Candide covers the absolute gamut of human experience and it’s coming to Adelaide

Candide Alex Lewis
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For the first time in a decade, State Opera of South Australia and State Theatre Company of South Australia are joining forces to stage Candide later this month. We had a chat with Alexander Lewis who is playing the titular role of Candide. We chat about the production, about how its themes are still ever-present and relevant, about optimism, and about Alexander’s various roles and challenges in his career.

Candide Alex Lewis

Alexander, you’re playing the titular role of Candide in the upcoming State Opera of South Australia and State Theatre Company of South Australia production. Can you tell us a little bit about the production and your role?

The production is a revisit of one that we first did a few years ago now with the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs at the Opera House. It was sort of a semi-staged production, but there’s nothing sort of semi-staged about it from our point of view. It’s full of character and life and colours. It’s an extraordinary piece and the production is extraordinary because it has the lightest and brightest highs and beautiful, heartfelt, loving moments and tender moments but then obviously a lot of darkness happens in the work as well. So, it balances all of that. And we have the orchestra present in chorus and it’s an epic tale, it’s an epic piece. Certainly, the way we approach things, we have to show extremes and we absolutely push the boundaries of that in the production.


Candide himself is such a beautiful character to play. It’s very complicated, and yet it’s incredibly simple. It’s the idea of representing goodness of hope, of happiness and positivity, of naivety. He’s someone going out into the world trying to figure out how he fits and how we all fit into the world. Why we can’t just get along. You know why. Why there is grief, sadness, pain, hurt, anger. The balance of the light and the dark throughout.


It’s got a lot of challenges. All the roles in the show are particularly challenging in a variety of unique ways. It’s one of the great things about this piece. Candide is an epic journey of coming of age, of trying to understand the world, emotionally, intellectually, philosophically. So, it’s a beauty.


Are there challenges in the singing of the score, or is it the challenges in portraying all the emotions that your character Candide goes through?

All of the above. Absolutely, all of the above. There are some vocal challenges for a lot of the characters. For Candide, there are some technical challenges, purely vocal technical challenges.


It can be portrayed in a number of different ways. It’s been sung by a lot of different people over the years. Obviously, I come out of the operatic side of things. I’ve done a lot of musical theatre as well, but because this is Bernstein and because it’s a huge orchestra that we’ll be singing with in huge choruses, I do approach things reasonably operatically. So, I make some choices here and there throughout the night to bring in as many vocal colours and shades as well.


Emotionally it is quite the journey, but he always tries to find the positive until it all becomes a bit too much for him. No spoilers, but we obviously lead to one of the all-time greatest chorus and ensemble numbers in Make Our Garden Grow right at the end of the show, which is challenging to get through. It is so epic. It is just such an immense piece of collective singing and music making. It’s quite stunning.


Photo d'Alex Lewis et Claire O'Connor dans la production de Candide du Sydney Philharmonia Choir. Crédit photo : Grant Leslie
Photo of Alexander Lewis in the Sydney Philharmonia Choir production of Candide. Image credit: Grant Leslie


In the original text, Candide witnesses some quite brutal violence. How have you gone about portraying that in the production? Is it violent and difficult for the audience to watch?

Certainly not difficult for the audience to watch. It’s all very heightened. There’s a lot of bright colours. Things will be slightly different to what they were in in Sydney but, you know, there’s violence implied in the musical setting often; a lot of the violence is actually dealt with in an absurd way, which can be really, really effective.


But yes, there’s a whole big number of auto-da-fé about hangings and floggings, and all that sort of stuff. It’s set in in an absurd fashion to really highlight the madness that humans often go through and that kind of collective madness that has been experienced at various times throughout history.


Yeah, it still is.

Yeah, exactly. That’s one of the extraordinary things about this work is that, Voltaire and all the rest, we’re still here wondering whether  we are going to learn and you think about what’s going on around the world. No stone gets left unturned in terms of putting the information out there, but it’s certainly not done in a graphic way.


No, you’re not you’re not going to be sitting there feeling uncomfortable.

No, not at all. It is absurd. It’s done in, as I said, in a quite an absurd way for good reason.


Has playing the role changed your own views on optimism?

A little bit. It’s been interesting. Obviously, I did it several years ago and since then we’ve all had a lot going on. We did it in 2018 or something like that. So, there’s a lot of stuff that’s happened for many of us; for most of us in the world since then. I have a child now as well, so that’s interesting.


Candide has various meditations throughout. There are these moments of contemplation all the time. In that regard, it’s been quite nice to revisit because with COVID and all the rest of it and child rearing, you kind of get stuck in your routines and the daily grind. And perhaps just generally in the modern world with everyone on the socials and Instagram and all that sort of stuff constantly maybe we don’t kind of meditate and, and reflect inwardly on a different type of collective experience enough. So, that is quite an interesting thing to think about.


