Saturday, October 30, 2004

Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre :
Contemporary opera makes fun of itself

Judging from the San Francisco Opera offerings thus far into the season, you'd think Pamela Rosenberg had already left town. Yes, there were adequately rendered productions of Tosca, La Traviata, and Billy Budd, all adequately cast, in attractive stagings that were by and large realistic looking and traditional in feel -- cosi fan tutti indeed.

So it was terrifyingly exciting to welcome the U.S. premiere of Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at the SF Opera Friday night, and a chance to hear something that is so daringly original both musically and theatrically.

After the company announced that it was pushing back Berlioz' five-hour long epic Les Troyens to 2008, Le Grand Macabre became the season's chief artistic battle horse. Presented in a production imported from the Royal Danish Opera, conducted by Michael Boder and directed by Kasper Holten [see my last post], Friday evening's opening was an impressive achievement for the company, and another vindication of Rosenberg's artistic vision.

It is easy to see why Le Grand Macabre has achieved such a cult stature in Europe. Dubbed the anti-opera, this comedy both mocks and validates the establishment at several levels, in broad yet decisively well-informed strokes. Not even opera itself, as an artform, escapes its sardonic analysis, as the work hilariously ridicules the both excesses of contemporary opera as well as the stifling rigidity of tradition. Through it all, the work's message is ultimately a life affirming one, that somehow through our assorted individual paranoias and deep dysfunctionality, we have the capacity to survive our awkward fears, even if by merely learning to enjoy life and not take it so seriously.

There is nothing lurid or explicit on stage, yet several scenes poke fun at the banality of extreme sexual obsession in contemporary theater that is often seen on European stages -- including an S & M exchange between post menopausal characters, and a pair of lovers constantly looking for a place to do the deed. The mockery is also heightened at the musical level, right from the start with an irreverent car horn sinfonia, the opener of a score that is punctuated by rambunctious odd-ball sounds such as sirens and amplified paper-tearing.

The characters' absurdity is often rendered in amorphous, atonal vocalizations comically stripped of any melodic sense. The Berg-to-Bellini mix offers sudden shifts into outbursts of wild, hilarious stylized displays of belcanto clichés, with endless vocal roulades topped by piercing acuti held to the point where even Donizetti would cry uncle. And those of us who missed Ruth Ann Swenson's high E-flats in La Traviata will not want to miss Gepopo's act 2 bravura showdown, brilliantly rendered by German soprano Caroline Stein in a part worthy of Edita Gruberova.

Of course, for all of this to work one has to assume that the audience is "in" on the joke. At the premiere, it seemed like most of the public in attendance was in synch with Ligeti, judging particularly from the high number of elaborately costumed patrons for the Halloween weekend. Myself, it took a little while to absorb the spirit of the work early in act 1 -- having arrived at the opera house at the last minute, somewhat stressed after a rushed day -- but by the time act 2 started, I was won over and Ligeti had me completely.

Despite the chaotic feel, Le Grand Macabre actually has a thoughtfully conceived architecture. The recurring references to the Dies Irae and Latin texts serves not only as a framing device, but also reminds us that fear and anxiety are atemporal, having been with us from the beginning of time. And as crazy the characters are, each of them are clearly and individually developed early in the opera. By the time we arrive at the apocalyptical midnight hour, we feel comfortably connected with each of them as we share ther fear and dread of the approaching fatal moment. This climaxing moment is also the one place where we find Ligeti is at his most compostionally brilliant. The slapstick horsing around suddenly ceases, as the music becomes chillingly real, grotesque and truly frightful.

© 2004 C. Chang

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Friday, October 29, 2004

Macabre humor:
Danish director brings Ligeti
premiere to San Francisco

Just in time for Halloween weekend and the U.S. elections, the U.S. premiere of Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre" at the San Francisco Opera is being touted by the New York Times as one of the milestones in the national arts scene this season.

Since its premiere in 1978 in Stockholm at the Royal Swedish Opera, "Le Grand Macabre" has established itself in Europe as one of the most successful operas by a living composer, a comedy which resonates broadly with the global anxieties of the Bush era. Finding great appeal with European audiences, it received various new stagings, including a highly polemical one by Peter Sellars at the Salzburg Festival.

