Tenor Andrew Stenson Returns To San Francisco Symphony For 'Candide'

This weekend, the San Francisco Symphony continues its celebration of conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein with a semi-staged version of his operetta Candide.

First produced on Broadway in 1956, the work based on Voltaire's 18th-century satirical novella focuses on a naive youth who trips through a series of misadventures.

To display Candide's innocence and relentless optimism, SFS cast Andrew Stenson, a tenor who attended the Merola Opera Program, a summer apprentice workshop that develops young vocal talent. Since then, he's performed with the San Francisco Opera and on major stages around the US.

We recently sat down with Stenson to hear about his professional success, and his time in the city.

Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein in 1983. | Photo: Robert Millard

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of your favorite places to hang out in San Francisco?

I lived in Bernal Heights during Merola. When I was back for the Opera in 2016, I lived in corporate housing in Pacific Heights and I divided my time with some friends in Fairfield.

One of my favorite places was Atelier Crenn. I love Ritual coffee roaster, and Arlequin wine merchant. I spend a lot of time and a lot of money there, wine is a passion of mine. I did a wine tasting at Tofino wines, and I was really bad at it.

How did you get involved in this production?

My agent emailed me one day: "SF had a cancellation, would you like to do Candide there?" You bet! It's going to be technically my fourth run of Candide in my career so far.

I would assume the Symphony reached out to me because I worked with them before and I've done Candide quite a bit. It's something that hasn't been produced that much in recent history. It's helpful that I have so many performances with it lately. One of the best part of having been in Merola, is that you have an automatic San Francisco fan base. They show up in droves to any Merolini performance in the area.

What are your thoughts on Candide?

The mileage each character accumulates over the course of Candide is incredible. You're in this country for three minutes, then immediately in this country for two more minutes, here, there, everywhere, all across the Atlantic to South America, back to Europe. For a director, for anyone producing this, creating all these transitions, it's a monumental task. Doing it in a semi-staged concert version is an easier way to produce it.

Candide is a character that I really understand. To me, it's a big coming-of-age story. He starts his life very optimistic, he's been taught a lot of things, he sees the world thinking everything is for the best. Over the course of his journey, the world kinda chips away at that perfect perception time and time again. At the end, Candide still survives all these terrible things that happen to him, but continues to find a reason to live. That's absolutely incredible. I read the Voltaire book for the first time and I remember being shocked at how racy and inappropriate the source material was. It was incredbily satirical, I loved it.

Almost every version of Candide is unique. There are numbers that are added, some are subtracted. There is a version on YouTube with Leonard Bernstein conducting a concert version with Jerry Hadley and June Anderson.

Our version in SF is closer to that. Fortunately, we are doing one of my favorite numbers, "Nothing More Than This." It happens right before "Let My Garden Grow." For me, in my portrayal, that's when Candide realizes that everything he's been fighting for most of his life is a lie. He has idealized Cunegonde the entire show, he thinks that she's perfect, there's nothing bad about her. Then he realizes she's no different from all the people around him, trying to use him for his money the entire time he was trying to get back with her. The amazing thing is that he is still able to find goodness in her, in himself, and in what they have together, and to find a reason to live.

The best part is accepting that the person you are with is not perfect.

Andrew Stenson. | Via Fletcher Artist Management

What are you preparing for after Candide?

This summer, I'm doing An American Soldier, an opera on the life ofPrivate Danny Chen. It's an extended version of a one-act version we did with Washington National Opera in the Summer of 2014. We're doing the premiere at Opera St. Louis, composed by Huang Ruo with a libretto by David Henry Hwang, whose play "M. Butterfly" is being revived by Judy Taymor on Broadway now, and who wrote the libretto for "Dream of the Red Chamber" at SF Opera.

I'm excited to be doing a show about Asian-American identity and Asian-American issues that addresses the bigger question of what it means to be American. I was born in Korea and I was adopted by American parents. It's a complicated subject, and difficult to talk about. You are American in every way, except you don't look American. You look Korean, but you're not Korean. It puts you in this strange category.

Fortunately, I had a lot of friends growing up who were adopted from Korea. It's a struggle of what do you identify with, and who lets you identify with them. It's nice to see more work in media and the arts telling Asian-American stories, as I didn't have many to look to when I was growing up.

San Francisco Symphony performs "Candide" tonight and tomorrow evening at 8pm with a matinee on Sunday at 2pm.