Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ Returns to Toronto

Toronto Operetta Theatre director Guillermo Silva-Marin revives the Broadway operetta
December 27, 2017 Updated: September 4, 2018

The 100th anniversary of  Leonard Bernstein’s birth is coming up in 2018, and this December and January the Toronto Operetta Theatre (TOT) is honouring the American composer by reviving his popular operetta “Candide.”

Composed simultaneously with Bernstein’s classic “West Side Story,” “Candide” premiered in 1956 on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theater. Composed simultaneously with Bernstein’s classic “West Side Story,” “Candide” premiered on Broadway in 1956. The operetta is based on the 18th-century satire by French philosopher Voltaire, and its popularity has endured due to its sharp wit, unabashed criticism of the corrupt aspects of human nature and society, and its study of people’s search for self-knowledge and truth.

In an interview with The Epoch Times, Toronto-based TOT director Guillermo Silva-Marin discusses Voltaire, Bernstein, and his own approach to “Candide.”

Epoch Times Photo
Toronto Operetta Theatre general director Guillermo Silva-Marin. (Courtesy TOT)

The Epoch Times: Tell me about “Candide” and why you decided to revive it this season.

Guillermo Silva-Marin: I have been an admirer of Voltaire’s novella ever since college days. Upon hearing bits of Bernstein’s adaptation of this most satirical and outrageous little book, I fell in step with so many that love the music—so much so that as of this TOT production, I have been involved in mounting four of them during the course of a decade. Revisiting “Candide” was not only natural but a great pleasure. On top of it all, Bernstein celebrates his 100th birthday in 2018 and TOT will be the first out of the gate with the final three performances of “Candide” on Jan. 5, 6, and 7, 2018.

The Epoch Times: Voltaire’s “Candide” made shock-waves at the time of its publication and continues to be one of the greatest classics of Western literature. Why do you think that is?

Mr. Silva-Marin: Voltaire was irrepressible when it came to speaking his mind. He got into trouble with the law, the church, and influential aristocrats that would gladly have seen him locked up for a very long time. He was critical of all manners of established canon, current philosophy, religious dogma, and had total disregard for what was appropriate political correctness of his times. “Candide” speaks of all this while at the same time taking his characters through a marvellous journey of self-discovery. Voltaire makes you think—a key element of genius.


Epoch Times Photo
American conductor, composer, and pianist Leonard Bernstein works on a new musical score in his apartment in New York City on Feb. 24, 1945. Twenty-eighteen marks the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth. (AP Photo, File)

The Epoch Times: For audiences who are unfamiliar with it, how loyal did Bernstein stay to Voltaire’s classic work? To what extent was Bernstein’s work a reflection of his own times?

Mr. Silva-Marin: Unlike Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” his “Candide” looked back to operetta as a stylistic point of departure that blended beautifully with Voltaire’s sense of the ironic and satire. But like “West Side Story,” a Bernstein mastery of melody was and remains the greatest achievement of the “Candide” score. Setting Voltaire’s almost cinematic story—the novella travels over ten locations, two continents, the fantastic El Dorado, and the exotic Suriname—was a big challenge to the creative team.

The initial reaction during the Broadway run was that the work was way ahead of its times, and indeed “Candide” has, within six decades, become the darling of operetta, opera, and symphony orchestra houses around the world. Why? The score is brilliant, the material universal and transcendental. In the days of … controversy, political correctness, fake news, and alternate reality, not to mention the #MeToo campaign, there could hardly have a better reflecting mirror than our “Candide,” written more than 300 years ago.

The Epoch Times: Bernstein was working on “Candide” at about the same time as “West Side Story.” Do you think there are any similarities in the works?

Mr. Silva-Marin: It is impossible for a composer and an artist of the calibre of Bernstein to hide his signature talent from his work and yes, there is much in “Candide” that resonates in “West Side Story” and vice versa—even when the storyline of a contemporary take on “Romeo and Juliet” for “West Side Story” allowed for sounds that sprung from the 1950s neighbourhoods of New York. “Candide” manages a rumba while in Cadiz, romantic duets in Paris, and huge ensembles of equal intensity and drama that are truly captivating in Buenos Aires and in Lisbon. But the haunting laments of Candide facing so many vicissitudes  in the “best of all possible worlds” are reminiscent of Anita’s and even Maria’s racially charged circumstances [in “West Side Story”].

Epoch Times Photo
Conductor Leonard Bernstein tells reporters in Washington on July 26, 1971, that the work he is preparing for the 1971 opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is a “labour of love.” (AP Photo/Charles Harrity, File)

The Epoch Times: How does Bernstein’s music bring the story to life and why do you think some of his tunes have remained popular?

Mr. Silva-Marin: “Glitter and Be Gay,” to name one of the many tunes in the score, has become a favourite among sopranos worldwide because of its fiendish range and musical challenge. The overture alone is now considered the most attractive 20th century material for orchestral programming, and the Spanish flair of “I am Easily Assimilated” rivals the exoticism of “America” [from “West Side Story”]. Bernstein pushes an envelope of progressive music that both pleases the ear and thrills the mind. The combination is potent and effective.

The Epoch Times: Tell us about some of the themes in “Candide.”

Mr. Silva-Marin: It is a story of self-realization. It searches for the truth in spite of what is traditionally understood as verifiable.  To all the characters, the notion that they find themselves in the best of all possible worlds requires confirmation from clear and powerful facts. Love, hate, happiness, health, and wealth are all there in “Candide.” Ultimately, our characters discover that a simple approach to living takes you back to nature, to work, to the land that could sustain and nourish.

The Epoch Times: How do you think “Candide” speaks to today’s audiences and what can we learn from it?

Mr. Silva-Marin: “Candide” is as valid today as it was during the days in which both the state and the church prohibited its reading.  To think for oneself and to challenge the norm is a human factor that remains constant today. “Candide” speaks to this with assurance.

The Epoch Times: Anything else you’d like to add?

Mr. Silva-Marin: Every one of my “Candide” productions has demanded and received total admiration from the casts that have worked the material and have delighted in Bernstein’s music. The piece is inspiring and it makes us work hard. There is nothing more fitting than to exemplify Voltaire’s final wish for humanity. Our cast for this current “Candide” is amazing in their inspiring work for the operetta.

The Epoch Times: What do you think this final wish is?

Mr. Silva-Marin: Based on my own understanding of the powerful themes in “Candide” and Voltaire’s own leaning, I take it that  going back to the land, cultivation, and recognition that nature is always our ally, and that working hard will inspire us all to be better. The cast worked hard for Voltaire, for Bernstein, and for the operetta “Candide.” In all my productions, their hard work proved to be a fitting tribute to these amazing creators.

The Toronto Operetta Theatre’s production of “Candide,” runs Dec. 28 – Jan. 7 at Toronto St. Lawrence for the Arts. For more information, visit: www.torontooperetta.com