Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Macabre Ligeti

grandmacabreSoprano Barbara Hannigan, conductor Alan Gilbert in rehearsal

Le Grand Macabre

Composed by György Ligeti

Directed and designed by Doug Fitch

Conducted by Alan Gilbert

New York Philharmonic

May 27, 28, 29, 2010

Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center


It’s hard to believe that the New York premiere of one of the most acclaimed contemporary operas comes not from the Metropolitan Opera or New York City Opera but…the New York Philharmonic!?!

Yes, György Ligeti’s manic, absurdist masterwork Le Grand Macabre—which takes place in a surrealist landscape on the last day for mankind—will be performed at Avery Fisher Hall, with Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert conducting and Doug Fitch, who heads Giants Are Small, will handle the staging and design chores.

The music is fiendishly difficult to perform and listen to, it must be admitted, but once you’ve entered Ligeti’s singular sound world—which includes a prelude for 12 car horns, an interlude for doorbells and alarm clocks, a gorgeous climactic passacaglia and enough vocal and instrumental pyrotechnics to explode over the East River on July Fourth—you won’t ever want to leave.

Soprano Barbara Hannigan, a Ligeti veteran who sings the small but pivotal part of chief of espionage Gepopo, and director Fitch both discussed entering the world of Le Grand Macabre.

Kevin Filipski: How have you become the “go-to” soprano to sing Ligeti’s music?

Barbara Hannigan: My part, Gepopo, is kind of a cameo: I come in, do a little acrobatics and fireworks, then leave. I’ve done this part 37 times, so it’s easy for me. And two weeks ago, I sang Ligeti’s Requiem. When you look at the score of a Ligeti piece, it looks difficult, then you realize that there are only a few places that are going to haunt you for the rest of your life. The entire part of Gepopo was made into a concert aria for soprano and orchestra, which is how I started singing it, and that’s why I’ve done it so many times. Every Ligeti piece is genius: he knows exactly how to write for the voice, it’s really hard to sing but—best of all—it’s all possible. He combines complex, intellectual stuff with absolutely emotional music all the time. That’s the kind of music I’m drawn to, whether old or new. I’m really open-minded, but I am really picky about what I do. Le Grand Macabre is stunning: you could stand there and just sing it and it would be incredible. I’m a huge Ligeti fan.

KF: Had you ever worked with Ligeti before his death in 2006?

BH: The first time I sang this role, I met him in Germany and in Holland: that was really nerve-wracking, because he’ll tell you if he doesn’t like you, and you’ll lose your job. But we got along great. I did Ligeti tours all over Europe in 2005, and he was always there, so I got to see him a fair amount. He was a fascinating man and an emotional, incredibly intelligent person.

KF: Why do you think we haven’t heard Le Grand Macabre yet in New York, and what do you think the response will be?

BH : It’s done fairly often in Europe, where it elicits varied responses from the audience: they can be offended or just wonder what’s going on. The last time I sang Ligeti in New York was with the Chamber Music Society. What I noticed about audiences here is that they have a great sense of humor: they pick up the wit and the humor and they’re not afraid to laugh. In Europe, they’re less sure: “should I laugh?” I expect that the audience will be quite engaged: New York audiences have more confidence than European audiences.


Kevin Filipski: How did you come to work with the Philharmonic on Ligeti’s opera?

Doug Fitch: I’ve worked with Alan a few times on operas. He wanted me to be part of his first season here. I suggested Le Grand Macabre and he said it was a great idea. He had other suggestions, we went through other ideas, but this was the most exciting to do. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time—it has a sensibility I feel akin to, which is that it’s powerfully absurdist at heart and it’s a weird and wonderful masterpiece. I’ve always liked contemporary music. These composers are inventors of a whole new musical language: you have to understand that language before you can speak it. That’s what all art really is: accessing a universal truth by surprising people in a new way.

KF: How do you approach doing this opera with an orchestra onstage?

DF: The first problem it entails is inventing a concept which includes the orchestra onstage and making sense out of it. It’s initiated from a certain kind of abstraction: you can’t pretend their not there, so you’re asking people to suspend disbelief in a particular way. It also draws your attention to the people physically making the music: you can forget about them when they’re down in the pit. And every lighting cue has to happen with extremely strict boundaries, with no lights in the musicians’ eyes. Singers don’t care but the players do.

KF: Unlike at an opera house, you only have a limited amount of rehearsal time. How does that affect the way you approach such a difficult work as this?

DF: We have to be really organized and ready for the few moments we have to spend with everyone. First of all, the only way this works is if you’re surrounded by extremely talented people who know what they’re doing, and I’m lucky to have this great cast. The most unusual thing about this show is the live animation I created. I discovered I’m making two productions at the same time: on the stage live are two atmosphericists’ stations: they are visual alchemists who create the scenery and the visual world in which the opera unfolds. It’s a sort of miniature theater with live-feed cameras attached, and everything that they do onstage is projected onto a screen over the orchestra. We’ve been working for the last three months building these miniature worlds that will be live onstage, which enables us to have a whole world onstage with an orchestra.

KF: How familiar are you with Ligeti’s music?

DF: In 1985, I did my first original show, a piece of theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts that I wrote, designed and created, called The Pot Luck Supper. I used Ligeti’s car-horn overture from this opera: I heard it and wanted it for my piece. So I’ve had that music in my head for years: it sets the ball rolling in such a wonderful, crazy, unusual way. The passacaglia at the end is so absolutely beautiful: it sounds baroque, then carefully and slowly de-forms and becomes a fabulously controlled chaos, and I love that. It’s very confusing as a storyteller: the whole story is crazy, but the music is like a traditional opera in many ways, with arias, duets and a chorus of 24 people. The more you listen, the more you realize it’s a regular opera!

originally posted on timessquare.com

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