Opera Meets Film: How ‘The Pearl Fishers’ Love Duet in ‘Little Women (1994)’ Highlights Hollywood’s Questionable Embellishment Habits

By John Vandevert

Throughout its history, the $244.4 billion film industry, has relied heavily on historical embellishment for its “narrative spice,” these choices often creating ethical challenges.

For example, despite being crowned Best Picture at the 2013 Oscar Awards, the harrowing film “Argo,” a tale about the ersatz American film crew tasked with saving six captive Americans from Iran, is chock-full of historical inaccuracies. From over-hyperbolized airport escapes, “The group underwent no interrogation at the airport about their imaginary movie…there was no last-second chase on the runway of Mehrabad Airport,” to the completely absent, key detail of Canada’s international assistance, “30 years ago, Canada received complete credit for the rescue, because the U.S. was worried about possible repercussions if CIA involvement was publicized, this fallacious, quasi-docu dramatic eventually caused the CIA to issue a Tweet-series addressing its errors.

This kind of historical revisionism runs the epochal gamut from prehistoric 10th millennium BC [“10,000”] to 2nd c. Ancient Rome [“Gladiator”], all the way to 13th c. Scotland [“Braveheart”] and beyond, the well-documented history of 16th c. England [“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”] not even safe.

Thus, it’s safe to say that Hollywood has left no anthropological stone unturned in the pursuit of its next box office success story, as unperturbed by the “parochial” constraints of chronological truth, directors task themselves with making entertainment that excites first and “educates” second. However, what is being “taught” is up for you to decide.

However, lest you consider that Hollywood’s “use and abuse” of factuality is segregated to historical retelling alone, it is also heavily complicit in what I call “supra-narrative ornamentation,” meaning the inclusion of secondary content not originating within the employed primary “object.” Simply put, when a movie incorporates material and situational narratives utterly absent from the primary source’s composition, then what is produced is the stated phenomenon, another habit of the new film Industry, movies like “Noah (2014),” “The Shining (1980),” and “Clockwork Orange (1971)” being some of the most divergent.

Thus, understanding these industry-wide tendencies in service of effect, when I had discovered that the 1994 film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming of age novel “Little Women” had utilized the highly celebrated duet, “Léïla! Léïla! Dieu puissant, le voilà,” a dolorously restrained yet intensely romantic moment from Georges Bizet’s opera “Les Pêcheurs De Perles,” a polarizing difficulty arose.

“A T-Shirt Bought in a Museum”

This quandary takes the form of a two-faced dialectic. I was, on the one hand, quite sure the operatic repertoire would hermeneutically enhance whichever scene it ultimately belonged to as music accompaniment indeed holds the manipulative power to augment a watcher’s emotional state fully; however, I remained rather unconvinced that its particularized usage would stand historical scrutiny nor precise narrative placement when positioned within the cinematic medium. When operatic repertoire and its constituent aspects are used within films in whatever capacity it is presented as, this usage predisposes the repertoire chosen to interpretative corruption, better known as the “artistic license.” Commonly defined as the allowance afforded to a creator in reconstituting the factual with the imaginary as they see fit, distorting the truth factor in the process for a novel variant, this highly contested privilege centers in/around what Davis(2005) refers to as the ‘“willing suspension of disbelief,” loosening the constraints of the purely rational for a fictionalized, irrational alternative. This is none the more apparent than in the operatic art form, namely its 19th-century existence, where fantastic adventures and grandiose escapades of a palpably dramatic caliber flooded stages across the European cultural scene.

The riveting pursuits of doomed, love-stricken couples with their distressingly gallant attempts to escape their unconsciously preordained plight filled the hearts and minds of captivated audiences, transporting them to far-distance lands and illusionary abodes dissimilar but intrinsically the same to their own. To The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette, opera is a signifier”’ and conduit for the personification of intricate emotional complexes “beyond the compass of mere mortals.”

