Interview: Robert Carsen on bringing his production of Bernstein's Candide to ENO

'An amazing piece: Bernstein was an incredible mixture of emotion and intellect, head and heart.'

20 June 2008

Robert CarsenOn paper, it might seem like unlikely material for a Broadway musical. But Voltaire's satirical novella Candide provided Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein with the ideal vehicle for their 1956 show of the same name, dealing as it does with issues such as corruption and bigotry that remained sadly relevant to the America of the 1950s. In 2006, the Paris Opera gave the piece its French premiere in a new production by Canadian director Robert Carsen, renowned for his challenging and insightful presentations of a wide repertoire from Monteverdi's Poppea to Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Beautiful Game. The production, which is updated to the twentieth century, caused controversy when it was taken to Milan, and will be staged by English National Opera next week to end their 2007-08 season. I caught up with Carsen to find out why Candide remains so potent for today's audiences fifty-two years after it was first performed.

To begin with, we chat about the motivation behind Candide for Bernstein and Hellman. 'Well might you ask,' says Carsen, 'because my feelings about it are entirely based on their feelings, though we no longer have Lillian Hellman's libretto because she withdrew it. I think one of the most interesting things about Candide is that it's really just a piece of political theatre, because Hellman suggested the idea of making a musical out of Voltaire's novella to illustrate what had been happening in America with the House Commission and Senator McCarthy and so on. It's an extremely unusual reason for creating a musical: usually these ideas stem from what will work at the box office, but this was born from anger.

'Hellman had a sense of injustice and frustration about what was happening to the country. She was put in the appalling position of being asked by the Commission to give them a list of the names of all her Communist friends, and she wrote her famous letter in response in which she said, "I refuse to cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions". She said she'd come and talk to them if they withdrew their request for her to give them the names of her friends. They refused, and she didn't work in Hollywood again, more or less. Bernstein didn't have such a difficult time, but he had his passport removed for a while.

'So Hellman wrote to him and told him that she'd been put in mind of the auto-da-fe scene from Candide: after the natural disaster of the Lisbon earthquake, when 30,000 people had been killed, the powers-that-be held an auto-da-fe and hung lots of people to make sure there wasn't another earthquake. I suppose that with the hanging of the Rosenbergs, she thought it was incredible what had happened to the country which is supposed to defend man and the rights of democracy. So they set about writing it, and then began thirty years' of work. They started in 1953, it opened in 1956, didn't run that long, then there were the rows and she withdrew her libretto. Now there's this extraordinary tradition of rewriting, rearranging and reordering Candide every time there's a new production.'

Anna Christy in CandideWhat appealed to Carsen about it? 'I was asked to do this by Jean-Luc Choplin at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, before it become a co-production. I knew the piece quite well from recordings but I had not seen it staged. It's not done very often, and it's like this production – unless you're in London for the right weeks, you're not going to see it. I hadn't seen it on Broadway on its recent outings at New York City Opera, or indeed here at the National. So I was very familiar with the musical material but not so familiar with the libretto, and I hadn't read the book for years. I began to study it, and quite early on in the process I had an intuition. So much of Voltaire's writing is extremely topical; he wasn't allowed to live in France and was exiled in Switzerland, and he had to write half of his stuff under a pseudonym. The book is a very extraordinary mixture of things, but more than anything it was topical. He took a shot at all sorts of institutions.

'The problem was, when Hellman and Bernstein came to turn it into a musical comedy two hundred years later, the references weren't particularly funny any more because nobody knew who most of these people were. Voltaire was taking aim at institutions such as government, religion, politics, the military, sex – you name it, he was going for it. So I thought that since Hellmann and Bernstein originally wrote the piece because of the witch hunts in the America of the 1950s, and they had truffled the lyrics with stuff that would have resonated with an audience of their day, maybe if we set this at the start of the period in which they were composing, in the optimistic golden America before Kennedy was assassinated, and continued the story over fifty years, we could see how we went from the idea of the American Dream to where we are now.

'So I talked with the designer Michael Levine about how we might do such a production, and then went to talk to the Bernstein Foundation and the trustees of the Hugh Wheeler estate, because if they didn't agree to the way I wanted to do it – which I was by now convinced was the right way to do it – we couldn't have performed it. I needed to rewrite the book, but I wanted to keep the lyrics the same, so they gave me permission to have a go at it. I was really thrilled that when I handed it to them, they didn't ask me to change anything in my script. And that included rearranging the numbers between the acts. It's an amazing piece: Bernstein was an incredible mixture of emotion and intellect, head and heart.'

This kind of sophistication might be thought alien to musical comedy on Broadway, but Carsen explains how well the subject matter suited Bernstein in particular. 'You have to read the novella: it's a strange, strange book, and very shocking. Candide may not be what everybody wants, but for what it is, it's the best version of itself. There are more emotional or spectacular musicals, but Candide is an incredible mixture of things. Bernstein illustrates that musically by having all the different dance forms – waltzes and tangos and paso dobles. He's embraced all the musical forms; it's a great sleight of hand. The work is also in the great tradition of all those eighteenth-century books like Tom Jones and Vanity Fair, with a particular moral, a sardonic edge. Voltaire casts a cold eye over what's wrong with us. There aren't many pieces that do that.'

One of the problems of the piece, as I know from recently experiencing Hal Prince's New York City Opera production, is that its narrative can be so dense that just keeping up with the story can be difficult enough, let alone getting beyond it. How has Carsen coped with the busy nature of the story? 'We had to find a device that would work for this piece that keeps changing constantly. First Candide is educated, then he joins the army, then there's the shipwreck, the earthquake, the auto-da-fe – all these things. So I came up with the idea of television, which stemmed from setting the piece in the 1950s. Also, in one of the more recent rewritings, the character of Voltaire was added to the piece as a narrator. I thought that was an excellent idea, and when we did the production in Paris originally, Voltaire spoke in French, while the rest of the piece was done in English. Then when we took it to Italy, the actor spoke the lines in Italian, and now of course for ENO he's doing it in English.

Anna Christy in Candide'But I also wanted something to separate Voltaire, as a figure of the eighteenth century, from the twentieth century, so we had him in front of a television. In the early 1950s, the television was still a dream device for lots of people, a marvellous new invention; it had not yet become the device upon which we saw nothing but world disasters. So that was one way to put the whole piece together and actually make a virtue of the 'zapping' nature of the narrative. Another thing was to try to keep the dialogue to a minimum. I made Voltaire's part a lot bigger, and about ninety percent of what he says is what he said in the original book; all of his words come from the novel. I had to put a few things in to get us from one bit to another, but I've shortened some of the scenes to allow us to have more musical numbers. For instance, we have 'We are Women', 'Quiet' and 'The 'King's Barcarolle', which aren't always done.'

How important is the piece in Bernstein's output? 'I'm not very good at that sort of question, because it's certainly his most important piece to some people, but for me it's a matter of opinion. When Bernstein was writing it, it must have been the most important thing to him at that time, and he didn't know what was coming afterwards. But looking at it with fifty years' hindsight, we can say that it was an extraordinarily brave idea. People didn't know the book in America, and still don't, so to take something like that and pull it off is an enormous achievement. It was incredible to stage it in France, because every child reads it at school over there, so everyone knows it. Voltaire's a national hero in France; there are twelve statues of him in Paris and he's credited with being behind the French Revolution, practically. So I think it's very important in Bernstein's oeuvre, because it's so delightful, and the music's fabulous. Quite apart from the showstoppers like 'Glitter and Be Gay' and 'Make Our Garden Grow', there are all kinds of wonderful little pieces like the Old Lady's Tango. It's brilliant.'

