Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide on stage in the USA

This music video says about itself:

This BBC telecast represents the world premiere of the 1988 Scottish Opera version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, directed by Jonathan Miller and John Wells. Bernstein attends and John Mauceri conducts this most complete version of the score ever seen on the stage. Directed for the cameras by Humphrey Burton.

By Joanne Laurier in the USA:

Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide at the University of Michigan

23 November 2018

The University of Michigan’s University Opera Theatre in Ann Arbor staged Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta, Candide, in mid-November. This energetic and engaging production brought to life a remarkable musical work, composed and first presented in the 1950s.

Bernstein based his operetta on the famed 1759 novella by Voltaire, the French writer, historian and philosopher. The original Candide was an enormously influential Enlightenment work that satirized established religion, government and philosophy. It follows a naïve youth through a series of calamities, natural and man-made, that shakes the complacent, fatalistic optimism in which he has been instructed and, by implication, casts doubt on any divine plan for humanity. The satire, which was an immediate best-seller, was put on the list of prohibited books by the Catholic Church in 1762 and banned in various locales.
Voltaire's Candide

Bernstein hardly made a secret of the fact that one of the impulses for his operetta was provided by the McCarthyite witch hunts in the 1950s. The work was created in 1953 as a result of discussions between the composer and playwright Lillian Hellman. Both had been affected by the Red Scare. Bernstein was forced to sign a humiliating affidavit attesting to his anti-communism. Hellman, a onetime member and continuing supporter of the Communist Party, was blacklisted in the film industry, and her partner, author Dashiell Hammett, another party supporter, went to jail for refusing to provide the names of those who had contributed to a bail fund for Communist Party leaders prosecuted under the reactionary Smith Act.

Hellman adapted Voltaire’s work with lyricist John La Touche and Bernstein. LaTouche was later replaced by poet Richard Wilbur. In 1956, the year that Bernstein was simultaneously composing West Side Story, Candide was ready for performances in Boston, where Dorothy Parker contributed lyrics to “The Venice Gavotte” in Act 2. …

Candide’s complicated performance history involves numerous revisions in the 30 years since its premiere in 1956. Versions appeared in 1973, 1982 and 1989, and further posthumous revisions in 1993 and 1999—Bernstein died in 1990. UM presented the 1989 Scottish Opera Edition of the Opera-House Version.

Voltaire (Gillian Eaton) narrates the story set in idyllic Westphalia (a region in northwestern Germany), where the scholar Dr. Pangloss (Benton DeGroot) tutors his four students—Candide (Daniel McGrew), Cunegonde (Lucia Helgren), Maximilian (Fernando Grimaldo) and Paquette (Eileen Vanessa Rodriquez)—in “optimism”, where “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Cunegonde, the beautiful daughter of a Baron, and Candide, a bastard cousin, fall in love. The Baron is not pleased and expels Candide, who eventually joins the Bulgar Army, currently engaged in “liberating” Westphalia. The Bulgars supposedly kill Cunegonde, after ravishing her, along with the rest of her family. Candide is left to wander through Europe. More disasters befall him.

Candide at the University of Michigan

Candide at the University of Michigan

He happens to be in Lisbon when the famous … earthquake kills 30,000 people. Candide and Pangloss are blamed for the disaster and the latter is publicly hanged as a heretic in the Inquisition. Candide later finds himself in Paris and discovers that Cunegonde is not dead after all, simply earning her living as a courtesan. They eventually set off for the New World, South America, and further unhappy adventures.

Over the course of their wanderings throughout Europe and South America, Candide and Cunegonde are subjected to every sort of painful adversity: wars, shipwrecks, earthquakes, rapes, beatings and swindles. Their life lessons knock the stuffing out of Pangloss’s “optimism”.

Bernstein’s Candide itself wanders through an array of musical styles: jazz, Broadway, Igor Stravinsky, neo-Baroque, operetta, tango, Gustav Mahler, and, in some versions, a Schoenbergian twelve-tone row.

