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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