by Calvin MacLean, Producing Artistic Director
Voltaire’s Candide, ou l’Optimisme, written in 1759, ridicules “Optimism,” a philosophy fashionable at the time. Satirical and sarcastic, the novella barely masks the author’s contempt for muddled rationalizations of violence, hypocrisy and evil. His message is direct and uncompromising: best to work hard, tend to your own needs, and expect nothing good from the world. Bernstein’s humanism contrasts and contradicts Voltaire’s sardonic intellectualism in nearly every conceivable way. His music plays upon emotional contrasts of joy and grief, hope and despair, bitterness and compassion, and is insistent that something profoundly human is gained in the awareness that “we’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good.”
Every production of Candide wrestles with the many attempts to reconcile the contrasting tonalities of Voltaire’s book and Bernstein’s score. Rewrites, revisions, additions, and eliminations have all been a part of its production history. To my mind, it is Bernstein that has ultimate control of the operetta’s message. The deeply emotional sound conveys the most powerful meanings. To Bernstein, Candide’s hard-won wisdom, ultimately, is forged by the internal experiences found in the music rather than in the debates of the libretto. Candide and his beloved Cunegonde survive the many disasters that befall them, and with their survival they earn their reward: a capacity to forgive, to love, and to trust in each other.
With these points in mind, Aram Demirjian, the Music Director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and I have settled on the 1988 “Scottish Opera Version” of the score for our production. With the centennial of Bernstein’s birth coincident, this two-act version stands as Bernstein’s “definitive” organization of the musical numbers and orchestrations. And given the nature of KSO’s and CBT’s artistic collaboration, a collaboration that has brought to Knoxville such unique theatrical events as Amadeus and Sweeney Todd, this version provides the best opportunity for the richest musical theatre experience, uniting theatrical and orchestral performance.
Our aim is for Leonard Bernstein’s emotional music to be at the center of this distinctly American work. Candide overwhelms by reminding us of our humanity: our flaws, our contradictions, and our resilience – our capacity to “get through this” – whatever “this” might prove to be. When Voltaire wrote his masterpiece, Optimism seemed to be a relic of the past. In our own times, many find American optimism, so much a part of our mythology, to be dangerous, naïve, inauthentic. Like Voltaire, we may feel that to be optimistic in such a time is “neither wise, nor good.”
Now is a good time for the hard-won optimism of Bernstein’s Candide.