Many of the lyrics are striking, such as when Pangloss sings: “Though war may seem a bloody curse, it is a blessing in reverse. When cannon roar, both rich and poor by danger are united.”

Pangloss is also responsible for such gems as these: “Since every part of the body is made for the best of all possible reasons, it follows that every part of the State—which is merely a body in macrocosm—is made of the best of all possible reasons.”

Narrator Voltaire derides the Catholic Church for torturing and killing its victims in an “Auto-da-Fé” (act of faith, or the burning of heretics and apostates), while a chorus sings:

What a day, what a day,
For an Auto da Fé!…
It’s a lovely day for drinking
And for watching people die!
What a perfect day to be a money lender!
Or a tradesman, or a merchant or a vendor!
At a good exciting lynching
It’s a bonnie day for business,
Better raise the prices high!
For an Inquisition day this is a wonder!

“One final word in praise of the universal laws of Science,” says Pangloss. “God in his wisdom made it possible to invent the rope and what is the rope for but to create a noose?”

The University of Michigan production was a serious effort, remarkably well organized and executed. Conductor Kenneth Kiesler and director Matthew Ozawa are prominent artists. Kiesler has conducted orchestras and opera companies on five continents, while Ozawa has directed opera throughout the US and elsewhere.

The student singers and musicians delivered taut, elegant and committed performances. The entire ensemble was top-notch, with the four leads—Helgren as Cunegonde, McGrew as Candide, Grimaldo as Maximilian and Rodriquez as Paquette—vivacious and entertaining. The energetic Samantha Rose Williams as the Old Lady also deserves special mention.

The sets were imaginatively minimalistic and inventive, as cast and crew used numerous blackboards, ranging from the gigantic to the hand-held, to create backdrops and props.

As noted above, Bernstein always pointed to the anti-communist purges of the 1940s and 1950s as one of the impulses for his operetta. According to the official Leonard Bernstein website, the operetta’s creators saw a “parallel between the Inquisition’s church-sponsored purges and the ‘Washington Witch Trials’, fueled by anti-Communist hysteria and waged by the House Un-American Activities Committee.”

In 1989, between the acts of a concert performance of the work in London, Bernstein remarked: “Why Candide? Whither and whence Candide?… The particular evil which impelled Lillian Hellman to choose Candide and present it to me as the basis for a musical stage work was what we now quaintly and, alas, faintly recall as McCarthyism—an ‘ism’ so akin to that Spanish inquisition we just revisited in the first act as to curdle the blood. This was a period in the early ‘50s of our own century, exactly 200 years after the Lisbon affair [massive earthquake], when everything that America stood for seemed to be on the verge of being ground under the heel of that Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, and his inquisitorial henchmen. That was the time of the Hollywood Blacklist—television censorship, lost jobs, suicides, expatriation and the denial of passports to anyone even suspected of having once known a suspected Communist.

“I can vouch for this. I was denied a passport by my own government. By the way, so was Voltaire denied a passport by his.”

With Candide, Bernstein was attempting to create a popular American musical satire. Undoubtedly, one of his inspirations or models, in the general sense, was The Threepenny Opera (1928) by Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill. Bernstein had conducted a concert performance of the “play with music”—also a bitter satire and based on an 18th century work—in 1952 at a music festival before an audience of nearly 5,000 people. That performance, featuring Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife), is considered the “warm-up” for The Threepenny Opera’s enormously successful run off-Broadway in 1954 and then from 1955-1961. Lenya once asserted, “I think surely Leonard Bernstein knows every note of Kurt Weill … and he is the one who took up after Weill’s death … I think [he] is the closest to Kurt Weill.”

However, Candide does not succeed in eviscerating the American social order as the earlier work had done to its German equivalent. The issue here is not the presence or absence of artistic genius, with which Bernstein was blessed in full measure, but primarily the different times and the consequences of the political defeats suffered by socialism and the working class in the middle of the century.

