The Flower Duet Comes Home in Delibes' 'Lakmé'

WOO-1407-Lakme-250Even people who say they never listen to classical music most likely encounter it nearly every day. Tunes from the concert hall and the opera house often turn up in places where you might not expect them. In 1945, Frank Sinatra recorded the hit tune "Full Moon and Empty Arms."  Its soaring melody first appeared more than 40 years earlier, in Sergei Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto.

In 1953, Robert Wright and George Forrest had a Broadway hit with the musical Kismet. The show was adapted from the works of Russian composer Alexander Borodin, and one of its tunes tends to overshadow the others. The melody to the hit song "Strangers in Paradise" was originally a dance number in Borodin's historical opera Prince Igor. After Forrest added the words, any number of singers took it up.  Alfred Drake sang it in the original cast, and Tony Bennett helped to make it a pop standard.

Still, there may be no classical tune -- operatic or otherwise -- that turns up in more varied places than the other-worldly "hit single" from this week's featured opera, Lakmé by Leo Delibes.

In the drama's first act, with the story barely underway, the title character and one of her servants pause by a river to gather flowers. Delibes gave them a duet, to help establish the opera's exotic atmosphere, and that "Flower Duet" has become one of the most familiar numbers any composer, in any genre, has ever written.

You can hear it on television shows, as background music in elevators and shopping malls, in any number of "mood music" collections and even, unaccountably, in the sound tracks of a few horror movies, including The Hunger and Piranha 3D. It's also a natural for commercials. A while back, it became a sort of TV theme song for British Airways ads -- as the peaceful accompaniment to a jetliner floating through calm skies and wispy clouds.

The story of the Brahmin girl Lakmé was based on a novel by Frenchman Pierre Loti, who had traveled in the Orient and brought back a number of exotic stories. Librettist Edmond Gondinet gave Delibes a copy of Loti's book, to pass the time on a train ride.  The composer loved it, and took about a year to compose the opera, which premiered in Paris in the spring of 1883.

Lakmé brings together many popular themes of opera in the 1880s: an exotic location -- already in vogue thanks to Bizet's The Pearl Fishers -- plus mysterious religious rituals, the beautiful flora of the Orient and the general novelty of Western colonials living in a foreign land. Composers Jules Massenet and Giacomo Meyerbeer wrote operas with similar elements, and those dramas were also popular in Paris.

This week on World of Opera, we'll hear the famous "Flower Duet" straight from the source, when host Lisa Simeone presents a complete production of Lakmé from Switzerland's Lausanne Opera. Soprano Julia Bauer and mezzo-soprano Élodie Méchain sing the duet, with tenor Christoph Berry as Gerald, in a performance led by conductor Miguel Ortega.