However, the problem arises when the usage of operatic repertoire becomes more performative, an aesthetic bobble in the director’s toolkit, if you will, that is there simply as an extension of the cinematic universe rather than having any actualized dimensionality of its own. As Midgette posits, “the problem of reducing an art form to mere subtext while trying to keep things true-to-life,” implying the bastardization of opera for its visual aestheticism and corroboratory resemblance to the “more important” narrative at hand, at least in the eyes of the director, that meaning the cinematic plot. She concludes by stating, “Art becomes a Hitchcockian McGuffin, used for its symbolic value but presented in snippets that reduce it to the equivalent of a T-shirt bought in a museum store.”

And frankly, that is precisely the orientation director Gillian Armstrong prescribed to, reducing the distraught vulnerability of Nadir and Leila that most disconcerting night as they trepidly held each other, Leila fighting the urge to send Nadir away for fear of reproach and Nadir desperately beseeching his love to stay, to the status of a simple backing track for Jo and Professor Bhaer’s touching embrace.



Why This Outrages Me

Why am I so against this type of outrageous desecration of the operatic genre? Because as one YouTube commentator pointed out, both the scene itself and the repertoire choice briefly depicted are entirely inaccurate on multiple fronts, the former an imaginative concoction of Armstrong’s mind and certainly not Lousia’s. Simultaneously, the latter is both ethnographically inappropriate and historically inaccurate by way of over 20 years the actual date’s junior. The precedent set here is not a positive one for the inclusion of opera in film, as it suggests that historical accuracy is only required for the main constituents of a cinematic universe and is not required in deciding musical choices, as if in the new decade the operatic genre and its manifold creations have now formed a free-for-all grabbag for any interested party to simply pick and choose whichever composition they prefer without the consideration of time or place factoring into the decision.

The scene in question is situated in the last half of the film, the March sisters Josephine, Margaret, Amy, and Elizabeth having now significantly matured both in age and comportment from their younger selves. However, for the novel’s central figure, that being the hopeful author and quixotic dreamer Jo, a near-perfect mimetic of her creator whose natural intrepidity gestated a furious vigor neither impaired by hardship nor weakened by luxury, Her imagination freed her to escape the confines of ordinary life, the fruits of “growing-up” did not fulfill the wistful expectations she had come to expect immediately.

Meg had subsequently married and started her life, Beth’s health was quickly deteriorating with little sign of recovery, and Amy, whose perspicaciousness fully matched Jo’s, had been given the tremendous opportunity to travel to Europe with their Aunt to continue her art studies, a transformative venture desired by Jo for herself. To make matters worse, Jo’s childhood friend and neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Laurence had proposed to her in hopes of marriage, but he was declined because of their relationship, in Jo’s mind, taking the form of a filial companionship and not of an amative nature to which “Laurie” had previously conceived. It was on this vexatious foundation that Jo made the prudent decision to entirely uproot her now stagnating competencies, apparently underappreciated in Concordian social circles, and move to New York to pursue the literary arts, namely her idealized dream of becoming a Writer.

To add some historical dimension and chronological positioning, because the novel itself takes place in and around the events of the American Civil War [1861-1865], according to Louisa, Jo being the age of 15 during the middle of the conflict [approximately 1863], one can estimate that if Jo were 19 upon her departure for New York, this would position the date within the temporal continuum around the year of 1867. Incredibly, this was the same year Johann Strauss II’s voluptuous waltz “An der schönen blauen Donau” received its first public performance in Vienna, the first all-Greek opera, “O ypopsifios [The Parliamentary Candidate],” was premiered and works such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s gnashing symphonic-poem “Sadko,” Mussorgsky’s bewitching orchestral set “Night on Bald Mountain,” and Tchaikovsky’s first published work [Op. 1] all began or completed their construction. Thus, this year in music history marked incredible achievements throughout the Western and Eastern European worlds.