The lesson Bernstein seems to have drawn from the McCarthy period was a slightly cynical and discouraged one—to roll with the punches, so to speak. He didn’t submit the anti-communist affidavit out of pure careerism, as others did in relation to HUAC, but he certainly didn’t see or understand that it was necessary to resist. Or, more precisely, his outlook was one of encouraging a militant liberalism as the answer to reaction. And this is what led more or less directly to Candide’s “softness” or obliqueness.

Despite Bernstein’s intriguing and entertaining comments, it could hardly be said that the operetta, for example, fully takes on McCarthyism and political reaction in America. The less historically informed spectator today might be forgiven if he or she even failed to make that connection. Blind optimism in the face of the tragedies that actually occur to people—including the traumas of the 20th century—seems more its message. Candide is simply not that cutting, and its conclusion, as the UM production—in its weakest aspect—demonstrates, can be interpreted in a relatively conformist and complacent fashion.

In the program, director Ozawa states: “Making my UM directorial debut with Bernstein’s wildly exuberant operetta has been a treat … What better way to bring our communities together than on a show that celebrates diversity, humanity, and our ability to cultivate a collective ‘garden.’”

This is not an appropriate reading of the situation of Voltaire’s characters, or Bernstein’s to a large extent, who are beaten down and more resigned, in the end, than “exuberant” about their prospects for the future.

In the novella, in its concluding passage, Pangloss, addressing Candide, continues his dreadful sophistic apologetics for things as they are: “There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

According to the Bernstein website, “Candide is perhaps destined never to find its perfect form and function; in the final analysis, however, that may prove philosophically appropriate.” The “highly checkered career of this work”, in Bernstein’s words, and its never really having found its “perfect form and function,” had a great deal to do with the political difficulties of the period and the composer’s own response to them.

Despite these weaknesses, the idea of adapting Voltaire was a good one, and UM’s production is a valuable effort marking the centenary of Bernstein’s birth.

The author also recommends:

The centenary of Leonard Bernstein—Part 1
[24 August 2018]

The centenary of Leonard Bernstein—Part 2
[25 August 2018]


Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray on stage

This BBC video is called The Picture of Dorian Gray 1976 – Oscar Wilde.

It says about itself:

In Victorian England, handsome Dorian Gray (Peter Firth) makes a Faustian deal that his portrait painted by Basil Hallward (Jeremy Brett) will age while he remains young.

Irish socialist author Oscar Wilde is well known for having been cruelly punished for being gay and for his plays.

On 6 November 2018, I went to see the play Dorian, based on Oscar Wilde, in Leiden, the Netherlands. Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray not as a play, but as a novel.

This Dutch 2018 trailer video of this play, by the Noord Nederlands Toneel (NNT) says about itself (translated):

Some 125 years after the publication of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, our obsession with youthfulness and the feeling that you must have taken everything out of your life have only increased.

With these questions as a starting point, Javier Barcala wrote a stage adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s famous novel for the Noord Nederlands Toneel. Barcala places Dorian in the background of the contemporary art market, a familiar world for guest director Christophe Coppens.

The Belgian multitalent Coppens was trained as a theater maker, but broke through as a designer and visual artist. Previously, pop stars such as Rihanna, Grace Jones, Scissor Sisters and especially Róisín Murphy walked in his creations. And now NNT actress Bien de Moor shines in his artworks.

This 2018 NNT video says about itself (translated):

Some 125 years after the publication of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, our obsession with youthfulness and the feeling that you must have taken everything out of your life have only increased. But do we not lose sight of ourselves in the desire for the new, the beautiful and the special? And if we are busy all the time with our personal development, what does that mean for our relationship with others?

Leading actor Bram van der Heijden and artistic director of the NNT Guy Weizman tell us what the performance is about for them.

This in another 2018 NNT teaser video about the play.

