Zum Inhalt springen

Blog & Streams

The Missed Catastrophe

György Ligeti's grotesque operatic spectacle »Le Grand Macabre«.

»Le Grand Macabre« at the Elbphilharmonie: Ligeti's monumental operatic spectacle was performed in the Grand Hall in May 2019.

György Ligeti was an artist from his early youth. While still a child, he was already inventing music, drawing and painting, and writing texts, and he even thought up a fictitious country by the name of »Kylwiria«, which he painted pictures of and even drew a map of. Obviously, this sparkling mind had to write an opera eventually, an opera where visual imagination, lateral thinking and a love of literature and theatre joined with music to form a single work.

In 1978 Ligeti finally brought out a monumental work that the Hamburger Abendblatt called »the world's craziest opera«: »Le Grand Macabre«, an absurd vision of the end of the world set between the Middle Ages, coarse drama and a stage spectacle full of paradox.

Mescalina and her husband Astradamors
Mescalina and her husband Astradamors © Peter Hundert / Elbphilharmonie Hamburg / NDR

If ever an opera could cause brain damage, it's Gyorgy Ligeti's ›Le Grand Macabre‹.

David Patrick Stearns, The Philadelphia Inquirer

The World's Craziest Opera

First performed in 1978, »Le Grand Macabre« brings into play every theatrical resource imaginable and every linguistic one as well, from lofty Latin through gutter language to salads of syllables. The story is set in »the fictitious principality of Breughelland, in no particular century«. Like the artist Piet Breughel, Ligeti depicts life and death in all their different shades – bursting with colour and lust, full of nakedness and naked greed, intoxicated and bizarre.

Inspiration for Ligeti: A Painting by Pieter Bruegel (here: Children's Games, 1560)
Inspiration for Ligeti: A Painting by Pieter Bruegel (here: Children's Games, 1560) © Pieter Bruegel

With this, his only full-length opera, Ligeti broke down every boundary he encountered: the boundary between visual imagination, language and music, between vision and reality, between yesterday, today and tomorrow, between the serious and the grotesque, between tragedy and comedy, and between different genres and styles.

The End of the World as a Comedy

Breughelland is where the outlook on life and carnival interact, where vivid imagination clashes with real life and reveals its driving forces. And the main driving forces are two in number: life and death. Life is represented literally by the couple Amanda and Amando, whose inexhaustible sexual appetite carries them through every disaster. Death is embodied by the almighty figure of Nekrotzar, who threatens to wipe out the world at midnight by striking it with a comet. He plays the part of an omnipotent ruler, dictating how people think, feel and act.

Amanda and Amando
Amanda and Amando © Peter Hundert / Elbphilharmonie Hamburg / NDR

According to Ligeti, the basis of the opera is the removal of fear through making very serious things ridiculous.

Constantin Floros

But there's one person he hasn't reckoned with, namely the wine taster Piet the Pot, who makes sure he's never sober. Nekrotzar enlists Piet's help and rides into town on his back to announce his apocalyptic tidings. But Piet gets his lord and master involved in a serious drinking bout, so that he completely forgets about the comet and the end of the world. Oh, fiddlesticks! Now everyone will have to wait for the next disaster.

Piet the Pot and Nektrotzar
Piet the Pot and Nektrotzar © Peter Hundert / Elbphilharmonie Hamburg / NDR

Infinitely Grotesque

There are all kinds of other people in the opera as well: a wimp of a prince, a fortune-teller who's lost control at home, a dominatrix named after a drug (that's his wife), and of course the inhabitants of Breughelland.

Elbphilharmonie: Pictures from the »Le Grand Macabre« Rehearsals

The Music

The music is just as grotesque as the story: baroque-style tunes overlap with twelve-tone constructions – the latter a post-war composing technique where the notes are no longer organised as a network of chords, but instead in equally valid mathematical series – which in turn is a reference to Beethoven's »Eroica« Symphony.

Ligeti piles up all manner of quotations, one on top of the other. In Scene III, for example, he quotes a piano rag (Scott Joplin's »The Entertainer«), an Easter hymn from the Orthodox liturgy, a Mozart parody (from the opera »Don Giovanni«, all kinds of folk music and a cha-cha.

Le Grand Macabre

Drawing by director Doug Fitch, whose stage and projection designs were presented at the Elbphilharmonie

The Demons of Breughelland

Drawing by director Doug Fitch, whose stage and projection designs were presented at the Elbphilharmonie

The Story: Chaos in Four Scenes

  • Scene I: Apocalypse with Car Horns

    Concert of car horns. Piet the Pot, tipsy as usual, strikes up the famous »Dies irae« sequence from the Latin requiem for the dead. Nekrotzar climbs out of his tomb and declares Piet his slave. Amanda and Amando are looking for a place to make out undisturbed, and climb into a tomb together. The Prince of Death rides towards the city on Piet's back and announces the imminent end of the world, accompanied by a chorus of spirits.

  • Scene II: Sado-Maso and a Vampire's Bite

    In the house of the court astrologer: Astradamors is a messy fellow, and the inside of his home looks like the attic in a Hitchcock film. His wife Mescalina pulls off an S/M number, then falls into a deep sleep after too much red wine, and dreams of a better man. The better man appears: Nekrotzar, a real guy with vampire qualities. Mescalina emits a horrific scream and dies. Astradamors jumps for joy, and gets Piet to help him drag the corpse into the cellar. Nekrotzar announces that the end of the world is nigh.

  • Scene III: The Prince Who Isn't One

    In Breughelland. Two rival ministers control prince Go-Go, a big fat baby of a man. Go-Go resigns in order to stuff his face undisturbed. The head of the secret political police, Gepopo, warns them about the rebellious mob. Astradamors approaches, singing merrily, and risks a little dance with Go-Go. Then Nekrotzar rides in on Piet's back with a great hullabaloo and lets himself be drawn into a booze-up.

  • Scene IV: The Last Judgement

    All the characters assemble at the cemetery. Piet and the fortune-teller Astradamors come in, confirm to each other that they are dead, and swap condolences. Go-Go appears, convinced that he is the sole survivor, but learns otherwise. Mescalina argues with the ministers. Everyone joins in a final dance, and the two lovers sum things up: »The best thing of all is if you really love one another. If you do that, time stands still and there is nothing but eternity.«

Hinter den Kulissen: »Le Grand Macabre« in der Elbphilharmonie

Text: Habakuk Traber, last updated: 28.7.2020

Cover photo: New York Philharmonic / Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee, 2010

More stories