The production that will be seen in San Francisco originated in Copenhagen, at the Danish Royal Opera, and at the center of this daunting enterprise is the unassuming 31 year-old Danish director Kasper Holten. The precocious stage director received a lot of attention in the European press some five years ago, when at age 26, he was appointed artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera, Denmark's national company and one of Scandinavia's cultural gems.

Kasper Holten

"It was something that surprised even myself," says Holten. "At the time, I was often asked whether I felt people would respect me. And in some ways, I didn't really feel fully prepared for the job. On the other hand, how could I have turned down such an opportunity?"

"But assuming a post of such responsibility at age 27 was also very liberating, as I found out. I was still in the process of forming my views on opera, so I brought no rigid preconceptions. And at that age no one expected that I would know how to deal with every situation and solve every problem. So I had a lot of excellent help."

Holten's duties as the artistic director of Denmark's national company include programming and casting decisions,administrative and budget oversight, in addition to the hands-on direction of several mainstage operas every season.

Approximately 80% of the Royal Danish Opera's funding comes from the state, which of course, is typical of the European cultural environment. The ample government subsidies enjoyed by European arts organizations frees the creative process from marketing entanglements, and allows artists the freedom to create many of the fearless, egdy and sometimes scandalous works that American companies often shy away from.

In 2002, for instance, the staging of Verdi's "A Masked Ball" by Catalan director Calixto Bieito (complete with anal rape scenes, coke snorting, and singers on lavatories) created such a huge controversy that it indirectly led to the dismissal of General director Nicholas Payne at the head of London's English National Opera.

"I have never caused any controversy on the level of Calixto's, "says Kasper. "but some of my updatings and modern stagings
have also been criticized.

"I don't have an interest in mere provocation, I like to think that in Copenhagen, my company is known for its storytelling. But
opera is an interpretive art. Perhaps the composer's directions should be followed as closely as possible the first time a work
is staged. But once a new work has had six or seven productions, we should try to see the work in different ways.

"Those criticizing modern concept productions merely wish to see psychological realism on stage. This has little to do with
authenticity, or even the wishes of the composer. If we were to mount a Mozart opera today exactly the same way as it was seen in Austria two hundred years ago, we would find it very strange. There were stage conventions, gestures and such that would no longer make sense. If a soprano, for instance, were to show her ankle on stage in the 18th century, she would have created a scandal.

"And even if we could reproduce a staging to a high degree of historical accuracy, one thing we cannot ever reproduce is the
audience! It is impossible to recreate the original audience, today's public has had completely different experiences; they have seen television, they have traveled the world, and they already know about the internet."

Otherwise, Kasper Holton feels the responsibility and honor in making his U.S. debut with such a high profile production. The story line of Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre" is a disconnected satirical tale, with the arrival of Nekrotzar, the Grim Reaper, announcing the arrival of an imminent apocalypse. The hillarious score also introduces an unconventional collection of anxiety provoking sounds to the orchestra, ranging from a suite of car horns to amplified paper-tearing, along with outlandish dynamic contrasts in the orchestra, which conductor Michael Boder describes as sounds which mimick the strike of weapons of mass destruction.

Designed by Steffen Aarfing, the sets are inspired on Belgian comic book art, and the characters populating this staging of "Le Grand Macabre" seem to have stepped right out of Hergé Moulinsart's "The Adventures of Tin Tin." The scenic tableaus show vivid colors and exaggerated perspectives, with comic book gags such as frames within frames and "thought bubbles" deployed sporadically.

"We are in a constant state of fear," says Holten. "Fear of death, fear of destruction, fear of elections. And the always imminent end of the world."

"This fear leads to anxiety, mistrust, racism, religious fanaticism, abuse of political power, wars, and serious challenges to our well being. Though this is a serious topic, the opera offers a simple message, which seems more pertinent now than in is premiere in 1978. It teaches us to deal with life, which is so precious, with a lot of humor. If we spend all our life in fear, we forget about living."

Gyorgy Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre" - at San Francisco Opera, on Oct. 29, Nov. 5, 9, and 13 at 8 pm; Nov. 18 at 7:30 pm; Nov. 21 at 2 pm. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave in SF. Tickets: $10-$180; call (415) 864-3330 or visit

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Met announces new General Director,
and it's not Placido

So the Metropolitan Opera in New York has chosen its
new leader for the post-Volpe era. It's Peter Gelb, the
51 year old CEO of Sony Classics. Details here.

