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A Candide for Now

Interview with Francesca Zambello

By Gary Murphy

BRAVO: Welcome back to Los Angeles for the seventh time. We are looking forward to your production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in January as part of the Bernstein 100 worldwide celebration. What is it about Candide that continues to resonate with modern audiences?
Francesca Zambello: I urge folks to read the slim volume of Voltaire’s Candide, a central work of satire written during the French Enlightenment in 1759. It tells of a simple servant’s journey through many lands after being thrown out from the German estate where he worked after falling in love with the master’s daughter, Cunegonde. She ends up on her own journey after running away and we watch them travel separately to the four corners of the earth in search of one another. He is relentless in his optimistic belief that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” that their tutor Pangloss taught them, meaning whatever happens, it happens for a reason and it is for the best of all.

But next, Candide witnesses the horrors of oppression by the authorities of numerous states and churches. Catholic authorities burn heretics alive, priests and governors extort sexual favors from their female subjects, masters mistreat slaves, and Candide himself is drafted into and abused in the army of the King of Westphalia. Powerful institutions like the church and government seem to do no good—and instead, much harm—to their defenseless subjects. Voltaire himself protested loudly against political injustice throughout his life.

Bernstein and his many librettists take up asking the same questions of governments and societies. Eventually all forms of government are rebuked as the characters in Candide choose a different route. Shortly after hearing about the politically motivated killings of several Turkish officials, they take an old farmer’s advice deciding to ignore the injustices that surround them, channeling their wealth and energy instead into the simple labors that bring them happiness. This satire still resonates with audiences today as it uses dark humor to question prevalent issues.

The music in Candide is infectious as one would imagine. It is an ingenious blend of melodies and lyrics that defy categorization. It is a mix of operetta, opera, American musical theater and symphonic orchestrations that is thrilling.

We are lucky to celebrate his genius with this work along with West Side Story written in roughly the same period. These two pieces defined musical theater for the second half of the 20th century.

BRAVO: One of your goals as an artist and director is to produce theatre and opera for wider audiences. LA Opera audiences—both traditional and new—embraced your production of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in 2007, and you remain a tireless advocate for presenting classics of American musical theater in opera houses. Do you find such programming brings new audiences into the opera house?
FZ: It serves multiple functions. Yes, it does bring in new audiences, and often younger ones, or helps to be a gateway for families to us. It also helps to revitalize existing audiences and make them understand the importance of the American musical theater as being our voice, our own opera, our way of storytelling through song, words and dance.

BRAVO: Not only do you run the wonderful Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, but you also oversee programming at Washington National Opera as Artistic Director. In that capacity, you know the value that volunteer support groups, such as the Opera League of Los Angeles, bring to the work onstage that we all love. Can you speak to the importance of such support groups?
FZ: There is no successful arts organization without a volunteer support arm. I know how crucial it is for any of us to survive, we cannot do so without the help of strong and well-organized volunteers for a myriad of ways to further the mission of any company.

BRAVO: Your Ring Cycle production is heading back to San Francisco Opera after a successful run at Washington National Opera earlier this year. I have to ask: How do you find the time to run two companies and direct?
FZ: Well, the Ring was created and polished over a decade of performances in Washington, DC and San Francisco so I could cultivate a group of fine associate directors to help. Now when it returns to SFO it will already have had six complete cycles in SF and DC. I urge people to come to San Francisco this summer as it is an all new wonderful cast under the baton of former music director, Donald Runnicles, and I am thrilled to do it once more.

As for my leadership work, I am the Artistic Director at WNO so there is a partner responsible for all administrative and financial sides so that is not on my plate, plus the WNO is under the larger umbrella of the Kennedy Center, and they provide much of our organizational framework. My responsibilities lie in the planning and execution of the repertory we present. At the Glimmerglass Festival I am the CEO, and I am there frequently in the off-season and then the summer months. I am fortunate to work with many intelligent and talented partners. I liken it to a big ensemble company where we work on all the productions together.

BRAVO: You have worked at LAO on many occasions over the years. Your mom, Jean, who lived in L.A., was such a great supporter of your work, and we would always see her in the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Were your parents instrumental in creating a love for the performing arts?
FZ: Absolutely, they brought us up surrounded by the arts. Whenever I visited here I loved taking my mom to LAO and the LA Phil. It gave us many special outings, so coming back to L.A. has both melancholia and nostalgia. She only passed away a few years ago, and I am sorry she never saw this Candide. My father passed away when I was much younger, but they both loved the performing arts and worked in those fields. Their love of music and theater was certainly passed on to me, and I would not be what I am without their encouragement and love of the arts.

Author: Thomas Lady
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