One would think that if a director were to use operatic literature sourced from the 19th century, they would have put forth due diligence to make sure the selection chosen matched the historical epoch to which it was going to be situated. Alas, this was not the case, although this negligent laxity towards choosing historically-informed music repertoire should surprise no one given that this routine habitualism of what I call “epoch splicing” is already standard practice. Take, for example, the most current cinematic rendition of “Little Women (2019),” where costuming overlooked the quintessential element of Parisian-influenced, Victorian-Age garb, namely the bonnet, opting for form-fitting attire more in-touch with 20th c. sensuality than 19th c. modesty. So, unlike Nina Holguin, who states, directors should not be confined to realism,” I argue the antithesis, that yes they should and confined they should feel.

This is none the more apparent than within this artificial scene, where Professor Friederich Bhaer, a senior Professor who catches Jo’s eye with his sophisticated intelligence and who later marries her, succeeds in courting her by bringing her to an opera performance of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers,” ultimately kissing her in the rafters of the opera house while Nadir and Leïla blissfully sing their tentative affections in the background. However touching, every aspect in this scene is fictitious. That matters.

As previously alluded to, Armstrong chose to subjectively “enhance” the plot of “Little Women” by including this operatic excursion to accentuate how Professor Bhaer was expanding Jo’s intellectual universe through exploratory investigations into the nature of her relationship with the world. Instead of blithely following the caprices of emotionality like a child in its infant stages of life, the Professor instead offered Joe a guiding hand into the deferential enlightenment attained through employing one’s faculties to higher realms of scholastic cogitation.

“God was not a blind force, and immortality was not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact. She felt as if she had solid ground under her feet again, and when Mr. Bhaer paused, out talked but not one whit convinced, Jo wanted to clap her hands and thank him.”

It is stated in the novel that the Professor, despite his rather unassuming status in America as a “poor language-master,” was a highly-praised Academic Professor back home in Berlin. However, all backstory stops there, and further detail is left to the imagining reader. What is known is that he’s a phenomenally self-effacing erudite whose “bohemian untidiness” and “absentminded-professorness” only further highlight his philanthropic devotions to those around him, including most importantly Jo to whom his sagacious “mentoring” is dotingly bestowed.

His unadulterated sincerity to crafting a future with Jo quite literally transforms the planned schematics of her life-plan, having committed herself to be a literary spinster faithful to her craft and no one else, this laconic quotation exemplifying his naked piousness, “Thou gifest me such hope and courage, and I haf nothing to gif back but a full heart and these empty hands.”

With even a basic understanding of the didactic prudence to which the Professor holds himself, both in and out of Jo’s presence, it is questionable to put such a cultivated persona such as Bhaer in such an incompatible scenario such as sitting in the rafters of an opera house. Even if the goal were to “extend” the truth and narratively show how Jo’s whimsicality is converting the “Hegelianphilosopher into a more skeptical, Cartesian alternative, it simply doesn’t work to have him sitting in the rafters would be the avenue for such an attempt. There is artistic license, yes, but the question left is how far should that creative ingenuity be allowed to travel beyond the rationalized format of the source material and the sensible choices that it facilitates when contributing to a pre-made narrative with supra-narrative content?

Specifically, regarding the classical music forms, it is traditional one studies the classical techniques of vocal performance before migrating to musical theatre and other vocalic disciplines. Likewise, in piano, the technique is shaped through classical study before jazz is attempted, this process extending to all forms of organized music-making regardless of the instrument. Ergo, when making decisions on film adaptations of literature, what often occurs is the exact opposite, where the literature is a map which is referenced only insofar as to give non-literary ideas a blueprint to ascribe to vaguely, and only once this process is complete is the source material revisited to make sure ideas and conceptions have not strayed too far from the books “ideas,” by this time that concern already well past its fixable period.



But Why This Opera?

As improper as the opera choice inevitably is, it’s essential to consider why this opera, and in particular this scene, was used and to what degree it emotionally integrates itself within the unfolding relationship between Jo and the Professor, as music within a film is often used to bolster and strengthen scenic affections unspoken but incredibly present.

As one collegiate student of cinematic and television arts had cogently said, “It’s another way the director or storyteller is subconsciously giving you information that you weren’t aware of.” Music is required to give the subtext, the clandestine narrative that is not said but felt, a palpable body for the audience to feel, whether or not they are aware of its presence.

