Reg Livermore appears to be blushing.

He's certainly mumbling a bit and looking bashfully down at the table where we're sitting in Opera NZ's Parnell offices. It's not the behaviour of someone who's been in the spotlight for 60 years, the holder of three lifetime achievement awards for his services to Australian theatre and an Officer of the Order of Australia for same.

Nor is it the behaviour of the person I've been speaking with for the last 30 minutes. The 79-year-old hasn't been the slightest bit shy or inarticulate. He's great company, a practised raconteur who laughs generously and often, mostly at himself.

He is in New Zealand to play Dr Pangloss in Candide, Leonard Bernstein's glorious operetta based on the satire by Voltaire. Despite being a regular on the Australian stage since the 1950s, Candide is Livermore's first professional engagement here for more than 40 years.

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It is also his debut as Pangloss, a pivotal role in Candide. Pangloss is the title character's teacher and embodies the status quo, counselling that all is well with the world no matter how dire things appear. Dire things appear regularly throughout Candide, so it's hard to know whether Pangloss is a good but mistaken man or the acceptable face of evil.

Livermore has no doubt.

"I think he's playing a joke on the other characters," he says. "He's leading them down the wrong path and wants them to be wide-eyed when they shouldn't be. They trust what he says because they're all so gormless but I think Pangloss is just waiting for an opportunity to turn the trick on them. I'll be doing my darndest to play him that way, though Stuart and I haven't discussed it."

"Stuart" is Stuart Maunder, departing CEO of NZ Opera and director of Candide, which appears with orchestral support from the Auckland Philharmonia as part of Auckland Arts Festival. Maunder is the reason Livermore took the role; the pair have worked together before, notably a 2009 production of My Fair Lady.

"He's seriously one of the great men," Maunder tells before I meet Livermore. "He's certainly my first theatrical memory. What he did for theatre in the 70s and 80s is inspiring. An amazing man and one of the greatest theatrical geniuses Australia has produced."

It is this which has caused Livermore to blush. Is he a great theatrical genius?

"I don't know," he says, still looking at the table. "I set out to do something and I did it. I wanted to be on the stage and I wanted to be a star. I was fortunate that when I was younger things were changing in the theatre and the world, so I was able to become a voice for change not only in theatre but socially, and I touched a lot of people's lives, though I didn't know I was doing it."

Livermore is hugely popular back home. The musical Hair made him famous; he followed it with other iconic roles including Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar and Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show. He's been named one of Australia's entertainers of the century and in 2011, his career was celebrated in a major exhibition at Arts Centre Melbourne.

It's a shame, then, that Dr Pangloss dies in act one.

"Well, he does but he doesn't really," explains Livermore. "He turns up in other guises. I think that's part of the joke as well, he puts on all these hats, whatever suits the situation."

If that sounds confusing, remember Candide is opera and sometimes odd things happen as a matter of routine. In the 100th anniversary year of Bernstein's birth, Candide is a welcome addition to the AAF of a rarely performed piece.

The overture is an orchestral staple — Bernstein at his sparkling best — and a reminder Candide appeared just nine months after West Side Story (Bernstein wrote the score for that one, too). Additionally, the dizzying soprano aria Glitter and be Gay and Pangloss's scene-setting The Best of All Possible Worlds retain a foothold in the repertoire.

It may be one of the last new show-stoppers Livermore learns. These days, he lives outside Sydney and is scaling back his appearances.

"I don't know that I want to do another big musical, you're away from home for so long living in hotel rooms. I think doing musicals is a phase," he says, bursting into laughter. "It may last most of your life but eventually it's recognisably a phase."

Lowdown:
What: Auckland Arts Festival - NZ Opera and the APO perform Leonard Bernstein's Candide
Where and When: Auckland Town Hall, Friday - Sunday