How to make Bizet's gem shine anew

The Pearl Fishers isn't the most PC of operas, says director Penny Woolcock, but that doesn't mean we should dismiss it

Received knowledge is that the opera The Pearl Fishers has one fabulous duet and that's the end of it. I disagree. It really does have a plethora of beautiful music and catchy tunes that spawn earworms.

An earworm, from the German ohrwurm, is a piece of music that burrows inside one's mind and repeats compulsively over and over. I have been woken up on many nights by noisy fragments of haunting melodies, although strangely the one tune that has never woken me up is the famous duet. Still, here's a warning: despite the tunes, this piece is not all sweetness and light. In fact, it leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth.

At its heart there is a painful love triangle, a tale of lust and rejection, loss and longing, religious strictures, forbidden sex and lonely nights. In my production, designed by Dick Bird, this dark story takes place against a backdrop of extreme poverty, flimsy shacks easily washed away at any second by the colossal power of the sea. The private desires of Leïla, Nadir and Zurga are played out in a ramshackle fishing village inhabited by destitute families pinning their hopes on the songs of a priestess to defend them as they try and scrape a living by diving for pearls on a breath.

The Pearl Fishers has struggled to be taken seriously under a tremendous soup of cultural signifiers: heavy black eyeliner is de rigeur for both men and women, buckets of glitter and tinsel, miles of silk and chiffon, fake tans and turbans. It's not surprising, since stage directions in the original libretto describe a beach where cacti and palm trees sprout under the ruins of an Indian temple, entwined with lianas bursting with exotic flowers. Although apparently this is Ceylon (renamed Sri Lanka in 1972), "Indians" drink and dance in a "savage" landscape while playing an assortment of "indous et chinois" musical instruments. Productions continue to be gloriously and uncritically camp, offering as many naked bodies as the budget can afford upon which to feast the eye.

"Orientalism" is the term used for the study and depiction of Eastern cultures by Western artists and scholars. Bizet (born 1838) finished The Pearl Fishers in 1863, the year after Ingres painted The Turkish Bath. The Pearl Fishers sits firmly in this Orientalist tradition, in an imaginary geography inhabited by ignorant people often engaged in transgressive sexual practices; Leïla the sexy virgin goddess, Salome's necrophilia, and the borderline paedophilia in Madama Butterfly can all be explored salaciously and without guilt because they are not like us.

You'd never know it's been 32 years since Edward Said's critique Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978), in which he argued that Orientalist scholarship takes place within an imperialist paradigm of conquest and colonialism designed to exoticise and diminish its subjects. The man is generally weak and dangerous, the woman is a passive or castrating sexpot, and their culture is despotic and backward.

The Pearl Fishers has an intractable text: the villagers are given a collective voice that lurches violently from simple pleasure to fear, from murderous rage to humble submission. Humanising them is a challenge, doomed perhaps, but worth pursuing since the opera ends with the burning of a village where small children are sleeping.

Since art does not exist in a vacuum, geographies can be reimagined to make the space between audience and singers more alive. Despite its genesis, the preoccupations of The Pearl Fishers are fiercely contemporary. Climate change and rising sea levels have made ten million people homeless in the Bangladesh Delta alone and they survive on a wing and a prayer. After all, the sea rises higher, we still fall in love with people we're not supposed to fall in love with, and irrational behaviour is not the exclusive province of others.

'The Pearl Fishers', London Coliseum, London WC2 (0871 911 0200; Eno.org) 1 June to 8 July

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