Soprano Erin Morley takes her job as a performer very seriously. That’s why she spends so much time dissecting the roles she sings to get to their true grit. Even an operetta like Candide, which is seemingly whimsical and lighthearted, has plenty of dark themes at its core that are relatable in today’s society.
Last month, Morley made her company and role debut as Cunegonde in LA Opera’s production of Candide, alongside Kelsey Grammer, Christine Ebersole and Jack Swanson. Morley recently had a chance to sit down to discuss the challenges and her interpretation of the role, as well as the evolution of her understanding of the opera as a whole. Morley covered a range of topics, from portraying a woman who has lost everything, to the unapparent challenges of singing in English.
“On one hand, I’m thrilled to finally be singing in English, but its not the most natural language for an opera singer to sing in,” Morley stated. “But it became quite easy and felt more natural to sing in English as rehearsals progressed, and it’s much more fun that I thought.”
All singers can relate to unruly English diction, even for a native speaker like Morley. She grew up in a family of musicians in Salt Lake City, before attending Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. She eventually completed her graduate degrees at The Juilliard School before her acceptance into the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, where she spent three years training and performing on the Met stage. Since then, she’s sung all over the world, but Candide marks her first performances on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage.
In addition to the text, Morley states that the role itself is fascinating, both vocally and dramatically. For one, Cunegonde has one of the most virtuosic moment in show with “Glitter and Be Gay,” which she describes as “coloratura fireworks.” Apart from that aria, however, the rest of the show feels like musical theater.
“The role, apart from ‘Glitter and Be Gay,’ sits mid-range for the rest of the show, with high notes here and there. And that’s been interesting vocally to pace,” Morley went on to say. “Having not done the role before, I’m learning how to pace it because it’s lower than most of the roles that I sing.”
Though this is the first time Morley has performed Cunegonde on stage, she’s no stranger to the character. She’s worked on “Glitter and Be Gay” for many years, beginning while she was still a student. However, her perception of the role has drastically changed since she started rehearsals last month — most prominently, Cunegonde is not the “damsel in distress” that most people make her out to be.
“I used to think, ‘Well, this is a woman who loves money and loves attention.’ And so, no matter the cost, she’s happy enough because she’ll get what she wants. But I now understand that that’s too simple a reading, especially in the political climate we’re in right now, where the treatment of women is such a hot topic,” Morley said. “I feel like I can’t really interpret this role, specifically the aria, in any other way than how the production views it, and how [director] Francesca [Zambello] has staged it. It is a more honest reading of the text than most, taking what [Cunegonde] says sometimes truly at face value, rather than dripping with irony. It’s not light comedy. It’s dark humor, it’s satire.”
She went on to add: “We see that Cunegonde is a product of her environment. She has gone through a series of rather unfortunate events, and then gets to a place where she says, ‘Well, I could choose to give in, shrivel up and die, or I could use the thing that they value in me as a way to be happy, or happy enough to at least numb the pain.’ So money becomes her drug.”
Morley also adds the Cunegonde isn’t the only woman scorned in Candide. In fact, every female character in the show has gone through something similar.
“The women in this opera, without exception, are all in the same predicament. They have all been put in a situation where their bodies and their beauty are their only value. They start to believe it themselves and get caught in a trap, and the men around them all treat them this way, and so they don’t see it any other way. I think it’s such a tragedy, but it is so familiar.”
As the mother of two young girls, Morley says she’s thought a lot about the values she wants to instill not only in her children, but in all young women. Morley feels as though what has been going on in the media with the #MeToo movement will not only allow audiences to empathize with the character, but also to realize they’re a part of the problem as well.
“I appreciate this national reckoning that we’re having right now. I feel that it is super important to talk about because this has been happening forever and women have had no power to do anything about it,” said Morley. “I mean, every single woman in this opera is in that situation. I feel like the audience will see the connection.”
Though the operetta does tackle a number heavy topics, the true message of Candide is how to navigate the pursuit of happiness.
“There are these comedic moments that dominate the show, but then it zeroes in to these real moments of truth,” she said. “The whole story is about happiness, and how we achieve happiness and where to find it. There are so many beautiful moments towards the end where we sing about having both joy and pain as part of our experience, and that we can’t have one without the other. And I think that’s beautiful.”
Morley has enjoyed the evolution she’s seen with this role, though she still has a busy season ahead. From Los Angeles, Morley heads to Rotterdam to sing in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 under conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, followed by another production of Candide, this time at Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Though the unseemly emotional journey of the production has changed her perception, Morley is still having the time of her life.
“I really am having a ball, because it feels like this piece was written to entertain and to bring real moments of truth and realization to the audience. And that’s true in all satire, that there is truth in jest.”LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.