And obviously whenever you’re performing anything, you’re thinking about the human experience, because our job is to replicate that or to highlight parts of the human experience. And so, for this piece, which covers the gamut, that’s quite an interesting place for us to all hang out for a little while.


What actually attracted you to the role and how did you prepare for it?

Look, I’m a huge Leonard Bernstein fan, and have been for a really long time. Having grown up  in the opera world with my family and then also just my love of musical theatre, I feel like my musical instincts and my dramatic instincts slot quite well into Bernstein’s world and Bernstein’s worlds, plural.  It’s some of the finest, most beautiful, compelling, moving music ever written. Make Our Garden grow, as I’ve already mentioned, is one of the most phenomenal pieces of music written. It’s one of the most amazing things to perform. I think it’s also one of the most amazing things to receive as an audience member as well.


Obviously Glitter and Be Gay, which is one of those big show-stopping numbers is, again, one of the most outrageous and brilliant pieces of comedy and, composition. So there’s a lot to love about it. If you get offered offer the opportunity to stand on a stage with a full-sized orchestra to sing some of this material, you don’t turn that down.


How did you initially find out about the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs performance ? Did you audition? Were you handpicked?

I’d worked with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs with Brett Weymark there before, and Mitch Butel and I had crossed paths a little bit. We knew of one another. He’d worked with my wife actually back then. So, I was working with Brett and Sydney Phil on another concert and they said they were planning it. And I said, “me please!”. And Brett thankfully agreed back then, which is really, really lovely.


Interestingly, earlier on this year for Victorian Opera did a very different, style of Candide production. I was also in that, in a bunch of other roles. I wasn’t playing Candide in that one. I played various other characters, which is one of the wonderful things about this piece. It can be interpreted in so many different ways. I fitted into the mix there in a very different way to the way we’ve set up this show, in our version, which is really lovely. So, I kind of basically know the whole show inside out now.

Photo d'Alex Lewis et Claire O'Connor dans la production de Candide du Sydney Philharmonia Choir. Crédit photo : Grant Leslie
Photo of Alexander Lewis and Caroline O’Connor in the Sydney Philharmonia Choir production of Candide. Image credit: Grant Leslie


It’s unusual to have it staged by two companies in the same year.  Candide is not a show that gets put on very often.

No, it’s not, sadly. I mean, it should be done more often. It’s kind of wild because, you know, whenever it does get put on, it’s always, generally speaking, very well received and audiences go along and really love it. I don’t know the plannings of the administrations of the companies that have done it but obviously with the film Maestro that came out of the Bernstein story, that was Oscar nominated, and all the rest, it worked out quite nicely in that regard to have Bernstein’s name out there a little bit.


There is a lot going on. Stylistically the absurdity, the kind of vast farcical elements that get used as well as the kind of heartbreaking and the hilarious stuff that goes on, it can be overwhelming. So, I think maybe it gets done every so often because of that. But whenever it is put on, people absolutely lap it up. The things that are going on around the world at the moment and the divides between creed and culture and all the rest of it are still ever present. It resonates quite nicely.


How does this production differ from the Sydney Philharmonia Choir one that you did in 2018? You’ve got some of the same cast, you’ve got Mitchell Butel directing and performing.

A lot of the same cast. So, there’s a couple of different people. Obviously, Mitchell directed the last time. Now he’s performing as well as co-director with Amy (Campbell). It’s going to be interesting.


Obviously with Hans coming in, it’s going to be a lot of fun. We’ve replaced one high energy type of fun in Kanen Breen with a different type of high energy fun in Hans, which is really nice.


It’s a different crew, different orchestra. I cannot wait to play with the orchestra. The orchestra in Adelaide are just so phenomenal. I cannot wait to hear them play that. And it’s a beautiful company to work for over there as well. We’re all a little older,  we’re all a little wiser so the story will speak a little differently, I think, to the way we did it. But they’ve added a bit of polish and a little bit of extra flair, is my understanding, to where we were in Sydney. It’s certainly going to be bright and colourful and a lot of fun and deeply moving at the same time.


Have you read the book?

A long time ago. I mean, I studied Voltaire and all the rest of it back in high school. The French Revolution was one of my pet subjects back in my history classes a long time ago, so I’m reasonably familiar with a lot of the history. But this time around, with things going on, it’s all been a little bit hectic, and it is quite a tome to try and get through.


Understanding that it has been a while since you’ve read it, do you know how the theatre version differs to the original text or the English text?

