Mark Gresham | 27 FEB 2023
This Saturday evening, The Atlanta Opera opens its new production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at Cobb Energy Center, the first time the company has performed the operetta.
Based on the eponymous 1759 novella by Voltaire, Candide was first performed in 1956 with a libretto by Lillian Hellman, but while some of Bernstein’s music—the “Overture” and “Glitter and Be Gay” in particular—proved successful, the operetta was a flop.
It remained so until, and without Bernstein’s direct involvement, Candide underwent a revival as a one-act, 115-minute production directed by Harold Prince, with a new book by Hugh Wheeler, playing first in 1973 at the Chelsea Theater Center in the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then at the Broadway Theatre in Midtown Manhattan the following year, closing in 1976 after 740 performances. That version won a total of four Tony Awards in 1974, for Best Book of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Scenic Design, and Best Costume Design.
Despite that success, stuffier types criticized the Tony winner as “a mere romp” and not sufficiently “operatic.” The show was expanded to a two-act “opera house version” containing more of Bernstein’s music, that was performed by the New York City Opera in 1982. Then in 1988, Bernstein, John Mauceri, and John Wells produced another version of Candide for Scottish Opera. After attending the final rehearsals in Glasgow, Bernstein made more changes, creating a “final revised version” that he conducted in 1989 for Deutsche Grammophon. Since then, various revivals of different versions, some with even more tweaking, have taken place. To this day, Candide remains chameleonic, depending on the music included and the version of the book used by the company presenting it.
Enter stage director Alison Moritz, who was invited to birth the production by The Atlanta Opera, which runs for four performances (March 4, 7, 10 & 12). EarRelevant’s publisher and principal writer Mark Gresham recently talked with Moritz about her thoughts behind directing Candide. The Q&A below is drawn from that conversation and is edited for length and clarity.
Mark Gresham: You’re directing the Atlanta Opera’s upcoming production of Candide, and I’m curious about this specific production because I’ve seen multiple productions of Candide in my life, each with greatly varying levels of success. It seems there are so many options for music groupings and especially versions of the book that, as a member of the audience, you can’t just make any assumptions about the production you will ultimately see.
You’ve directed Candide previously, and I understand that was a very different production from the one you’re doing now with The Atlanta Opera. Could we talk about the process of directing this opera? What were the choices that you made to create this particular production?
Alison Moritz: My other production of Candide was originally created to tour a couple of music festivals during the Bernstein Centennial celebrations in 2017 and 2018. We went to Tanglewood and Ravinia, and because it was designed to tour, I had a great experience of learning the show by distilling it and figuring out “How do these role doublings work? What is essential about this piece?” We performed it in a full-length, fully-staged version, but it helped me track the core of the piece and how we can make it feel like that, even though the sets are minimal or we’re making adjustments to tour it. That’s my background with Candide.
What was great about that production was we were constantly folding new people into the cast. And we were also revising it as the world changed because Candide is an incredibly relevant piece. It’s an amazing prism for whatever is happening in the world or the zeitgeist at the time.
For example, in 2017, when we were approaching it, that was the year that the #MeToo movement had its apex. And there’s a lot of dealing with gender and sexual politics in Candide. So we had to find a way to address that in the storytelling because the challenge is always to make sure that the audience feels comfortable laughing at these jokes about humanity’s discomfort with horrible things happening—war, misogyny, poverty. All of these serious themes, of course, are the fodder for Voltaire’s satire. And there’s this almost like Mel Brooks-esque cheeky humor in the Bernstein operetta. That’s how I essentially first learned Candide. When tasked with that, I went exhaustively through every version of the dialogue, every musical number that’s ever existed for all of the iterations, to make real choices about how we could approach it.
When Tomer Zvulun asked me to reimagine Candide in a new way that would fill the Cobb Center Centre and feel like an actual opera-scale production, I knew I had to go back to the drawing board. In that, I had a fantastic collaborator with our conductor Jim Lowe, who’s an amazing crossover artist with huge experience in opera but also uh has done a ton of Broadway shows.
So, Jim and I started by talking about what music we found totally essential. The tunes are so catchy. Obviously, we’re not going to do a Candide and not do the full overture or not do “Glitter and Be Gay,” right? Once we had a musical backbone, then I could go through the dialogue.
