This month at Avery Fisher Hall, prepare to abandon if not all hope, then all your preconceptions and expectations of conventional opera. Prepare to be amused, bemused, challenged, and even charmed when the New York Philharmonic realizes Music Director Alan Gilbert's dream of presenting the New York premiere of György Ligeti's surrealist two-act farce, Le Grand Macabre.
In tune with Mr. Gilbert's aim to blur the lines between concert hall and opera house, the Philharmonic's performances of this iconic avant-garde comedy will be staged by Douglas Fitch, whose recent productions have included design and direction of Puccini's Turandot for Santa Fe Opera; Wagner's Das Rheingold for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic; and Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny for Tanglewood. Philharmonic audiences doubtless remember his stimulating 2005 production of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat, representing Mr. Fitch's initial foray into the combination of live-filmed and projected puppetry : a development that was not surprising, given that his family ran a puppet theater during his childhood.
It seems eminently fitting that Ligeti : the composer of an opera called Le Grand Macabre : should hail from Transylvania, that haunting region of the Balkans. He emerged during the 1960s as one of Europe's most notable sharpeners of the cutting edge. Exploring the possibilities of all combinations of sound, he achieved considerable acclaim for many of his works, most familiar among them the Requiem (1963 _65), which was later incorporated into the sound track of Stanley Kubrick's epochal 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Ligeti's dramatic works have tended to reflect an engaging side of his character : playful, cynical, and shot through with pitch-black humor. For the libretto of Le Grand Macabre, he and the German librettist and director of the Stockholm Puppet Theatre, Michael Meschke, took as their source La Balade du grand macabre, a 1934 farce by the Belgian avantgarde dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, whose writing combined strains of commedia dell'arte and puppet theater, filtered through the morbid imagery of the early 20th-century Belgian surrealist painter James Ensor. The success of the opera's Stockholm premiere in 1978 led to numerous productions across Europe.
Yet, until now the complete opera has never been performed in New York, which is why Alan Gilbert set his sights on having the New York Philharmonic give the staged New York premiere near the start of his tenure. "I have loved Ligeti's music for many years," he says, noting that he was initially hooked when he played the violin in numerous performances of the 1986 Horn Trio. "I learned and played it with a musician who had actually learned it with Ligeti," he recalls. "I was amazed at the process we had to go through to learn this piece. It felt very artificial, because he uses techniques such as canon at the 16th-note : which means that the same already complex rhythmic theme starts out in unison, then gradually disintegrates as one player repeats it a 16th-note later : and this is at a very fast tempo. At the early rehearsals, we had to count out painstakingly, and figure out where each of us fit into the scheme. It sounds and feels very cerebral when you first study it on the page, but ultimately it tells a story that makes perfect sense. And the emotional impact is tremendous. When we played it in Japan, where audiences are normally very reserved, the response was so visceral; people would stand and cheer us as if they were at a rock concert." The ability of this underlying sense of communication transcending the complexities of Ligeti's music is what brings audiences to their feet for his operas as well as for his instrumental works. And the loopy Dadaism of his operas has an appeal of its own.
Both Ghelderode's farce and Ligeti's opera revolve around the idea that, because life's only certainty is death, our best choice is simply to make merry and enjoy ourselves. Set in a town pointedly named "Breughelland," its extraordinary protagonists are menaced by the infernal villain Nekrotzar : a kinky creature even by contemporary standards : whose plan to destroy the world is ultimately foiled when the forces of life refuse to expire. In the course of the loosely constructed plot we meet such characters as the drunkard Piet the Pot, Prince Go-Go (Breughelland's obese boy ruler), the perpetually aroused lovers Amanda and Amando, the transvestite astronomer Astradamors and his nymphomaniac wife Mescalina (whose druggy moniker also evokes the promiscuous Roman empress Messalina), and a host of other earthly and underworld bedlamites.
In brief, the rules of conventional drama, not to mention classic farce, are suspended in the surrealist hilarity of Le Grand Macabre, much of it off-color. And to this inspired madness Ligeti wedded a fast-paced, colorfully orchestrated score that bristles with clangorous mid-20th-century harmony and subtle references to music by other composers, including Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and Monteverdi's operatic love music (think of the sultry amours in L'incoronazione di Poppea). "Ligeti's music is a challenge to learn," says Mr. Gilbert, "but once you do, it's amazingly moving. All his complexities, his bizarre sounds, and extremes of register translate into a meaningful experience."
"The opera," Douglas Fitch observes, "is a kind of Renaissance-inspired memento mori, reminding us how fleeting life is." Between the initial cloud-borne descent to Breughelland and the grand finale, when the sun comes out, the director/ designer's live camera projections : of imagery in pen and ink, paint, clay, animation, and a dazzling array of mixed-media and high-tech, all displaying on large screens what is happening on stage : combine a variety of influences, from the lusty village paintings of Pieter Breughel the Elder and the grotesque whimsy of Breughel's artistic progenitor, Hieronymus Bosch, to the creepy symbolism of the 19th-century French painter Odilon Redon and the shadowy worlds of Japanese demonology and DC Comics. All of this heightens the live action of the singers themselves.
For Mr. Fitch, producing Ligeti's opera in Avery Fisher Hall is liberating because, "unlike a traditional proscenium theater, a concert hall is really a big, empty box that you can fill with anything you want. In this case, we are not just filling it with orchestral music, but with a complete opera." He explains that he likes doing this opera with the technique he calls "live animation" because "the audience is allowed to see all the separate elements of the production at work : projections, cameras, costumed singers, and orchestra : all onstage. And while watching the action unfold, they can combine them in their minds as they wish." For Mr. Gilbert, "it's immensely satisfying to offer compelling theater in the concert hall. My hope is to redefine the space for the audience. They are used to watching people play music onstage, but are not used to thinking of the hall as an element of the performance. A theatrical piece will make this explicit."
The Music Director observes that, because the Philharmonic is not an opera orchestra, and because of its two operatic neighbors in Lincoln Center, "we need some justification to take such a plunge. Therefore, I'm looking for operas with an important orchestral component that the New York Philharmonic can serve in a unique way. And between our orchestral contribution and Doug Fitch's production, I think Ligeti : and our audience : will be served incomparably well."
Visit New York Philharmonic for tickets.
Barrymore Laurence Scherer, author of the award-winning History of American Classical Music, is a music and art critic for The Wall Street Journal and a contributing editor of The Magazine Antiques.