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  • Kerry Auer Fergus

Spoofing High Opera: "You Were Dead, You Know" from Bernstein's Candide

Today we’re going to tackle one of my favorite love duets, “You Were Dead, You Know” from Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide. But before we address the piece, we need to acknowledge the source material: the novella Candide, Voltaire’s 1759 masterpiece. Above all else, Candide is a satire. That’s important to remember as we take a look at the score. Voltaire was satirizing the idea of optimism and while the libretto for the show stays close to the plot of the novella, Bernstein has added another layer of satire to the mix. Simply put, the score for Candide is written as a parody of high opera.

I think it’s important that the actor who has been cast in Candide be aware of this satiric element. An understanding of the traditions and vocal techniques of opera can enrich the performance and help both actor and audience to better understand Bernstein’s comedic treatment of the genre. For example, when at the end of the piece Candide and Cunegonde draw out the word “one” in a hilariously lengthy unaccompanied duet, the actor needs to understand that this is a spoof of a specific operatic practice: the cadenza. Many famous arias end with cadenzas. In technical terms, a cadenza is “an improvised or written-out ornamental passage performed by the soloist, usually over the penultimate or antepenultimate note or harmony of a prominent cadence.” In layman’s terms, this means that the soloist gets to show off for a bit. For a good example of this operatic practice, listen to Diana Damrau singing “Caro Nome” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. (While I’d encourage you to listen to the entire thing because Diana Damrau is a goddess and you can’t possible have enough of her in your life, you can start the video at the 4:20 mark if you want to skip straight to the cadenza.)

While cadenzas themselves are a common operatic practice, a double cadenza is a little unusual. Bernstein has taken an already ornate vocal idea and complicated it by adding a second voice. And in the process he pokes fun at the operatic tradition by having Candide and Cundegonde suddenly crescendo and decrescendo in a fashion that is suitably dramatic for these two over-the-top characters.

But the truly brilliant thing about “You Were Dead, You Know” is how Bernstein creates a duet that is simultaneously romantic and hilarious. The melody is all romance (somehow even as it mocks operatic styles). There’s this heartwrenching quality to the melody that perfectly captures the bliss of two lovers “reunited after so much pain.” (Listen to that swell of the orchestra after “one again, one at last” if you don’t believe me.) But if you stop to listen, the lyrics by Richard Wilbur and John Latouche are incredibly funny. In what other love song would you find a line about being “shot and bayoneted too” or a lyricist with the presence of mind to rhyme “Holland, Portu-“ with “Oh what torture!”

In the end, the dual nature of “You Were Dead, You Know” as both romantic love duet and comedic goldmine gives the actor an incredible range of choices. Interpretation tends to vary from performance to performance. For instance, compare this relatively “straight” version from a 2011 production at the Huntington Theatre Company to the 2004 New York Philharmonic concert version which is played mostly for laughs.

There isn’t any one definitive performance and that’s the beauty of a well-written show like Candide. An understanding of the musical traditions can certainly aid the actor in their process, but ultimately it’s left to the actor or director to take this knowledge and decide how it will affect the performance.

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