© 2004 C. Chang

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Video preview of "Le Grand Macabre"

The San Francisco Opera just released a video
preview of Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre," narrated
by Kasper Holten. It's available here.

2005 Adlers: New kids on the block

The SF Opera Center just announced today the ten
Adler Fellows for 2005. They are:

Jane Archibald (Nova Scotia, Canada)
Kimwana Doner (Detroit, Michigan)
Nikki Einfeld (Manitoba, Canada)
Elza van den Heever (Johannesburg, South Africa)
Gerald Thompson (Pocahontas, Arkansas)
Thomas Glenn (Calgary, Canada)
Sean Panikkar (Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania)
baritones Lucas Meachem (Carthage, North Carolina)
Eugen Brancoveanu (Arad, Romania)
Joshua Bloom (Melbourne, Australia)

Archibald, Einfeld, Glenn, Meachem and Bloom are
2nd year returning Adler Fellows; the others were
selected from this summer's Merola Opera participants.

Notably, no mezzos selected as fellows this year.
These artists will be featured in a trio of one-act
operas: Pergolesi's "La Serva Padrona"; Darius Milhaud's
"Le Pauvre Matelot," and Donizetti's "Rita," all staged
by Christopher Alden for the annual Showcase
presentation, March 11-20 at Fort Mason’s Cowell

2004 Adler's commencement

The 2004 Adlers will appear together one final
time as a group on Dec. 8, in a concert entitled
"The Future is Now" at the Herbst Theatre.

Current Adler Fellows include Jane Archibald,
Nikki Einfeld, Ricardo Herrera, Katherine Rohrer,
Joshua Bloom, Thomas Glenn, Lucas Meachem
and Karen Slack. Mark Morash will lead the bunch
in scenes and arias from operas by Mozart, Berlioz,
Verdi and Strauss.

Tickets cost $20, $35 and $48; call Opera Box
Office at (415) 864-3330, or go on-line at

Monday, October 18, 2004

Renée Fleming delivers high E's
in Spain and Portugal

I was at the Met's "La Traviata" in NYC earlier this year, and
imagine my shock when Renée Fleming blatantly skipped
the optional high E-flat at the end of "Sempre Libera."

Of course, she's got the notes, so perhaps she had been
them for her current Iberian tour. In concert appearances
both in Spain and Portugal, the soprano has offered the
optional, fearless high-E *natural* at the end of the bolero
from "Vespri Siciliani."

I'm sure I'm not the only one left wondering if she'll take
the optional high note at the end of "Happy Birthday to You"
next January, when she flies into town for Michael Tilson
Thomas' star -studded birthday concert.

More seriously, Madame Fleming received decent and I'm
sure well deserved praise for her overall performances. But
consistent with her appearance at the SF Opera's opening
night gala, she was also panned by Iberian critics for her
rendition of the two arias from Handel's "Rodelinda." This
does not bode well for her upcoming attempt of the role at
the Met this season.

From Madrid's "La Razon":

> Empezó con dos arias de «Rodelinda» de Haendel,
> que no la iban nada, con la voz fría, áspera y
> coloraturas de andar por casa.

From Lisbon's "O Publico" (requires subscription):

> A principal alteração, correspondente ao novo
> disco e à rodagem para a próxima estreia no papel
> titular de "Rodelinda", foi a inclusão a abrir de
> duas árias dessa ópera de Haendel. ... Não foi
> uma troca feliz.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

The case of Rio's mooning director

Last month, the Brazilian federal courts effectively
dismissed the municipality of Rio de Janeiro's action
against the mooning director, and shelved the case.

Gerald Thomas -- this idiot's name is actually
"Geraldo," but he is so ridiculous that he changed
it to "Gerald," in order to make it sound more
foreign -- was the director of Rio de Janeiro's
Theatro Municipal's controversial production of
Tristan und Isolde. On opening night, the fragile
ego'd director mooned the audience and simulated
masturbation at curtain calls, in response to public

Thomas was charged for indecent public exposure
under article 233 in the Penal Code. But the presiding
judicial authorities on the matter cited that, while his
gesture was rude and tasteless, Thomas' actions did
not rise to the level of a criminal offense.