This October 2018 video is an interview with Akim Moiseenkov, who composed music for the NNT play.

More about the play is here.

In Wilde’s novel, the young man Dorian Gray indulges in beauty and individualistic pleasure-seeking in such an extreme way that he causes other people’s deaths: by murder, or by driving them to suicide. Also indirectly, as a hunter mistakenly shoots an antagonist of Gray. Wilde did not like fox hunting; he called it: ‘The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable’.

Dorian does not age visibly, even as he gets older and commits crimes. The aging and the crimes become visible only on Dorian’s portrait, which gets uglier and uglier.

Ultimately, Dorian attacks the picture with a knife. In that way, he kills himself; as the picture reverts to its youthful original state.

There are many differences between Dorian in Wilde’s book and in the NNT play. In the play, Dorian’s real name is Igor, getting called ‘Dorian Gray’ only later.

Wilde describes Dorian as from a well to do family, while Igor in the play is from a poor background.

Wilde’s Dorian is not an artist, while the NNT’s Igor is an art student and later a famous artist.

In the novel, the gay painter Basil Hallward, who is in love with Dorian, paints the portrait. In the play, female visual artist Ava Ravenstein does that.

In the novel, Lord Henry Wotton pushes Dorian onto the ruinous road of self-indulgence. In the play, rich art collector Ms Bambi Pelecano (by actress Bien de Moor) plays that role, becoming Igor’s manager, renaming him and pushing him into her art market world where only superficiality, fame and money count.

Though both director Christophe Coppens and playwright Javier Barcala are gay and have a same-sex relationship, there are less allusions to homosexuality in the play than in Wilde’s text.

In the novel, Dorian’s self-indulgence causes quite some deaths. In the play only one, until just before the end. The death of Dorian’s/Igor’s girlfriend: actress Sibyl according to Wilde, singer Rebeka according to Barcala.

Then, in the penultimate scene, Igor/Dorian attacks the portrait. With a gun, unlike the knife in the novel, but still killing himself.

In the final scene, manager Bambi Pelecano is interviewed on the now dead Dorian. She does not really want to talk about him anymore, falsely pretending she hardly knew him. According to Ms Pelecano, the interview should instead be about her latest discovery, some really hip and trendy artist.

The audience liked the play, giving it a standing ovation at the end.

Islamisation of Birmingham, England, satiric poem

This 2007 video from England is about Irish poet Kevin Higgins poetry reading for Oxfam.

By Kevin Higgins in Britain:

Monday, September 10, 2018

Poetry on the Picketline

The Islamisation of Birmingham

Most reckon it was the day Ozzy Osbourne
walked out the gates of Winson Green Prison,
ready to commit acts of musical terrorism
in a desperate effort to undermine Christ,
that the City began turning instead
to Mecca. All agree

the situation grew
more serious each time Roy Wood sang
I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday
in the hope we wouldn’t notice
the big mad beard he got
at a training camp in Pakistan.

Spaghetti Junction was already
jammed with Muslim-only vehicles,
the night the Mulberry Bush
and Tavern in the Town
were blown up by Muslims
disguised as IRA men.
Since then every nil-all draw
between Aston Villa and Birmingham City
has been celebrated by stadiums half-full
of nothing but Muslims.

Truth is, it started way back,
the night Chamberlain signed
his secret treaty with Adolf, agreeing
in the event of war with Russia to hand
the birthplace of Enoch Powell
over to the Islamists.

These days the local economy is mostly
Jaguar Cars and Cadbury’s chocolate
being secretly manufactured by Muslims
for export to terrorist countries busy
thinking up new ways to kill us.

This is a satire on the remarks of [Rupert Murdoch-owned] Fox News commentator Steve Emerson, who said that “there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go.”

Note: All people, pubs, companies and football teams mentioned in this poem are native to Birmingham, with the exception of the late Adolf Hitler, who was born in the small Austrian town of Braunau am Inn, though his people did visit Birmingham from 1940 to 1943.