The thing that’s interesting with this work as well is that the piece itself has evolved significantly over time. There are many, many different versions to this. So, one of the ways that this current version differs to the version that I just did at the Victorian Opera is that while the base elements are largely the same, there are a number of characters that aren’t written in our version, which is more of the concert semi-staged version whereas with Vic Opera we did a slightly more theatrical version.


Obviously, it was Bernstein’s interpretation of it at a fairly significant moment in time for him that he felt compelled to write this work. Again, a lot has changed since  then. It’s fairly heavy going from memory in Voltaire, whereas the theatrical and  heightened comedic elements are ever present in the performance version. It’s a wild ride.


Definitely. You’ve touched a little bit on how it’s still relevant today. How do you think the themes and messages of Candide will resonate with audiences?

Literally Making the garden grow at the end of the work is this idea that we are all flawed. I think one of the things is that the idea of greed is ever present, of being self-serving is ever present.  today. Bizarrely, though, because we are more connected than ever via the internet and social media, etc. I think for many people, this idea of being part of a collective, being part of a community is lacking. I think ultimately  by the end of it, you all say, “look, we see one another, we are all flawed but if we all care for one another and we care for the world around us, then we can make positive change. We can experience joy. We can experience love. There’s compromise for everyone, but we shouldn’t be putting ourselves ahead of other people. We are here to work, we are here to help support one another and support the world for the people that are coming after us.


Hopefully, those sorts of ideas will be felt by people that make them reflect, “oh yeah, what have I done to other people? What have I done for other people?” And hopefully leave with a little bit more of the latter than the former.


You’ve said that it’s a performance where you’ve you’re really touching on the absurd elements of everything. How do you yourself as a performer approach balancing the comic and the tragic elements?

Well, in many ways it’s easy for me because I’m a straight man in the show, so the wildness happens around me and to me. They say all operas are sex, death and politics and these cover the gamut in one night. There’s the idea of young love blooming and then heartbreak at having that taken away and then being challenged and then being put into situations of war and death and grief and loss and all of these kind of crazy things. And they happen in a really big, over the top way.


But Candide still needs to feel it in a normal way. He still needs to see the truth of it and have that effect of change in him psychologically and emotionally. Because he is essentially, in many ways, hope personified, doing everything he can to hold on to this idea, this belief that everything happens for the best of all possible reasons and the best of all possible worlds, and just sticking to that mantra for as long as humanly possible.


He sees things, and he starts to grow up. He comes of age and he grows up and he starts to see the world. And then it’s like, well, maybe this isn’t going to work, but there’s still naivety at the end of the piece as well. So, for me, in many ways it’s quite straightforward in that I’m playing the straight man in a piece with a whole lot of madness around me.


Turning now to you, you studied at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Was that with a view to becoming an opera singer? Do you classify yourself as an opera singer?

Well, I sort of do. I do both. I mean I’m a singer. But yeah, as I mentioned, I grew up in the opera world with my parents and classical music was kind of my first love in many ways. But then I discovered musical theatre around my late high school years and the year after high school and I did a lot of acting in high school as well, and a lot of plays with the Australian Theatre for Young people. So, I just kind of liked performing in general, and was just going to see what opportunities fell for me and the opportunity to go to WAAPA and do the musical theatre program was the right move.


Then I graduated from WAAPA and I was involved in musicals, here in Oz, touring around a little bit. And then my voice changed a little bit. My voice, my voice got higher. So, all of a sudden, the world of becoming an operatic tenor was potentially on the cards. I went overseas for a little while and auditioned for some competitions and some young artist programs and became a young artist at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I was based there for three years and, and then stayed on another couple of years after that to do some more work at the MET and various other places before traveling around.


I’ve mainly done operatic stuff overseas, and bizarrely, done a lot of more musical theatre over here and a little less opera. It would be nice to do both. I’ve worked a lot with Barrie Kosky in Berlin.

Photo d'Alex Lewis et Claire O'Connor dans la production de Candide du Sydney Philharmonia Choir. Crédit photo : Grant Leslie
Photo of Alexander Lewis and Caroline O’Connor in the Sydney Philharmonia Choir production of Candide. Image credit: Grant Leslie

Yes, I saw you were at the Komische Oper Berlin as well.

Yeah, the Komische was great and Barrie and I crossed paths during my Lindemann days [The Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program] and I had an opportunity to audition for him. Given my theatre background and my physical abilities, particularly post WAAPA, I was dancing a lot and moving a lot, and my acting was always, ever front and centre for me in many ways. I think that was very much aligned with Barrie’s works, with the way he works, and the way Komische works as well.


So, I had some wonderful, opportunities and time and obviously COVID took some of those away recently. And Barrie is now off doing lots of other things all over the place. Being able to do that overseas has been pretty cool. And that’s one of the great things about Candide is that it sits in the middle. It really is right where kind of I sit between the two musical worlds. It’s nice.


