Are you familiar with the Night-Blooming Cereus? It’s a flower, or, more properly, a flowering cactus that blooms only one night a year. That’s it. And if you’re not there, you won’t see it.
Ash Lawn Opera and the Oratorio Society of Virginia’s production of Candide promises to be far more spectacular than flowering cacti, but the message is the same: There is a small window to see something truly special. Don’t blink.
“The collaboration brings together 12 principal soloists, a production team, 85 choral singers, and an orchestra,” said Michelle Krisel, general and artistic director at Ash Lawn Opera. “For two performances. It’s a tremendous amount of work.”
The planning began two years ago when the newly appointed music director of the Charlottesville-based Oratorio Society, Michael Slon, approached Krisel with an idea. Could the two groups join together and pull off what couldn’t be done alone? Could they join together and perform Candide?
Originally written by French novelist Voltaire in 1759, Candide was adapted for Broadway by Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s.
The narrative follows a young man, Candide, on a Sisyphean adventure—whether it’s love, business, law, or politics, the hero is hopelessly, methodically, voraciously overmatched, outwitted, under skilled, and unprepared. And when all is lost, and no hope is to be found, what does Candide do? He, like a children’s toy on a spring, pops upright, and starts anew.
The narrative brims with a dark, cynical humor, as if a contemptuous, almost malicious, chuckle resonates through the performance.
For Slon, who is also a UVA professor, Candide was an obvious choice. “I’m a huge Bernstein fan,” said Slon. “He represents a unique force in the landscape of American music… and there is a spirit of fun throughout this score. Some of it is in the lyrics, but some of it is in the satirical playfulness of the music itself.”
Picking the show is the easy part of this affair. What comes next is a staggering amount of preparation. Soloists from all over the country are vetted, auditioned and hired, months, sometimes a year in advance.
In this case, many of the soloists have been hand-picked by Krisel. The chorus, supplied by the Oratorio Society, which brims with local talent, must be prepared. The orchestra must be assembled. The various players practice separately—the choir with their music, the soloist with theirs, and so on—until each perfects his or her component.
Then, literally days before the performance, they all arrive in the same place for the first time, and Slon assembles this massive edifice of sound, movement, and performance over three rehearsals.
It’s the equivalent of pulling the string on a ship in a bottle. Everything is meticulously arranged, carefully constructed, and completely prepared; all that’s left to do is the marvelous, magical raising of the mast.
“There’s no way the Oratorio Society could have done this on their own, or the Ash Lawn Opera could have done it on their own. The reason that we’re working together is to bring the best of all possible worlds together,” said Jane Colony Mills, executive director for the Oratorio Society.
“The spectacle of seeing 128 musicians all in one place is an extraordinary thing,” she said. “It’s awe-inspiring to hear the sound that a large group of voices can make. It’s awe-inspiring to hear a professional singer be able to carry something all on their own, blow the doors off, make the place shake.”
The Ash Lawn Opera began performing at the Paramount when it moved from Ash Lawn-Highland to Charlottesville in 2009. Michelle Krisel was named general director in 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience in the opera world. One of her biggest, if not the biggest, priorities is making opera “accessible.”
Slon echoes this. “Music is for everyone,” Slon said. “Part of the excitement is introducing something new, letting [the individual] experience it… be moved by it… enjoy it. Hopefully get past some of the stereotypes they have harbored.”
Stereotypes, indeed. Let’s clear a few things up. Operas are not exclusively performed in different languages by fat ladies in braids. Candide, along with countless others, is written and performed in English. And many of the soloists are young and beautiful.
Operas are not necessarily long, drawn out, soppy affairs. Candide (which is technically an “operetta”) runs just over two hours with an intermission. Krisel describes the show as “witty, hilarious, and fast-paced.”
Operas are not for fancy, snooty folks who eat caviar by the bucket. They are for everyone, everywhere. If you’ve never been to the opera, this is a chance to try it for yourself. After all, when will the flower bloom again?