The creative team of Candide share their thoughts as the production heads to Oxford


The creative team of Candide share their thoughts, as the production heads to Oxford New Theatre
The creative team of Candide share their thoughts, as the production heads to Oxford New Theatre

“If we get it right, the production should be incredibly fun to watch, exciting and surprising, full of tunes that you go away humming, and have a visual language and scale that can be really astonishing.”
—James Bonas, Director of Candide.

18th-century France collides with 20th-century post-war America in a fantastical adventure in WNO’s new production of Bernstein’s Candide, which opened at Wales Millennium Centre on 22 June.

The production brings together an award-winning creative team (winners of the National French Critics Award in 2022 for their production of The Snow Queen) led by director James Bonas. Costume designs are by Nathalie Pallandre, with sets by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck and video and animation design by Grégoire Pont. American conductor Karen Kamensek returns to WNO to conduct.

Bernstein’s music combines with the wit of Dorothy Parker in this musical romp that pulls together Broadway, operetta and the satire of Voltaire. The new production creates an imaginative world of music, animation and dance in a story where societies are torn apart by inequality and families are displaced by war in a story that remains as relevant now as when it was first written in 1759.

We caught up with the creative team as opening night approaches to find out more…

James Bonas – Director

What can audiences expect from this production, both visually and musically? 

If we get it right, the production should be incredibly fun to watch, exciting and surprising, full of tunes that you go away humming, and have a visual language and scale that can be really astonishing. There will be close to a hundred people on the stage, telling a crazy story with fantastic music. It’s like taking the best of the West End and Broadway and mixing that up with the orchestra, chorus, singers and dancers at the WNO – so it has the potential to blow you away.

How did you first start to work with Grégoire, Nathalie and Thibault?

We started working together for the first time at the Opéra National de Lyon. We were asked to create a Ravel opera with the orchestra on stage, and we had the idea of using a gauze in front of the orchestra on which we could project animations that Gregoire drew and for the singers to be able to interact with the animation.

We quickly realised how much potential this method of creating a show had as it allows for a lot of imagination, agility, and scale, and it can be really powerful. We’ve now worked together on pieces in different countries, from different centuries and with very different designs. I have also worked with Ewan Jones, Choreographer for this production, for 10 years. 

What makes this piece different from a traditional opera? 

Firstly, Bernstein wrote the piece two years after West Side Story and the structure of the songs, the text of the scenes and the music really is like a musical rather than opera. Often the songs include dance breaks, the scenes of dialogue in between the songs carry the story and develop characters, and the songs themselves are frequently showstoppers. 

The aim in our production is to have a unified group of performers that includes the orchestra players, the singers, the chorus, and the dancers, all working seamlessly as part of one unified team telling the story. 

We’re also using microphones, which is more like a musical than an opera, as the dialogue needs to flow and work in a way that feels fluid, dynamic and fun. Also, as the orchestra are on the stage (some of the theatres we are touring do not have pits), we need to be able to balance the sound for all the elements of the production.

Will it be challenging to have the orchestra on stage? What element does this bring to the production?

As a team, we’ve now made several shows with the orchestra on the stage and in every case, it has been a brilliant addition. We never hide the players, but instead, they form a vital part of the image and can be featured in certain moments. 

These productions work by creating layers that run very deep across the stage, and having the orchestra as part of that picture is so enjoyable that we never take it for granted. To see the instruments, the musicians, the skill of Karen, our brilliant conductor, and the energy that comes from a group of players who are creating music at the top of their game is an extraordinary treat.

The creative team of Candide share their thoughts, as the production heads to Oxford New Theatre

Nathalie Pallandre – Costume Designer

Do you enjoy working as part of a team with Gregoire, James and Thibault, and why?

Absolutely, I really enjoy working with this team; they are so fantastic and talented! More seriously, I love working with them because it is a very playful, adventurous group of people with a lot of consideration and kindness to one another. 

James knows how to make a very safe, creative and productive environment where everyone could speak up on any subject in the process of creation and be heard. This is, for me, the perfect way to get the best of everyone in a team.

And this is, as well, very close to my perception of costume design, where you have to create a space for the performers so they feel included in the process. We build their final costume together so they could embody their character.

Your designs are inspired by Vivienne Westwood; why did you decide on this approach for the characters in Candide?

