Voltaire’s comedic work Candide has been a long-time favorite for opera and musical theater fans alike. Composed by Leonard Bernstein, whose centenary was marked in August, the music straddles the line between the two genres. Like his other works including West Side Story and On the Town, the music is bright and upbeat, though in a style that explores the limits of the human voice with higher notes, more expansive ranges and a significant amount of vocal gymnastics.
But beneath its shiny surface is a satire that challenges the concept of optimism and tests the limits of “looking on the bright side.”
“The notion that everything was for the best, no matter what evils and tragedies befell a community, was preposterous to Voltaire,” said Candide Director Keturah Stickann. “So he employed a wide-eyed Everyman - Candide - to go from tragedy to tragedy until he came to the same conclusion.”
The plot follows the life of the young man and a cast of characters that includes his love interest Cunégonde, his foe Maximilian, the maid Paquette and their professor Doctor Pangloss, who teaches them that this world is the best of all possible worlds as it is the only world we have.
But within the course of two hours, the characters face, in no short order: War, murder, rape, theft, illness and natural disaster. It also features the constant resurrection of its cast, who never stay dead despite repeated attempts to kill them.
“There are a great number of comic elements in it, but, in the end, it is full of heart and humanity,” said Michigan Opera Theatre Principal Conductor Stephen Lord. “We - performers and audience alike - learn a tremendous amount about the human condition with some laughs and tears along the way.”
The work premiered in 1956 with Bernstein seeing parallels in the story between 20th-century problems and those of Voltaire’s time 200 years prior.
“Voltaire's satire is international,” he wrote in a 1956 article in the New York Times. “It throws light on all the dark places…Puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitorial attacks on the individual, brave-new-world optimism, essential superiority -- aren't these all charges leveled against American society by our best thinkers? And they are also the charges made by Voltaire against his own society.”
Despite the heaviness of the material, the tone of Candide is anything but. With musical gems like “You Were Dead You Know,” “Make Our Garden Grow” and “Glitter and Be Gay,” the songs continuously poke fun at the dire circumstances of the story, challenging the characters to keep their chins up as the world falls apart around them.
“Candide travels the world, experiences so much pain, fear and loss, and in the midst of it all, is continually reunited with his love,” Stickann said. “In the end, he rejects both optimism and pessimism for a more measured view of the world and his (our) place in it. This is the central theme of the piece: finding that balance means starting at home.”