Get Ready to Revel in the Absurdity That is Candide

Benjamin Robinson as Candide in Candide
Benjamin Robinson as Candide in Candide Photo courtesy of Opera in the Heights
It's one of the most mixed-up librettos ever written, the subject of countless revisions through the years, but set that aside for the moment and think of the music — catchy, surprising and living somewhere in the crossover zone between musical theater and opera.

Candide, the operetta about to be performed by Opera in the Heights, boasts music by Leonard Bernstein and a plot that pretty much abandons any notion of common sense. As a result, Candide is more often seen in concert and listened to in audio recordings than fully staged, says Eiki Isomura, OITH artistic director.

But in keeping with his vision of what the company should be about — "Since I’ve been involved with the company I’ve tried to always include in our main stage season something that’s been written in the last 100 years. And we are a company that's dedicated to providing a stage for emerging artists" — Isomura and company decided to embrace the absurd.

And there's plenty of it. Our protagonist Candide is on a mission, fueled by his training that everything happens for the better, an ethos that is increasingly not borne out by what follows which includes earthquakes, shipwrecks and massacres. Credit the ironic and irreverent view of life by Voltaire who wrote the book this is based upon.

"It does take place all over around the world and characters who you understand to have died at one point and pop right back up again and are found on a different continent. It's hard to follow from the point of story telling. It’s oftentimes facilitated with a lot of narration," Isomura says. (Performers will be miked to ensure the spoken words carry through Lambert Hall; the mikes will be muted during the singing parts, he says).

The cast, he says, has had fun working with the text. "There is a certain irreverence in the performance tradition of Candide.  It is after all at its origin a  mockery of this idea that everything happens for the best. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong for the characters to an absurd extend. It's also, being Voltaire, a  mockery of the powerful institutions of his time, including the church and state."

Benjamin Robinson is debuting in the title role, is on stage for most of the two-act and says his challenge, as a "tenor tenor" is to hit some of the notes used in the original Broadway production that were designed for a lower tenor.. "It’s low role that all of a sudden switches into really high mode. It's kind of all over the place but it's really breathtakingly beautiful music."

"The whole thing is a huge farce and yet at the end of the farce there's this emotionally draining and cathartic moment where this character who's supposed to be be continually, perpetually optimistic just realizes that life isn't always so sunny after all. It's this journey of trying to be constantly wide-eyed and happy and then to find out that life isn't always that."

"It’s an interesting piece to absorb because we’re so used to being fed narrative dramas now as consumers and as performers. When you go to a typical opera or Broadway show you are seeing  a story with a definitive beginning, middle and end and in this you're thrown into this world where anything can happen at any time.
Characters come up as different versions of themselves. They die multiple times or they die but they don’t.

"It’s this journey that is as complex as the rules that Voltaire originally set up which is that anything in this crazy veneer of a world could happen at any point," Robinson says.

The first act takes place all over Europe and the second is about the voyage to America, Isomura says. "Even in the concert format most often there is a dedicated narrator who guides the audience through the plot"

A change that longtime audience members will notice is an expanded section for the orchestra.  "We actualy had to take out a row of seats in order to make room for another percussionist and a little more brass than we've had before," Isomura says.

As for Candide itself: "We embrace all of the absurdity and let our audience be swept up in this whirlwind of activity. It think it really works in its fully staged work. It is rather crazy but again if we embrace the absurdity, and we have ... We're not shying away from some of the narrative issues."

Performances are scheduled for April 13-21 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Thursday and Saturday and 2 p.m.Sunday at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard. Sung in English with English projections. For information, call 713-861-6303 or visit operaintheheights.org.  $45-$79 regular, $39-$69 seniors, $15-$69 students.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing