Among the many devotees of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, the exuberantly operatic adaptation of Voltaire’s epic novel, we can count world-renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.
Currently appearing at the Kennedy Center in the WNO’s revival of director Francesca Zambello’s 2015 Glimmerglass Festival production, Graves doesn’t hesitate when asked which element of Bernstein’s operetta most moves her.
“The message. Without a doubt,” the D.C. native says. “The message that what’s important is for us to build and create something in this life, and that we’re not good or bad or pure…. We’re just [doing] the best that we know how to do.”
Its astute message nothwithstanding, Candide occasionally has divided audiences during its decades-long odyssey towards being considered a classic. Although, there appears to have been no disagreement that an undeniable delight of the often tragic tale is the vivacious and cunning Old Lady, a character brought to life in this lavishly costumed production by Graves.
“She’s a woman who’s had to do whatever it takes to survive,” says Graves, adding, “She’s been through a lot of ups and downs, and through all those great fluctuations, she’s survived.”
In Graves’ own career odyssey, the role marks a welcome return to the Opera House, where she co-starred last spring in Champion. Reviving a part that she’d originated in the Terence Blanchard opera, she essayed a very different sort of survivor as the mother of boxer Emile Griffith. Yet, both roles embody, in Graves’ words, a woman “who’s loved living.”
The singer, known for her Carmen, adds of the semi-comical Old Lady, “She’s a good time, she has a good sense of humor and she’s a very melodramatic person. She’s a real hoot.” The character, who joins lovers Candide (Alek Shrader) and Cunegonde (Emily Pogorelc) on a transatlantic journey, also offers the eminently amusing tango “I’m Easily Assimilated.”
Graves acknowledges that in her own journey, “being able to assimilate in all sorts of different cultures and languages with all different kinds of people,” has been a key element of her success. “Growing up in Washington, D.C. and following this dream to become an opera singer and having that take me all over the world…in all of those situations, being a singer means, and certainly being an opera singer means, that you have to be a malleable human being.”
Truly an international artist, Graves, who maintains homes in New York and Maryland, credits her family and upbringing with her steadfast commitment to her hometown.
“I had a wonderful mother who was very logical and very open-minded, and very fair when it comes to humanity and really a philosophy of kindness, and the philosophy of inclusion,” she says. “I go back every year to the Duke Ellington School where I went to school. I do master classes, I work with young students. I do meet and greets. Giving back to the community has been a big theme in my career. It’s something that’s been very important to me to do, being able to give back to a city that has been my nourishing ground.”
Candide runs until Saturday, May 26, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $45 to $275. Call 202-467-4600, or visit Kennedy-Center.org.