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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

The best of all possible worlds?

"Candide ... said to himself, 'If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?'"

Monday night was the first time I got to see our production of Candide. I spent the weekend working in the supertext booth, where, because there are four follow-spot operators for the show, I'm relegated to a seat with a window measuring roughly 5" x 5". Since I don't really need to see in order to run the supertext, I didn't bother to adjust my chair to window height (tall), and spent three nights just listening to the show, which I found increasingly hilarious.

I've never seen Candide before, although I played the concert version of the overture at least twice in college. (And what a piece of music! Talk about an overture that demands a listener's attention). Nevertheless, Candide is a piece that feels naturally familiar -- one of those that you know even without knowing it. It's so very Bernstein, and so very American. It's beautiful, and charming, and fun. And what a refreshing change of pace from Very Serious Opera!

© Jason Potter

Anyway: back to Monday night. As we have done in the past (Barber of Seville, Rigoletto), we invited several local comic artists to Monday night's dress rehearsal, where they got a backstage tour and then were encouraged to draw whatever inspired them from their seats in the first few rows of the orchestra section. This year, for the first time, we also invited several prolific local Twitter users to come and live-tweet the opera. What a hoot! I also use Twitter, so I took the opportunity to join in on the fun; it was so interesting and hilarious to read other peoples' reactions to the show in real time. (And also strange and a little thrilling to be allowed/encouraged to use our phones during the show.)

For a taste of what the conversation looked like, you can see the whole sequence of tweets here.  You can also see the comic art here.

Our Resident Historian, Bob Kingston (who also gives a very informative pre-show lecture an hour prior to every performance), became the voice of @portlandopera for the evening, giving informative 140-character tidbits as the rehearsal progressed. His work there is AWESOME. I wish we could live-tweet this kind of stuff during actual performances, to larger numbers of people (as the NSO did of a performance of Beethoven several years ago), but for a lot of reasons that's not terribly feasible. We did have one person on Twitter say that she was in New York but she was so excited by the stuff Bob was talking about that she was following along with a recording! So, just throwing it out there -- you could do that.

Some of the great trivia from Monday evening:

- "Dr. Pangloss. Pan = all, gloss = talk. Get the idea?"

- "Candide --> candid, which can mean pure, clear; stainless, innocent."

-  "The 'Additional Lyrics' in 'I Am Easily Assimilated' were actually written by Bernstein and his wife, Felicia. 'Rovno Gubernya' (Jess note: where the Old Lady claims she is from) is the Siberian village where Bernstein's father was born."

- "In the show, Martin drowns, but in the Voltaire novella, he's eaten by a shark. Seriously."

A lightning fast primer on Candide
Bernstein's Candide is, of course, based on Voltaire's Candide, written in 1759. The Voltaire work is short -- readable in a long afternoon -- and if you have an e-reader, you can download it for free here (Kindle edition) or here (Google books edition). Written in the form of a bildungsroman, it tells the story of Candide, a simple and almost cloyingly innocent young man, the ward of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh of Westphalia. Candide's first music pretty much sums him up:

"Life is happiness, indeed: mares to ride and books to read. Though of noble birth I'm not, I'm delighted with my lot. Though I've no distinctive features and I've no official mother, I love all my fellow creatures and the creatures love each other."

Life is good for Candide, who grows up alongside the baron's children, Maximillian and Cunegonde, taking lessons with them from their teacher, Dr. Pangloss, who teaches them that "this is the best of all possible worlds." But after Cunegonde and Candide try to recreate an "experiment" (sex) they see between Pangloss and the serving maid, Paquette, Candide is kicked out of the castle and sent on his way, to face untold hardships, including being recruited by the Bulgar army, being flogged by two thousand soldiers, participating in an auto-da-fe, experiencing the deaths of all his loved ones (some of whom die several times over), being nearly drowned (twice), robbed (several times), and so forth.

The Voltaire is a commentary on Leibnizian optimism, which posited that "this is the best of all possible worlds," a fact that Voltaire found impossible to reconcile with, for example, the 1755 earthquake of Lisbon -- which appears in his novella. The work pokes fun at religions, governments, armies, philosophers and philosophies.

About our production

Candide Production Photo

© Portland Opera/Cory Weaver

One of the main theatrical challenges with Candide is how quickly the character moves from one location to another; he's in a boat coursing down a raging river; in the next moment he's in a valley surrounded by inpenetrable mountains; then he's being lifted over the mountains, carrying sheep. (The sheep play a big role). Our production gets around this challenge by using projected sets rather than physical ones. The 'set' consists of a rake (a very steep rake, by the way, so all that dancing and moving around up there is even harder than it looks) and multiple white drops which fly in and out during the show. That's it. The rest is all projected onto the stage digitally, which means we can alter the images in a blink. It also means we can use animations! One of the more comical scenes in the show involves one of our actors, having been tossed overboard from a ship, flailing in the actually heaving waves.

Speaking of actors: much of Candide consists of spoken dialogue, and can I just tell you? For the three nights I listened without watching, I cracked up all over the place during the spoken dialogue. It's funny as written, and the cast is just hilarious. Bob Orth's sheep impersonation makes the night for me, every night. (As does Ann Quintero, the Old Lady, repeatedly referring to her buttock).

We'll have our first full audience tonight, at the student dress rehearsal, and then we open on Friday. Happy opening, everyone!