Cultivating “Candide” at the University of Michigan
Some theaters revive Broadway hits. Others take chances on new plays that may or may not be successful. In 1973, an adventurous theater in New York did what no theater had ever done: the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn revived a 1957 Broadway flop.
Candide, for all its problems, featured music by Leonard Bernstein that rivals what he accomplished in West Side Story and his best concert works. After bringing in new people to revise the book and lyrics and finding a radical new way to stage the work, the Chelsea brought Candide back to Broadway; there, it drew huge audiences, earned rave reviews, and took five Tony Awards. Since then, Candide has been a staple of theater and opera companies -- it lives on the line between musical theater and operetta -- and has been revised by other companies along the way.
Now, on what would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday, the University Opera Theatre, in collaboration with Michigan’s departments of Theatre & Drama and Musical Theatre, will present the 1988 Scottish Opera version. Matthew Ozawa will stage Bernstein’s favorite and final revision; Kenneth Kiesler will conduct the University Symphony Orchestra. “The Scottish version has much more music,” Ozawa reports.
Adapted from the 1759 novella by Voltaire, Candide follows an optimistic and naïve young man who believes the tutor who insists that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” Candide travels the world, experiencing war, natural disasters, and other sufferings, all the while continuing to believe what he has been taught; in the end, he decides to cultivate his own garden, his way of creating a better future.
The current production is fully staged, but you can get a sense of the premise and the music from a video clip from an earlier concert of the Scottish version:
“It is a really wild journey, filled with raucous entertainment,” Ozawa says, “Each of the scenes uses satire and irony to criticize some abuse or folly. Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, known to be an advocate of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the separation of church and state, and a critic of religious hypocrisy. This enables us to investigate these topics in a sensitive manner and opens the conversation to all viewpoints.” (The play was Voltaire’s answer to the philosopher Leibniz. How often do you see a musical or an opera that grapples with deep philosophical issues?)
Although this is the perfect work to revive at a time when some Americans think we have the best of all possible presidents, Ozawa is highlighting another aspect of the operetta. “Candide and Cunegonde [who Candide loves madly] are forced to leave the house and venture into the real world and grapple with the unpredictable,” Ozawa says, explaining that students performing Candide will eventually leave the university nest and go out into the world. “The piece speaks to that and celebrates diversity, humanity and our collective ability to grow a garden. There may be an idealistic state in a more protective environment, but there is a way to cultivate the world we would like to see, with both the good and the bad that exist in it.”
To that end, Ozawa has set the show in a 1950s classroom. Costume designer Christianne Myers dressed the characters in 18th-century attire until they are booted out into a 1950’s world. Ozawa says he wanted to create a parallel to today’s world without pinpointing specific things that are happening now.
Kiesler notes that Bernstein was 38 when he wrote Candide. “We can see the depth and breadth of his musical knowledge. It’s challenging to write light music,” he says, noting that because of the libretto, Bernstein had to write in earlier and different styles: baroque dance for some scenes, a Parisian waltz for one, and Latin music for another, for instance.
Conducting his work is also a challenge. When the composer conducted his own work, he often made changes in it. “With Bernstein and other composers who conduct, there’s always a choice. Do you do what he did as a conductor or as a composer, when he was in the white heat of inspiration or when he revisited it or possibly didn’t study it after decades?” Kiesler is opting primarily to honor the score Bernstein wrote. “Every evening of theater is wonderfully and thankfully unique,” he adds, “and somewhat fluid depending on many factors, such as which singers are in that particular cast.”
The production brings together 43 undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty from opera, theater, musical theater, and dance. For Ozawa, that is a way of “uniting our artistic communities.”
And performing a work of art in these times is one of the best ways to begin to grow a rich garden.
Davi Napoleon’s book, Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater, describes the onstage triumphs and offstage turbulence at a theater whose compounded disasters rivaled Candide’s; it takes readers behind the scenes of what has come to be called the “Chelsea Candide.”
"Candide" runs from Thursday, November 8 to Sunday, November 11 at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. For tickets and further information visit events.umich.edu.