Candide in Glasgow is an open-air opera for our times

CANDIDE, Voltaire’s satirical short story, is one of the great works of philosophical literature. First published in 1759, the book takes on a dark and comic side in the face of the over-optimism of those who believed that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”.

Contemplating terrible events, such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which terrible suffering seemed blind, Voltaire brings his young protagonist, Candide, out of his protected academic paradise. The news became so influential that it bequeathed mankind the adjective “Panglossian” (a reference to Candide’s hyper-optimistic professor, Dr. Pangloss).

Voltaire’s book has had enormous cultural, as well as philosophical, influence in the nearly three centuries since it was written. Writers and artists from various fields have created works inspired by Candide.

Perhaps the most famous is the “comic operetta” by American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Despite a poor critical reaction when it opened on Broadway in 1956, the work underwent various revisions and additions (including new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim for the 1973 revival and revisions by Bernstein himself in 1987).

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Ironically, it was optimism – an unwavering faith in the possibilities of Bernstein’s original work – that would make Candide a much-loved staple of the modern lyrical canon. So much so that Scottish Opera considered our world – which is so abundantly resistant to Panglossian optimism – and decided the time was right to stage Bernstein’s work.

The production will play as part of the Live at No. 40 mini-festival of outdoor performances at Scottish Opera’s production studios in Glasgow (a mini-festival which started last year in response to the Covid pandemic) . Bringing together professional opera singers with a community choir, the show will offer spectators the opportunity to follow Candide on his journey on a walk (those who prefer or require to be sedentary can watch the action comfortably seated).

THE production (which starts on Thursday) will be accompanied during the summer season by a concert by the Scottish Opera Orchestra (August 17) and a revival of Dominic Hill’s excellent staging of Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors for the Citizens Theater Company (August 26 to September 3).

Candide is directed by Jack Furness, an experienced performing artist and founding director of East London-based Shadwell Opera. I caught up with him in the middle of rehearsals.

Does Voltaire’s story – in which the chaos of the world destroys the almost utopian optimism of the book’s titular protagonist – seem timeless, I ask the director, given all that humanity is currently going through, from Covid, to climate catastrophe and war, from Yemen and From Syria to Ukraine? “It’s amazing how modern it looks,” he says.

Rehearsals for Scottish Opera’s new production of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Candide’…

However, adds Furness, the outlook for humanity in 2022 contrasts sharply with the philosophical optimism that Voltaire satirized in the mid-1700s and the post-war United States confidence that Bernstein observed in the 1950s.

“Voltaire was very attached to cozy optimism”, comments the director. “The same goes for Bernstein, when the operetta was originally written in the 1950s.

“I don’t know if most people are that optimistic right now. Our bubble has completely burst because of the pandemic or the financial crash… I don’t think we live in particularly optimistic times today.

The director and the company wondered, “Where does this optimistic philosophy reside now?”

In Voltaire’s time, Furness continues, it was rooted in the Church, and when Bernstein wrote the operetta it rested on faith in the “American dream” of unfettered capitalist growth.

Nowadays, suggests the director, optimism rests on very fragile foundations. All 21st century capitalism has to offer is the hollow mirth of reality TV shows and “the idea that you can make yourself happy by clicking a button and getting Amazon delivered.”

According to Furness, the best way to honor the satirical intentions of Voltaire and Bernstein is to ensure that the Candide of Scottish opera is very present in our time. “If it’s a satire,” he argues, “it must have contemporary targets.”

THE process of updating Voltaire’s story was greatly aided, the director says, by the inherent and deliberate chaos of the Frenchman’s original narrative. All Furness had to do, linking this to the chaos of our times, was to make sure his production didn’t try to “streamline the chaos into a single idea”.

The whirlwind in which Voltaire places his young protagonist is notoriously picaresque, as Candide is transported from one scene of destruction and suffering to another.

The director intends to reflect the episodic nature of the book in his staging of Bernstein’s operetta. “We,” he explains, “really tried to treat each scene as a world unto itself.”

In doing so, Furness is blessed with a superb cast. Renowned tenor William Morgan (who played one of the titular principal roles in Scottish Opera’s recent production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Gondoliers) will sing the role of Candide.

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Renowned Trinidadian tenor Ronald Samm will portray the characters of Dr. Pangloss and Voltaire (among others).

The show’s troupe of international opera singers will be joined by an 80-person community choir. This impressive group was formed in partnership with Maryhill Integration Network, an organization (based a stone’s throw from Scottish Opera studios) that uses art projects to bring together asylum seekers, refugees and settled Glasgow residents.

Furness is full of admiration for the energy and dedication that community actors have brought to the play. Indeed, he notes that in writing the operetta, Bernstein drew on the experience of Jewish migrants (born in the United States, the composer was the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants).

It seems fitting that a play by Bernstein – a noted humanist who campaigned against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons – has a chorus that includes people seeking refuge from war and persecution here in Scotland.

Candide performs at Scottish Opera Studios, 40 Edington Street, Glasgow, August 11-20:

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