This is a joint production between the State Theatre Company of South Australia and the State Opera Company of South Australia .

Yeah, there’s a lot of dialogue, for Mitchell especially. Chess, the musical, was the last thing I did in Adelaide, but I did The Merry Widow for State Opera a little while ago; abeautiful Graham Murphy production.. So, it’s a real bag of all sorts. It’s great.


Of all of the roles and productions that you have been in, which have challenged you the most? And what did you do to overcome the challenges?

Oh, there’s challenges and there’s challenges. I’ve done an opera by Shostakovich called The Nose quite a lot. It’s a crazy wild work. That poses an awful lot of musical and vocal challenges. It’s an extremely high art to sing about 15 high C’s in that one. So, it makes the famous Mazeppa Maria’s Aria look like a walk in the park. So that’s one type of challenge.


Obviously when you do something like West Side Story on the harbour, there’s all kinds of challenges in that production.


Yes. You’re in the elements.

I had a pretty severe back injury during that as well, which was fine. I got through the show.


There’s a job that I did in Santa Fe, Janáček’s Jenůfa, which was partially outdoors again, and it is an incredibly difficult, complicated music and language. It’s big music to sing, a difficult subject matter, really in minutiae. There’s a whole lot of infanticide that happens in that. It’s all very, very dark and very, very full on. And my character was quite violent. So that was really challenging to find a journey of redemption for Laca, my character in Jenůfa, and was really challenging in that regard.


Every role has really got a challenge, of different types. I guess if it was always easy, you might get a bit bored. A new work that I premiered in Boston and then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by young American composer Matthew Aucoin, a piece called Crossing,  is probably the thing that in many ways I’m most proud of. It was based on the poem and diaries of Walt Whitman during his time as a nurse during the American civil War. I worked with an incredible director, Diane Paulus. Matthew Aucoin, the composer, is just an extraordinary, extraordinary talent. and he’s doing all sorts of wonderful, wonderful things. But again, the music layer was really, really challenging, but physically and dramatically, we were really pushed.


The Civil War was an absolutely horrific situation and the greatest loss of American life in history. And, in many ways, the first time that that type of brutality and war had occurred anywhere in the world. The loss of life was enormous from infection because there were shrapnel wounds for the first time. My character was a tormented young man and deserter from the other side who sought shelter in the opposition’s hospitals but his body slightly deteriorated. So, from a physical perspective that was really, really challenging for me. And working with the limp and the whole of the right side of my body eventually gave up and then I died.


It was amazing, though, because when we were up in Boston rehearsing and we had the head of surgery at Harvard come and talk to us about our wounds. We were really specific with that. “I’ve got a shrapnel wound here. How’s that going to affect my body in the way I move?” And “is 24 hours a realistically time frame from point of injury of your infection to death and doing all those sorts of things?


They were really authentic with that then.

Yeah, it really was. You talked a little bit about the violence and, and those sorts of things in Candide but here there were amputees and a lot of very graphic injury in that whereas ours is handled in a much different way.


Thankfully I might add! Why should audiences go and see Candide?

Because it’s a ripper! It’s a bloody good night out! Because it’s an opportunity to share a unique collective experience. Musically, and, dramatically, there’s nothing quite like this out there anywhere. The cast is phenomenal. We’ve got the extraordinary Caroline O’Connor on stage and given an opportunity to go and watch someone like her is an opportunity not to be missed. To hear this music, to hear the complexity, the beauty, the genius of Bernstein in the orchestration, the character that exists in the orchestration alone, let alone the wild character ride that we go through on stage, and we’ve got a wonderful chorus in there as well.


It’s hilarious, it’s uplifting. It’s moving. It’s dramatic. It covers the absolute gamut of human experience in a 2 1/2 hour period. To have a shared collective experience through music, I think is one of the great gifts of our existence.


Get along. Grab a ticket. Go, go, go!

We thank Alexander Lewis for this interview and cannot wait to see Candide !



WHAT: Candide, a joint production from State Opera of South Australia and State Theatre Company of South Australia

WHERE: Her Majesty’s Theatre, ADELAIDE

WHEN: Four performances only:

Thursday 23 May 7:30pm

Friday 24 May 7:30pm

Saturday 25 May 2:00pm; and

Saturday 25 May 7:30pm

HOW: Purchase your tickets via this link

HOW MUCH: Ticket prices range from $75 for C Reserve to $159 for Premium seats. There is also a one-off service fee of $9.55 per transaction.


Have you ever read or seen Candide


For more events with links to France and the Francophonie happening in Australia this month, check out our What’s on in May

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