(We’re going to jump directly to the scene in question from the opera, but you can check out the plot summary for the work here.)  

In Act two, from which the duet is sourced, Leïla, the main object of affection for Nadir and Zurga, is shown to be a strong but sensitive spirit, being afraid of being left alone in the temple lest she be attacked. The lead Priest, Nourabad, squashes these fears and departs, leaving her to reminisce on her past furtive rendezvous with Nadir when she was younger, the very same outings which caused the initial rift in Nadir and Zurga’s relationship, I might add! Suddenly like clock-work, Nadir appears, and despite Leïla’s hesitancy and calls for him to leave, they melt into each other’s arms in nervous ecstasy, their future together so unsure and on the verge of collapse at the hands of death itself [This is where the duet happens!].

In the film scene, the Professor and Jo are pictured in a similar state of nervousness, as they sit in the backstage rafters high above the stage in the opera hall with the hum-drum of stage-hands floating around, neither party knowing what move to engage in or how to act with each other, the willing chaoticity of Nadir and Leïla’s future walking hand in hand with theirs. As Nadir furiously pleads to stay and Leïla fearfully urges him to leave, the tension rising sonorous note by sonorous note, Jo is becoming ever more captivated by the growing emotionality of both the scene and her understanding that she is in love. At the same time, the Professor offers his amorous translations to her like sweet nothings, akin to the whispering pleasantries of a lover in the ear of his beloved on a blissfully unsullied golden afternoon.

One gains the immediate understanding that this worldly experience is all-new for Jo, a girl who has had big dreams and the perseverance to match since very young. This is a young woman who has grown up phenomenally quickly, felt the doctrines of life through the experiences of phenomenal joy and debilitating suffering, and subsequently has become, in the end, self-reliant to the point of moving to a distant city to work on her career. And yet, despite all of this natural education, she has not matured into “adulthood” in any traditional sense and certainly has not yet learned what “love” meant.

So when their eyes and hearts locked the first time, the innocence of both the Professor and Jo is intrinsically sympathized with and palpably felt, this pedantic pedagog with little material possessions to his name offering his mind and body in such a naked fashion to this young woman, an ardent pupil of life. She has learned so much and yet concomitantly so little. In their initial attempt to kiss, Jo’s face first relays the composite realization of the fear of knowing this unknown wisdom called “love” but intuitively recognizing that her time spent with this “poor…happy-hearted…plain and peculiar…beautiful” philosopher had matured her far more than anything possible on her while still allowing her to hold onto her naivety without remorse. The Professor’s first visage is one of an aged soul who has borne witness to genuine hardship and exhausting turmoil, has learned the complexities of the human condition and its attempt to know the unknowable, survived through love’s perils, and has lived to see the sunrise once again.

When he softly gazes at her, what he saw was not a naive girl who has failed to grasp the significance of her choices, but a young woman ready to define herself outside the confines of simple ‘innocence’ or adolescent impatience. At that moment, as she was becoming matured under the tutelage of Cupid’s divine intervention, the Professor was finally able to let go of his vegetative vitality; they both at that moment learned how to live. But, for comical relief, as too much of a good thing is indeed too much, the banging of the stage-hands interrupt them, causing them both to sheepishly laugh, undoubtedly at that moment the question “‘was this the right move” being answered with a synergic yes. As Nadir offers his sublime final line, “Léïla! Léïla!” with a caressing air only real love can induce, met in harmonious tones with Leïla’s indecisive entreaty, “Ah! for pity’s sake, go away,” Alcott’s two lovers, such divergent individuals, infusing each other’s lives so fully, unify as one.

Three Mistakes

Having espoused the positives of utilizing the duet to highlight the manifested emotionality between Jo and the Professor within this scene, it is only appropriate to subsequently follow up with where this scene went drastically wrong despite, pun intended, ostensibly hitting all the right notes.