I was very excited about the eighteenth century, an era that I really love for costume. James and I said from the very early stages that this show shouldn’t be set in a precise period of time to allow us to jump from siecle des lumières to nowadays in a blink of an eye, and we should play with elements from different eras and create a “collage”.

Who better a muse than Vivienne Westwood? Her evocation of the eighteenth century with a twist is always such a fabulous aesthetic. Her punk side has been helping me to question every choice and try to make the less conventional decision for every piece of costume. I recently realised that the most accurate word for her work that has inspired me is “Flamboyant”.

Is this piece different from other productions you have worked on?

Really different, as it is a lot of very short scenes, but always in different countries, with a lot of different characters and situations… with a very short time to make changes! This has been very, very challenging technically and even in the creative process, but it was definitely more playful than many other shows.

What is your process for designing each costume for a production, and how long does it take to get to the finished stage of the designs?

The process can be very different on each show, as it depends on what the original concept is. I always start with collecting images to be inspired and to show the director as a starting point. I can then imagine a general language in colours and shapes.

For Candide, I’ve created one language for each group: chorus, dancers, and soloists, but in relationship with the others. I then precisely go into each character to lead me to the final design. Timing this process is impossible as you are never working full-time on this. On Candide, this has been running over 6 to 7 months, from collecting the first images to delivering the final designs to WNO.

It never really leaves you; you think about it all the time. Every exhibition, every movie, every person you see in the street can become a part of it. You, of course, have to get some perspective sometimes, which comes from the back and forward conversation with the director. I now have spent 5 weeks just making the final designs.

The creative team of Candide share their thoughts, as the production heads to Oxford New Theatre

Grégoire Pont – Video and Animations Designer

What do you enjoy about working in a team with James, Nathalie and Thibault?

I met James in 2016 on L’Enfant & les sortilèges – a production we created at Opera de Lyon since the first work sessions in Paris. Something clicked and immediately worked between us. We have the same mindset – an immense respect for the works, and also, we like adding naughty humour! 

Thanks to James’ very dynamic and incredible staging, you are left with the infinite possibilities that animations can bring. We have worked with Thibault and Nathalie since then, and they respond perfectly to our universe. It is a great pleasure to have such talented and professional people in such a friendly relationship.

Tell us more about the concept of Cinesthetics you are using and how do you use this in Candide?

Cinesthetics is the way I define my sensibility to visualize the music, it’s a crossword between synaesthesia and cinema. It is a great joy to listen to music with your eyes closed (except while driving a car of course!) and look at the pictures that come from the imagination.

It comes from a long time ago when I was bored at school in music lessons, the teacher would play a record of Haydn, and I would be escaping into my imagination. It’s such a pleasure and privilege to translate these images into animations for shows. I think I have the best job in the world!

It is unusual for people to see animation as part of a live performance. What can people expect to see when they come to see Candide?

People will get an experience they have never imagined. It is indeed a never-seen-before show with interactive videos. It’s not just backgrounds like a set. The animations are aliiiiive with the sound of music! Ah ah ah!

The creative team of Candide share their thoughts, as the production heads to Oxford New Theatre

Thibault Vancraenenbroeck – Set Designer

What do you enjoy most about working as a team with Gregoire, Nathalie and James?

Having a lot of fun and at the same time having serious and professional teamwork. I love being surprised by my colleagues’ propositions and creativity.

What elements do you consider when designing a set?

The music, the libretto, and the director’s wishes and fantasies. I try to build up a strong visual dramaturgy that helps singers to feel at home on stage. I also try to find the right aesthetic expression to help the public to focus, enjoy, and dream about the artwork.

How did you decide on the final set for Candide, and what did it need to incorporate to make this production a success?

In this particular kind of video design collaboration with Grégoire Pont and James Bonas, my part is all about designing the most effective and versatile projection surfaces. I designed some elements that can reinforce the dynamic of the video projections and offer a maximum of situations regarding the dynamic of the play.

I designed some moving structural elements that can be nearly invisible if not activated by the video and can come to life as soon as they are becoming projection surfaces or by generating lighting onto themselves. I also designed some objects and furniture that help James Bonas and the singers to create very concrete and playful scenes following and enlightening this crazy Bernstein storytelling. 

Candide premiered at Wales Millennium Centre on Thursday, 22 June, and is performed at Oxford New Theatre on Saturday, 08 July.

More from The Oxford Magazine