiliar with Bizet’s opera. He stated during a recorded interview that he had no particular musical interests or preferences, but he listened to a country-western radio station in his truck to hear the daily news. He couldn’t name any particular popular singers or hit songs. In the terms used by contemporary programmers on the internet, a la Spotify or Pandora, he would be considered a musical “indifferent” rather than a “savant.” Nevertheless, back in the 1980s it would have been customary for a documentary filmmaker to resort to some style of vernacular music to accompany a folklife film.

But my background preparation showed that Les Pêcheurs de Perles had been sponsored repeatedly in Vincennes, in French, since the late nineteenth century. The more prosperous and educated business people in Vincennes depicted in the film, including the pearl dealer and the jewelers, were all familiar with the opera, owned recordings of it, and had attended live performances at the local college. In this sense, using the criteria advocated by Laura Nader, it was appropriate as soundtrack. This was my fourth reason for drawing on music from the opera.

Pollution and Pearls as Symbols

The fifth reason for using Les Pêcheurs de Perles was the symbolism of pearls, used in popular culture to represent eternal beauty, purity, and innocence. For this reason pearls have long been linked in Christianity with the Virgin Mary and Saint Margaret. Barney Bass was certainly familiar with this symbolism, which is why he gave the most outstanding spherical pearls to his wife Marge rather than selling them. Barney Bass was also aware, in the religious sense, that pearls are associated with the New Testament gospel of heavenly salvation, as in the proverb preached by Jesus of Nazareth during the Sermon on the Mount, “Neither cast ye your pearls before swine,” i.e. “Don’t preach to people who won’t hear the good news.”

In the 1980s the greatest threat to the American occupation of pearl-fishing was the increasing pollution of the inland rivers, which was staining the shells and rendering them unsuitable for the main market, the pearl industry in Japan. The Japanese had developed a technique for cutting and tumbling cheap freshwater clamshells into beads, which they inserted into saltwater oysters to form the hidden substrate of pearls, making them appear to be fabulously valuable. This is what is meant by a ‘cultured’ pearl, an American clam bead covered by a thin coating of Japanese nacre.

In editing The Pearl Fisher I showed the urban degradation as well as the rural pristineness of the rivers. Bizet’s tenor aria heard in the background of a key montage, “A cette voix . . . je crois entendre encore,” usually translated into English as “I hear as in a dream,” features images of industrial factories and power plants on the river bank as well as statues of the Madonna, Catholic shrines and cemeteries. These images, filmed in Terre Haute and Vincennes, are intercut with scenes of Barney Bass in his boat on the Wabash River as well as on the White River at Hindostan Falls.

Personally, I was motivated to make the documentary because the first cash money I earned, from the age of 10 in 1961 onwards through my adolescence, was for helping to dredge for mollusks at my grandparents’ fishing shack near the town of Buddha on the White River. I was paid fifty cents per pickup-truck load, and the shells were taken to a button mill in nearby Bedford, the county seat of Lawrence County.

Even in the 1960s only the most expensive dress shirts sported genuine mother-of-pearl buttons rather than plastic buttons. The demand for the shells was fading and the price was falling, until revived years later by the new developing market in Japan. But as a teenager I was ignorant of these global trends, which I learned about in the early 1980s at the Indiana University Folklore Institute by reading Jens Lund’s doctoral dissertation on all forms of commercial fishing on Midwestern Rivers. I was pleased when he agreed to collaborate with me in filming The Pearl Fisher.

Although a few of our fellow folklorists were skeptical of The Pearl Fisher when it was released by DER, those who tried it in the classroom found that it was well-received by students. Among the prizes bestowed, it received the annual Award of Excellence from the Society for Visual Anthropology. The SVA jurors praised the subtle sense of humor, finding the sensibility refreshing in an ethnographic film, which was gratifying to me.

Looking back on it now, in 2020, I’m reminded that just as colonial imperialism was international, and infectious diseases are international, and place-names are international, so too is basic symbolism. In this case, for example, pearls are still widely recognized in many cultures as repositories of wealth but also as tokens of love, devotion, and perfection.