‘You are very hard,’ observes Candide, the titular character to Voltaire's 1759 novella. ‘Because I know what life is,’ comes the reply. This is a tipping point for Candide, who – through a series of chaotic events – begins to question the accepted importance of optimistic thinking. The story satirises a fashionable 18th-century theory that everything has a reason – and subsequently, the world as it is must be the best one possible. In some ways, Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason lives on today, refracted in social media affirmations reminding us that ‘today is going to be a great day’ if only we ‘put our positive pants on’ [sic]. Positive thinking is important, but as Voltaire demonstrates, it can neither protect us from injustice, nor should it be used as an excuse not to help those in need.

Just as Voltaire was deeply moved by the varying calamities of the mid-18th century – the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the Seven Years’ War, and the stark contrast in standards of living – so Leonard Bernstein, discussing Candide in 1953 with playwright Lillian Hellman, was living through another period of upheaval. Relations between the US and Russia were frosty, and it was a dangerous time to demonstrate left-leaning sympathies in America. Hellman compared Voltaire's representation of the Catholic Church’s Inquisitions – where so-called ‘heretics’ were murdered for the good of the community – with the House Un-American Activities Committee who were ruining the lives of anyone they suspected of being a Communist and whipping up fear of ‘Reds under the bed’. Bernstein, as the child of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants who settled in Massachusetts at the turn of the last century, was further compelled by Candide's plight as a refugee. Candide the operetta first appeared on Broadway in 1956, although it was to undergo multiple revisions over the following years.  

At first glance, Candide seems an unlikely basis for a stage production, with its complex political-philosophical themes and multiple settings. However, in the aftermath of the Second World War, as information about the horrors of concentration camps and mass migrations of persecuted people came to light, focusing on the story of a man forced to leave his life behind resonated – as it continues to do so today. The parodic nature of the libretto ‘though war may seem a bloody curse, it is a blessing in reverse’ – brings gallows humour to the dark subject matter. Perhaps the most pertinent precursor to this was Viktor Ullmann's one-act opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis). Written for seven singers and 13 instrumentalists (including banjo and saxophone), the cast includes Death, who has gone on strike in protest at the behaviour of Emperor Overall – a thinly veiled cipher for Hitler. It was written and rehearsed in 1943 while the composer and cast were detained at the Terezín concentration camp; rehearsal of the work is likely to have contributed to their subsequent murders at Auschwitz.  

‘By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon,’ reflected Ullmann in a diary entry; ‘our endeavour with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.' Similarly, Bernstein once proclaimed that ‘[t]his will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before’. The violence in this case was the assassination of John F Kennedy, whom the composer admired. (Bernstein was commissioned to compose and conduct a fanfare for Kennedy’s inaugural gala, and the President and First Lady attended the opening night of Candide.) Bernstein’s assertion to face aggression with musical endeavour has been widely quoted ever since. 

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, with around 25 million refugees across the world. While most will – one hopes – never meet an old woman who has lost a buttock to cannibals, as Candide does, the real-life journeys are often equally terrifying. For its flag, Refugee Nation chose the colours orange and black – in solidarity with those who wear life vests to cross seas in the hope of safer lands. Of course, not all have life vests and many drown in heart-breaking circumstances. Attempted crossings via the English Channel have become so commonplace that the British government now publishes daily data on the number of small boats holding migrants that have reached British waters. ‘Small boat’ is something of a misnomer: those attempting to reach the UK out of desperation, without the necessary paperwork or plane tickets, travel via anything from dinghies to kayaks.  

After the perilous journey, many refugees endure further hardship and discrimination as they seek resettlement. Nigel Farage’s 2016 Breaking Point poster, which showed a long queue of migrants – suggesting inaccurate numbers of those seeking asylum in the UK (the image was actually from Slovenia) – is seared into popular consciousness and the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ policies. Weaving Bernstein's comment about music into their approach, arts organisations are increasingly collaborating with charities to help support integration. Scottish Opera’s new production of Candide features a community chorus in partnership with the Maryhill Integration Network, an organisation bringing asylum seekers, refugees, and settled inhabitants of Glasgow together through art.  

Similarly, Welsh National Opera's recent Migrations was produced in partnership with the Welsh Refugee Council, working with local groups. The International Orchestra of Refugees also follows this approach, using music to improve resettlement and empower asylum seekers. Founded by Sebastian Agignoae, whose father escaped Romania at the height of the communist regime as a refugee, the ensemble organises collaborative music making and comprises ‘musical ambassadors of peace’.  

Classical music has long represented migrant experience, with some of history’s most famous composers and performers having been refugees. Stravinsky was unable to return to his native Russia after the First World War and eventually became a US citizen – his music was periodically banned (and conversely, revered) in his home country. Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, were expelled from the USSR and eventually stripped of their Soviet citizenship. The turbulence of the Second World War displaces many composers. Among those who managed to escape Europe were Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók and Kurt Weill who – like Stravinsky – settled in the US. Their music is among the repertoire performed by Ensemble ÉMIGRÉ, a chamber group that explores music connected to migration and human mobility. The ensemble was born from the Singing a Song in a Foreign Land project at the Royal College of Music, which celebrates the contribution made by those refugees forced to leave their homes in the mid-century.  

More recently, many musicians have been among the thousands of people forced to flee Ukraine. The newly formed Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, led by the Metropolitan Opera and the Polish National Opera, has gathered together some of these refugees, who, alongside Ukrainian members of other orchestras, are touring Europe and the US this summer. The strict conscription rules for male musicians have been waived by the Ukrainian government in recognition of the orchestra’s powerful cultural impact – a literal example of Bernstein’s recommendation that our response to aggression should be to ‘make music more intensely’.  

Contemporary operas are following Bernstein's lead, with the role of the refugee increasingly placed centre stage. Jonathan Dove's 1998 work Flight opens with an Immigration Officer looking to arrest the Refugee, who cannot leave the airport because he does not have a passport or other documents allowing him to enter the country legally (the plot, based on the real-life story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri – an Iranian refugee who lived at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for 18 years – was also used in 2004 film The Terminal starring Tom Hanks). The other characters' plotlines represent the mundane or relative ease of life in comparison to the plight of the Refugee, who is ominously summoned by the airport Controller at the close of the final scene. Garsington Opera’s Dalia, premiered earlier this summer, centres around the eponymous heroine – a refugee who finds solace in cricket after becoming separated from her mother and enduring prejudice from her foster home. Like other opera companies, Garsington has also worked with refugees including Gulwali Passarlay, author of The Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey of Escape to A New Life in Britain, to ensure a sympathetic portrayal.  

The journey of a refugee is as much an emotional as a physical one. When Bernstein’s Candide – having passed through Lisbon, Paris, Buenos Aires, and the Adriatic Sea – is finally reunited with Cunegonde, he promises to ‘try, before we die, to make some sense of life’. No longer in thrall to oppressive optimism, Candide commits to enjoying small beauties, ‘We'll build our house and chop our wood,’ he sings, ‘and make our garden grow’. The whole cast repeats the phrase in the grand finale, underlining the composer's belief that we, alongside Candide, may also find peace.  


Claire Jackson is a classical music journalist who writes for BBC Music, Opera Now, and the Big Issue, among others.  


<< Back to Candide programme