In particular, he was not seeking sexual pleasure
from his acts, but rather wanted to demonstrate that
he was indifferent to the public booing.

Standards of community decency were also invoked
in the court's decision. In Rio's libertine culture of
sexual open-mindedness, the public indecency display
in this case was a fairly mild one. Had it happened in
the smaller and more deeply religious towns in the
interior of Brazil, the offense would have carried a
greater weight. It was also argued that society provides
other mechanisms for ostracizing such indiscretions,
outside the penal code.

I think I agree with the decision. His acts were juvenile
and selfish, coming from a blatant lack of
professionalism, but did not rise to a criminal offense.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

MTT's 60th birthday

The San Francisco Symphony announced today a big,
star-studded 60th Birthday Gala Bash for music director
Michael Tilson Thomas on Jan. 13th, 2005. (Never mind
that his actual birthday is on Dec. 21st)

Soloists scheduled to perform include Renée Fleming,
Audra MacDonald, Flicka von Stade and Thomas Hampson.
The conductor hasn't been announced yet; but various
surprises are also planned.

Invitations to this party cost $85 to $285; or $1000 to
$2000 if you'll be wanting some food with your music.
Stanlee Gatti will decorate a tented pavillion at Lake Louise,
where the pre-concert dinner will take place.

Call Box Office at (415)552-8000 if you want to purchase
an invitation; details are also available at the symphony's

Monday, October 04, 2004

The Dame complains:
Kiri Te Kanawa in San Francisco

During her recital tonight at Davies Hall, Kiri Te Kanawa
told the crowd that "you don't make a Dame of the British
Empire wait in line for three hours." But that's exactly
what they did to her at the American Consulate in London,
as she cued up with everybody else waiting outside on
Grosvernor Square while applying for a visa, said Kiri.

After landing in U.S. soil, she said that being an
exotic Maori, between various connecting flights she
was searched 8 times, had her baggage trashed at X-ray
scanners, and was finger printed three times.

"They asked for my index finger," she said, "but I gave
them an impression of that other finger." The audience
applauded in sympathy. She found the experience so
aggravating that she said she wouldn't be doing an U.S.
recital tour any time soon. So to her American fans, her
current tour is a temporary farewell to the 60-year old
diva, one of the 80's greatest opera stars.

Other than visa requirements, it might be wise also for
Kiri to stay home for a while, judging by the condition
of her voice. Te Kanawa still has a very polished and
classy stage presence, but the voice I heard last night
was in a bit of technical disrepair, most serious being
the wobbly intonation problems that appear when she
applies volume to the tone.

For sure, there were some nice moments to be had
through the course of the evening, but her first selection,
Cleopatra's "Piangero, la sorte mia," was perhaps the
most ill-advised. Both the recit and aria were rendered
in an excessively mannered way, with "ma poi morta,"
the bravura middle section, completely lacking in properly
articulated coloratura.

She did better with the Strauss songs, but even those
were a shadow of her former glory, as compared to the
excellent recording of these included in that Four Last
Songs CD with Andrew Davis. I had high hopes for her
three songs from Les Nuits d'ete. But there too, she
disappointed. The climactic, ecstatic declamation of
"J'arrive du paradis, j'arrive..." in 'Le spectre de la rose"
came out rather dry toned.

Dame Kiri's only uncompromised pieces in the program
were the two Wolf-Ferrari miniatures, Rispetti nos. 1 and 3.
She ended the program with two Puccini songs, "Morire"
and "Sole e amore," which carried recognizable tunes from
Boheme and Butterfly. Her two encores were a Maori song,
and Chi bel sogno di Doretta.

Friday, October 01, 2004

The ninth heaven

The San Francisco Symphony's performance os Mahler's
gloriously tragic Ninth was easily the best performance
I've ever heard of this work, one of my favorites. It was
a reading to remember for a lifetime -- besting even
Bernstein's performance of this work I heard as a teenager.
Best of all, these performances are being recorded as
part of the SF Symphony's Mahler Cycle.

Thursday night, the quiet ending ending to the first
movement was magical, with 3000 people sitting at
Davies Hall in stunned silence -- no coughers!

James Keller's program notes warns us not to indulge in
excessive sentimentality in our approach to this work, but
I don't care: I want the 4th movement's Adagio played at
my funeral.