Poetry on the Picket Line is a squad of like-minded poets putting themselves about to read their work on picket lines, in the spirit of solidarity. Invitations to rallies etc. welcome, contact facebook.com/pg/PicketLinePoets.

Jewish poet Norbert Hirschhorn interviewed

Norbert Hirschhorn's new poetry bookBy Leo Garib in Britain:

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Interview: Poetic Justice

‘At this stage of my life my purpose is to connect the younger generation with history’, NORBERT HIRSCHHORN tells Leo Garib

TWO Jewish families pile onto carts and flee world war one as it rages across what is now southern Poland. A couple of decades later, their children are a step ahead of the nazis, escaping Vienna to London. Those left behind perish.

Relatives in Greece slip into the mountains when the nazis invade the island where they live and fight with the resistance. After world war two, surviving members of the Hirschhorn family emigrate to the US, where young Norbert Hirschhorn becomes a doctor, works in some of the poorest countries, develops a rehydration system that saves 50 million lives and is made an “American Health Hero” by President Clinton.

Finally he retires and becomes a respected poet.

It’s the stuff of Hollywood, but Norbert Hirschhorn, who recently turned 80, is in no hurry for a posthumous movie. “I hope I’ve got another 10 years left. On the other hand”, he winks, tapping his forehead, “there’s probably a little senior cognitive decline in there, so maybe I need to wrap my life up.”

In fact, he is, if anything, embarking on a new mission to bring his family history of refugees back to life. His latest book of poems, Stone. Bread. Salt. is partly a moving meditation on his wide-ranging life and partly a celebration of his footloose Yiddish heritage. But it’s another book he calls the “most important I’ve been involved in.”

It’s a privately published collection of family letters from the last couple of centuries. He stumbled across them six years ago, was instantly struck, and had them printed privately for his family. In Yiddish and German, they reveal the intimacy of quotidian life for Jewish tradespeople, their terror at being uprooted and going on the run and the struggle of starting all over again.

Included are letters from his mother, who never recovered after being forced to leave her parents in Vienna. They couldn’t get permits and were exterminated. There are also letters from his uncle, a socialist who joined the Greek anti-nazi resistance before escaping the murderous right-wing regime Britain installed after the war. Copies of the books are held in museums.

“I cry when I read them”, Hirschhorn says. “I really cry and I want my grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins to feel their power too. “At this stage of my life, my purpose is to connect the younger generation with history and show what they can bring to life by understanding what their forbears lived through.”

Later, he quit a prestigious teaching post at a US medical school where he had invented the discipline of rehydrating sick children and went to Lebanon, where he met Syrian doctor Fouad M Fouad, his closest friend. He helped translate some of Fouad’s poems for inclusion in his latest book. Now Hirschhorn has one foot in north west London and another in the Lebanese capital Beirut. “When you spend time in another place, you respect the way people are, you look for commonalities and respect the differences”, he says.

“That’s one of the great gifts working in public health has given me.”

The importance of history is understanding the present, he stresses, particularly when the ghosts of the 1920s and 1930s are looming large.

“It’s bullshit that the UK, the US, France, Italy and others complain about refugees. During world war one, Vienna took in hundreds of thousands of people and in the last few years Lebanon has taken in 1.5 million. …

“War and disaster force people to start all over again and only some manage. Just think of Grenfell Tower. People can absorb change, find sustenance from family and friends, but we have to give them a chance. Besides, refugees contribute wherever they are.

“Still, the fascists in America, Britain, Italy, Austria, Hungary want to stir up hatred. The fascists never went away and we’ve got to resist. The blinkered intolerance they espouse is “the exact opposite of what Judaism teaches us”, he adds.

“Nobody learns from history unless you keep reminding them. You can’t give up doing it.” Which he won’t, he chuckles.

“At my age, I’m only just starting to mature — 80, I’m finally becoming a mensch.”