How did Carsen go about casting the piece? 'You could cast it all with people from musical theatre. The difference for me between an opera house version and a Broadway version is the band – nothing else is different. It's the same music, and they were miked in Paris and Milan, as they will be here, because of the dialogue. It's clearer where you are with it, then. I think what happened when Bernstein made his famous recording of it is that he broadened it out and it could sound a little Mahlerian and portentous. I don't think those tempi could ever be done in a stage production. It's fine in concert, but not in the theatre.

'I wanted to cast an actor who could sing as Pangloss/Voltaire/Martin and a similar singing actress as the Old Lady. Alex Jennings was my first choice when we wanted an English actor for Voltaire, and I was delighted he agreed to do it. Aside from the fact that he's a fine actor, he's also a very gifted musician and singer. I had the feeling he would have the right understanding for the material. Similarly, I thought Beverly Klein would be perfect as the Old Lady, she's a wonderful performer. Then we're very lucky to have opera singers such as Toby Spence as Candide, and Anna Christy, who was in the Paris and Milan versions too, as Cunegonde. Opera companies are divided into those that are interested in the director's input and those that forget so that it's too late to do anything, but English National Opera has been wonderful about letting me influence the casting.'

Although Candide was conceived for Broadway, Carsen feels it suits ENO's strengths particularly well. 'I think they love it – the chorus is great, and they dance well. That was another important thing about the production for me. I wanted to have a fantastic choreographer, and I was thrilled that we got Rob Ashford to do this. I've always admired his work, and when we first started talking about it, I told him that I felt we could put choreography in a lot more pieces than is normally the case. He's done a fabulous job, and it's been a huge pleasure doing it with him. He's really gone for all the different styles. And we haven't just restaged it exactly as it was done elsewhere. Of course it's very similar, but these are different actors and we haven't stuck to it rigidly.'

CandideRobert Carsen is one of the busiest opera directors on the circuit and is in demand the world over. In England alone, for instance, the 2007-08 season started with his staging of Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride at Covent Garden, while in addition to this Candide at ENO he has also just staged a new production of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea at Glyndebourne. 'It's been a very strange year for me, because earlier in the season, in addition to some opera stuff, I designed an exhibition in Paris at the Grand Palais about Marie Antoinette. I was asked by the French Arts Minister to do it, so that was an extraordinary thing, and it's still on until the end of June. I like doing different things. I'm going to Munich after this to do Ariadne auf Naxos for the festival with Adrienne Pieczonka, Diana Damrau and Kent Nagano, which is happening in July. Then I'm doing my first Lully opera, Armide, with William Christie next season. That opens in Paris in October, and it's a very beautiful piece. Then in June, I'm doing Carmen for the first time ever, in Amsterdam with Mariss Jansons. Those are the only two new productions I have next year, so it's a bit quieter, but I also have revivals, which I like to do. We're doing Kat'a Kabanova in Madrid with Karita Mattila, which I've done at La Scala, Antwerp and Cologne, and that's being made into a DVD in December.'

Does he like to do his revivals because he doesn't like his original vision to be dilated? 'It's not a question of control. When it's a co-production, the co-producing theatres expect you to be there, because it's not like they're just renting it. But I've always tried to go to revivals because they become like children, and also, I think revivals should actually be better than the first time. Sometimes it's frustrating when people want to throw a revival on in a short space of time, because very often we want to change things – perhaps a costume or a piece of scenery isn't right, or something else needs to change. It's very odd working on a production, because you start thinking about it a couple of years in advance, then when I'm rehearsing it I don't just aim for what I thought it was going to be like, I have to see what it's telling me when we're putting it together. The recent Poppea at Glyndebourne was an example of that: some very special things came out during the rehearsals for it that I could never have predicted. When you go back for the revivals and you have different people playing the parts, you often need to change the piece, but it's an assistant's job to keep it how it was, so I like to go if I can so that it can change. On the other hand, I have to have time to prepare the new pieces.'