There are three significant problems with Armstrong’s imaginative scene which, despite one YouTube commentators protestations at such nitpicking, “This scene isn’t in the book, but it’s enchanting just the same,” I deem essential enough that to overlook them for the sake of illusionary storytelling is not only disingenuous to the art form of film to screen cinematography but a violation of ethical values when dealing with primary sources. To flagrantly discard historical accuracy in one aspect when it has been attentively respected in another is a conundrum that doesn’t make much sense and is a problem which, if violated with no reprobation, will inevitably only get worse and worse, although it already has regardless of this article.

The first of the three problems has been previously alluded to, namely that the music chosen is epocally inaccurate and does not correlate to the time period whatsoever; anyone can surmise this conclusion with a rudimentary internet search and about five minutes allocated towards such research. What do I mean exactly, though, that using a duet from Bizet’s “Pearl Fisher” is clearly “epocally inaccurate” to the time period suggested by Alcott’s novel? Let me remind you that the book takes place in the heart of the American Civil War, a furiously bloody time in early American history whose dates, do keep track of these numbers, are squarely within the middle portion of the 19th century [1861-1865]. Having said that, Bizet’s opera “Pearl Fishers,” a commissioned project prompted by the high regards held for the composer by Parisian Impresario and stage-director Léon Carvalho, had not even begun being worked on until the summer of 1893 after the contract had been signed earlier that year for a premiere in September at The Théâtre Lyrique. Further, it was not formally “revived” after its initial premiere until 1886, 11 years after the composer’s death, and even then, only receiving its first North-American premiere in Philadelphia in1893 and a partial MET debut in 1896.

The second error, like already aired, is this scene is entirely fictionalized and not at all based on primary-source truth, although the “relationship” aspect one could argue is “truth” enough. This poses an ethical dilemma about how strong does a director’s relationship with primary-source material needs to be in order for a film adaptation to be considered an accurate depiction of its literary counterpart. I will iterate my position a final time; if you are making any adaptation, whether that be film or not, you must anchor yourself squarely within the confines of the primary source and only migrate when it is necessary for the audience’s comprehension of the particular epoch in which you are operating within. Blithely adding scenes left, right, and center because of “artistic license” is an excuse what I consider to be “narrative hijacking,” where instead of telling X’s story, you are instead telling your own, and that is wrong no matter who the perpetrator may be.

The third and final qualm the scene possesses is a heavily influential German Professor would never sit in the rafters of an opera theatre and so guilelessly kiss, let alone go to a French opera when he most certainly had some inclinations of Nationalism coursing through his vein despite being an emigre. It simply doesn’t make sense for his character. Any extrapolation that such actions would have been partaken by Bhaer shows an apparent misunderstanding of Alcott’s depiction of the Professor.

The usage of opera in a film is a complicated and convoluted process of striking the right balance of purposeful inclusion, secondary emphasis, and emotional integrality, not to mention the glaring issues of how will it be positioned within the scene and how much attention should be placed on the music itself as opposed to the general narrative. However, when that right mixture of sonorous storytelling and live-action storytelling is reached, the benefits far outweigh the hardships endured in the process.

Despite all the drawbacks incurred by Armstrong’s repertoire choice and dramatic decisions, the usage of Nadir’s and Leïla’s silver-toned dedication to each other through seemingly contradictory language, one beckoning to come nearer in rapturous ecstasy while the other entreats the other to flee before a disaster occurs, pairs swimmingly alongside the emotional vacillations showcased by Jo, Leila her fallible operatic equivalent, and the growing passions despite the circumstances of the Professor, Nadir his direct parallel. The vigor of these two couple’s mutual devotion to each other far surpasses any worldly polemic that God could send their way, neither the fear of immolation nor the worry of public ridicule could dislodge these ardent couples who had become, because of the perilous circumstances, a single, paradisiacal heart and mind armed with the most substantial protection possible, eternal devotion. I would be foolish not to give in, like that commenter had said, to the absolute beauty this scene inevitably produces due to the divine pairing of Parisian-infused, orchestral romanticism and on-screen tangible sensuousness.

Therefore I say; let lovers love unencumbered by thee and may heartfelt bliss swiftly find a home with those who disagree.


EditorialsOpera Meets Film