Stone. Bread. Salt: Poems by Norbert Hirschhorn is published by Holland Park Press, £8.

The Disappeared

What makes us human is soil.
Even landfill of bones, shredded jeans;
mass graves paved over for parking.

What makes us human are portraits
— graduation, weddings
mounted in house shrines and on fliers, Have You Seen?

Names inscribed around memorial pools
or incised on granite. Names waiting,
waiting for that slide of DNA, or any piece of flesh —
for the haunted to be put to rest.

What makes us human is soil.
To stare into a hole in the ground,
fill with the deceased, throw earth down,
place a stone. Bread. Salt.

For Fouad Mohammed Fouad

New Tolkien book, The Fall of Gondolin

This November 2017 video is called Lore of Middle-earth: Gondolin, Part 1; The Rise.

This November 2017 video is called Lore of Middle-earth: Gondolin, Part 2; The Fall.

The Fall of Gondolin, ‘new’ JRR Tolkien book, to be published in 2018. Edited by his son Christopher, Tolkien’s tale of a reluctant hero defending a city was written while the author was in hospital after the Battle of the Somme: here.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

One last time back to Middle-earth

Tolkien fans can enjoy the fantasy world of the English writer one last time. This week The Fall of Gondolin is published, based on surviving fragments edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher.

The story is set thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The protagonist visits the elven town of Gondolin, which is attacked by the dark ruler Morgoth, predecessor of Sauron.

Tolkien himself once called the story “the first real story” about Middle-earth. He wrote it in 1917, when he recovered from health complaints that he had incurred at the Battle of the Somme.

Tolkien eventually did not publish the work. He continued to write stories about the same fantasy world, which led to The Hobbit in 1937, followed by the Ring trilogy in 1954 and 1955.

Certain fragments from the new book will surely be familiar to fans. Thus the city is besieged by a group of balrogs. Such a monster fights to the death in the Ring cycle with the wizard Gandalf. The sentence ‘You shall not pass’ from that fight became a classic film quote because of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation.

Christopher Tolkien assumes that the oeuvre of his father, who died in 1973, is complete now. He himself, now 93, no longer plans to edit new books, he writes in the preface of the book.

American screech-owls inspire children’s book

The Owl in the Yard. Book cover courtesy of June Kasperski Wild

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the USA, 23 August 2018:

We Sparked a Kid’s Book

We were delighted to learn that the Right Bird, Right House tool on our website helped to inspire a new children’s book! June Kasperski Wild reached out to tell us that she and her family were researching nest boxes when they found our website. After downloading our free owl box plan, what followed was an adventure in learning about their backyard Eastern Screech-Owls‘ nesting habits. Ms. Wild was inspired to write a long poem, which forms the foundation of the new book The Owl in the Yard.

A freelance writer, June credits NestWatch as the spark that set her creativity in motion:

“Many thanks to NestWatch for the inspiration. Researching and building the birdhouse and then viewing the owl family wouldn’t have been possible without your help! This was an amazing time for our family. One that we will never forget!”

We’re so happy that our free resources brought such joyful memories to the Wild family.

Cowbirds, cuckoos and changeling stories

This 2016 video says about itself:

Brood parasitism: American Robin rejects a Cowbird egg

American Robin (Turdus migratorius) rejects an egg of Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) – Ithaca – New York State – USA, 2015.

Video credit: Analía V. López, Miri Dainsonm, Mark E. Hauber.

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the USA, 23 August 2018:

How did the bizarre folklore of the “changeling” child first enter European literature? Perhaps an avian reproductive strategy called “brood parasitism” served as inspiration. Brood parasitism is how some birds avoid the work of raising young by laying eggs in the nests of other birds.

In our latest blog post, we explore the origins of the fairy changeling lore by examining some real-life changelings (i.e., cowbirds and cuckoos). Read on for a fanciful new take on folk stories as they relate to nesting biology.