With so many productions behind him – including a season of Verdi's Shakespeare operas and Wagner's Ring – it seems amazing that Carsen is only now about to stage his first Carmen.Has he never been asked before? 'I have been asked a couple of times, and for some reason I didn't feel keen, but somehow this time it felt right. The Amsterdam Opera is a wonderful space to work in, and working with Maestro Jansons is irresistible. One of the most important parts of working in opera is the relationship with the conductor. For instance, Rumon Gamba's doing an incredible job on Candide – we've just had our first stage and orchestra rehearsal, and it sounded wonderful.'

Anna Christy in CandideWhat other pieces would he like to do? 'Most of Shakespeare!' he laughs. 'I'd like to do a lot more theatre; I trained as an actor before I was a director, and although I've done lots of opera, I don't want to direct opera exclusively. But in opera terms, I'd like to do things like The Rake's Progress – the libretto is incredible – and The Queen of Spades. I'm going to do The Makropoulos Case and some new pieces, and I'd like to do some more Handel.'

How about other musical theatre pieces? 'I would love to do more – any of the classics would do me! I did The Beautiful Game by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which I thought was a wonderful piece; it lasted a year but it was a tall order to have a piece about terrorism. It was supposed to go to America but then 9/11 happened and that was that. It was a great experience for me, though – that particular form of collaboration. The mixture of acting and dancing and singing is extraordinarily difficult to bring off.'

Did he always want to be a director? 'No, I wanted to be an actor from when I was about eight years old. That's why I came to this country. I wanted to go to drama school and have conservatoire training rather than the university training which I had. So I came here and auditioned, then went to the Bristol Old Vic. It was there that I came across this wonderful teacher who told me that he saw something different in me, that I had lots of ideas and saw the bigger picture – and that I always drove everyone crazy! When he said that to me, I saw the possibility of directing, though it was difficult to get an assistant director's job.'

Is he a frustrated actor, then, I ask? 'No, I don't think so. I enjoy this too much; I really do. I love collaborating. It's an honour to do this, I'm very lucky. A director's job – apart from responsibilities to the composer and text and audience and so on – is about bringing everyone's energy together. I try to do that. Theatre is an entirely collaborative process, and it's also a compromise. You have to enjoy that, and embrace it.'

Anna Christy in CandideWhat would he like to be remembered for? 'For having done good work, I hope; for having moved people, emotionally and intellectually. Opera is such a mixture of head and heart. You're constantly working with the fact that the music is abstract and the words are concrete; when the two come together, it's not just an emotional experience devoid of intellectual engagement, and it's not too dry or unemotional. I try to make them both work. The balance is always different because each piece is different. I've never wanted to specialise in one style or period, because I enjoy working with a range. I've done a show for Disney, which is still on – Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which I wrote with Ian Burton. I loved doing it, with all those Cowboys and Indians – it was crazy. I always hope to work with people who know a lot more about what they're doing than I do, so that I can learn from then. It's a real pleasure. The exhibition about Marie Antoinette was a case in point: I knew very little about her, and it was fascinating to see how the whole museum world works. And now I'm doing another two.'

Does he not fancy writing a piece of his own? 'I don't think I could do it. Candide was quite different: I was adapting material that already existed. As a dramaturgical director, working on The Beautiful Game was very interesting. That was commercial theatre, and there was a lot of tension involved in getting it to work. It was really wonderful to work with Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton, who was at the beginning of working in musical theatre. To be able to contribute to the structure of that piece was fabulous for me. It was the same with Candide, except the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton figures are no longer with us! But I think I'm more of a story-teller than a writer: it fascinates me how people write things down, and why they wanted to do it in the first place.'

By Dominic McHugh

Robert Carsen's acclaimed production of Candide opens at English National Opera on Wednesday 25 June. More information at

Other interviews with artists involved in this production of Candide:

Anna Christy, who plays Cunegonde

Image credit for Candide production images

(c) Marie-Noelle Robert/Théâtre du Châtelet 2006