Tomer really did enjoy the John Caird version, so I took that to heart from our initial conversations and used that version to shape the book, which portions of the book we’re performing, and then where anything needed a little extra hinge I went back to the Voltaire.
So that it feels like a period production, it’s set in the age of enlightenment but through a lens of modernity. If you think of maybe Hamilton, it’s about an historic moment, but it’s presented with a stripped-down or meta-theatrical quality. This Candide definitely has that as well, which makes it a little fleet and nimble.
MG: I’ve also seen both inspiring, exciting Candide productions and some very boring, deadly ones. On the one hand, there’s the necessary timing and pace of comedy; on the other hand, there are people who want to make it into a broader, more “grand” opera, if you will. How are you managing those elements of comedic pace and operatic grandness, especially since you’re going from what you first did, a compact touring production, to now something that’s on a much larger scale on a big proscenium stage as opposed to smaller environmental or immersive opportunities. How do you manage those things?
AM: That’s a great question. For me, it’s incredibly rewarding when an opera or a musical I’m working on is based on really rich source material, so I do love working with Voltaire, but I have to deal with the music as my primary document. It’s so clear to me that this is mid-century Americana filtered through European music. There’s almost a Borscht Belt humor quality in parts of it, and there’s a real zaniness and zest. So you have to lean into that and not see it only as a political satire or at-arm’s-length as a French document in good taste. It’s actually quite outrageous and camp. Then the really challenging thing is: while there are all these outrageous camp moments, how do you create a spine of a story that we actually care about?
The opposite of a boring Candide would be a Candide that’s just a sugar rush, but there’s no true operatic or emotional core to it. I think it’s inherent in the music because we have this kind of trajectory of Candide’s lament, especially for the first act, that keeps bringing us back to the language in the world of opera. But it’s certainly difficult to find a way to turn on a dime and make it feel cohesive to the audience in that our tone can shift so quickly in this world from dying from laughter to just dying from tragedy.
Figuring out Candide’s journey as a straight man is essential. Dealing with his naivete and when he learns what is also really important, he can’t become too jaded too soon. He can’t necessarily be in on the joke because that makes the whole thing a little aggravating or precious in a way. In that regard, it’s really wonderful to be working with Jack Swanson. He’s just fantastic in this part, and he delivers dialogue in a way that is just very earnest and then really sells it with his amazing singing.
For example, this past fall, I did a really large production of Bernstein’s Mass at the Kennedy Center for its 50th anniversary celebration. That’s another show where the shifts in tone are so abrupt, and yet you have to find a container that can contain all those. Honestly, that’s always felt very intuitive to me with Bernstein’s music because, as an American who works primarily in opera and sees the world through the lens of opera and music and art, there is a kind of pastiche quality at times I really identify with, and I can feel the rhythm of it in a way that helps bridge those hinges between book and musical numbers.
There’s a huge science in figuring out the underscoring because we don’t have recitatives to pace this operetta. We have spoken text over underscoring to help us punctuate when our emotions heighten in advance of the next musical number. Figuring out the timing of those is almost as important as the content; the content of the underscoring is as important as the content of the book scenes.
MG: This is an American audience experiencing an American opera that’s been through a number of transformations over its lifespan. What would you like the audience to take away from this specific production?
AM: Ultimately, the theme of Bernstein’s Candide is one of resilience, community, and joy for life. Those are really fitting themes for this moment, while we’re still coming out of years of hardship and we’re still working our way back to the theater. It should be “serious fun” to go to the opera, and you feel rejuvenated not only by seeing the art on stage but by having a full, holistic experience of going and being in a room with people. So I would love it if there’s just sort of a renewed pep in people’s step after they’ve been on this little tour around the theatrical and musical world because the lessons in it are so evergreen, and it’s a joy to work on it.
That’s the alchemy of live performances. If the performers and the creative team are all feeling it, then that joy can be transmuted on an almost molecular level to the audience. I’ve seen that, and I’ve especially seen it with Bernstein’s works in the past. There’s just something almost chemical about his ability to bring an audience together and take them along for a ride. I’ve found it to be one of the greatest joys and privileges of my career that I’ve worked with his music so much. ■