New York City Opera: Oh, Happy We!

Classic Arts Features   New York City Opera: Oh, Happy We!
 
How many geniuses, over a dozen rewrites, and a dollop of optimism created Bernstein's Candide- beginning performances at New York City Opera April 8.

In the first act of Leonard Bernstein's Candide, Dr. Pangloss paraphrases a popular catch phrase originally coined by the 18th-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz:

"Once one dismisses the rest of all possible worlds / One finds that this is the best of all possible worlds."

It is this philosophy that suggested the tongue-in-cheek subtitle of Bernstein's source material, the French Enlightenment author Voltaire's celebrated satirical novel Candide (1759): "Or Optimism." For in spite of invasions, rapes, floggings, earthquakes, robberies, murders, plague, betrayals, shipwreck, and an earthquake, our titular hero remains unfailingly optimistic, hopeful that everything has a cause in this "best of all possible worlds." Of course, Voltaire himself was an eternal realist, so his Candide ironically attacks optimism more than it argues the case thereof; its recurring catastrophes make the very idea of Candide's and Pangloss's optimism seem utterly ridiculous. And it was Voltaire's disdain for cockeyed optimism that inspired Bernstein's Candide.

The American humorist Dorothy Parker, who contributed lyrics to Candide, pinned the show's initial failure to the fact that there were "too many geniuses involved." The first genius on the scene was American playwright Lillian Hellman, who, fueled by "the fire of political rage and the urge for romance" (according to biographer Deborah Martinson), suggested to Bernstein that they collaborate on a musical adaptation of Voltaire's Candide. Despite their monumental egos and disparate personalities, they began working on it in 1954. Much as Candide and Cunegonde express their sharply opposite ideals in the song "Oh Happy We," Hellman and Bernstein must have soon realized that their aesthetics were as different as Cunegonde's "breast of peacock" and Candide's "apple pie."

It was Bernstein's and Hellman's indignation over the infamous anti-Communist McCarthy hearings of the 1950s (in which both artists and numerous of their acquaintances had been implicated) that had inspired them to collaborate on adapting Voltaire. Both envisioned the "Auto-da-f_" scene as an allegory for the Washington witch-hunts. Yet for all their seriousness of purpose, Bernstein saw Candide as a much lighter piece than Hellman did‹his chance to create an American operetta in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Bernstein was capable of mitigating his ego for the good of the work, but Hellman was famously contentious and uncompromising. Those very qualities made her a heroine of integrity before the notorious House Committee of Unamerican Activities, but they didn't make her a great collaborator.

While Hellman wrote the book for Candide, the task of writing the lyrics was initially given to the gifted young librettist John La Touche, who worked so slowly that Bernstein and Hellman decided to dismiss him by late 1954. Soon after resolving to write the lyrics themselves, the collaborators considered inviting authors including E.Y. Harburg, Dorothy Parker, and James Agee to do the job.

Hellman first invited her friend Dorothy Parker to contribute some lyrics to Candide. "I expected it would take weeks of visits and phone calls to get the lyric," Bernstein said, perhaps recalling that Parker had once been so exhausted after the simple task of writing a telegram that she had to lie down. "But amazingly we had it the next day," he continued. The portion of the song "Venice Gavotte" Parker wrote typifies her sharp, self-pitying wit: "I've got troubles, as I said / Mother's dying, Father's dead / All my uncles are in jail / It's a very moving tale."

Bernstein may have considered Parker a dream to work with, but the feeling was not mutual: She felt that he wanted to have the whole show to himself and was quick to tell that to Hellman, who naturally fought to keep her voice present within the text. In late 1955, with the premiere looming, the distinguished poet Richard Wilbur agreed to take on the lyrics for Candide, and most of La Touche's work was discarded. As Brooks Peters of Opera News commented nearly fifty years after the show's premiere: "Not even a cock-eyed optimist like Dr. Pangloss could have found a silver lining in this pre-opening storm cloud."

After the opening night of Candide on December 1, 1956, Bernstein's score was praised but Hellman's book was not. The show's initial run lasted a mere 73 performances. "I think it is the saddest story I have ever known in the theater," Hellman remarked upon the show's closing. "A valuable property now ruined forever, and ruined out of vanity and ignorance."

There was enough of Candide's emblematic optimism, however, to motivate an original cast recording (now a cult classic, featuring Barbara Cook, Robert Rounseville, Max Adrian, and Irra Petina) and several rewrites (beyond the fourteen that Hellman herself had done before the premiere). Working with Michael Stewart, Hellman now revised the piece for a full-scale production in London. After this, and another series of lukewarm stage and concert performances of Candide, in various versions, in Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, the work sparked the interest of producer-director Harold Prince and playwright Hugh Wheeler, who undertook further text revisions in 1973. Stephen Sondheim, whose cautious optimism was a natural fit for Voltaire, contributed some new lyrics. With the excision of "Venice Gavotte," Dorothy Parker's lyrics now disappeared from Candide, although the melody to which they belonged survives in "Life is Happiness Indeed" (an irony that surely would not have been lost on Parker).

As the rewriting progressed, the fates of our protagonists became more benign: Candide ends up less disillusioned than realist, and Cunegonde never loses her beauty. Some may call this Prince-Wheeler-Sondheim revision "Voltaire Lite," but it was this 1973 Chelsea Theatre version, with a completely new book by Hugh Wheeler, that finally established Candide as a critical and popular success.

Increasingly frustrated by the new directions in which Candide was heading, Hellman withdrew performance rights to her original book and insisted her name be removed entirely from the new edition. She likely would have been pleased to see that, when she died in 1984, Candide was barely mentioned in her obituaries.

It took City Opera's resident optimist, then general director Beverly Sills, for Candide to come into its own as an opera. After agreeing with Prince that the not-quite musical, not-quite operetta would be best suited for an opera house, opera patron Bill Fisher approached Sills in the late 1970s with an offer to fund the production. A phone call to Prince and Bernstein later, and an American opera was born.

Much of the musical score that was cut from the Chelsea production was resurrected for City Opera's production and orchestrations were expanded. The Act I finale was saved and the "Auto-da-f_" scene was re-structured and culled together from four different drafts. In shifting from operetta to opera, a depth of emotion was restored that showed the earnestness of the characters without compromising the work's tongue-in-cheek humor. It may very well be the best of all possible Candides.

In the finale of Candide, the hero resolves to accept life as it is, and to "make his garden grow." Like its main characters, Candide itself may be "neither pure, nor wise, nor good". But its troop of brilliant creators‹all of them‹surely did "the best they know". And that would make even Voltaire happy.

Olivia Giovetti, a former New York City Opera employee, is currently a Los Angeles-based freelance travel and culture writer and the author of High Culture on a Low Budget (http://cultureonthecheap.wordpress.com), an online guide to European culture on the cheap.

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