INTERVIEW: Peter Sellars talks Le grand macabre

Peter Sellars talks Le grand macabre, the similarities between Ligeti and Mozart, and what it's like to work with Sir Simon Rattle …


On Le grand macabre

Le grand macabre was a huge breakthrough in the history of opera in the last few generations because opera in the 20th century became something that was written by dead people. Real composers were not allowed in the opera house after Puccini, after Strauss. And Puccini and Strauss were writing something that was not part of the musical avant-garde at all. They were writing something that was actually very nostalgic. And all of Puccini’s and Strauss’ music references music of the generation before them.

Composers who were writing music of the future, or even of the present like Bartók and Stravinsky and Schoenberg, were not welcome in opera houses. That was a real shift in the history of music because in all of the previous generations, the main composers of the day were featured in the opera houses. There was this disconnect in the 20th century, and opera became more and more this nostalgic art form which was looking backwards to some kind of imagined simpler era when life was never actually so simple.

So Le grand macabre was one of those breakthrough pieces where an actual living composer shows up in the opera house and says what do we do with this? What can we make here? What creative energy can we muster for these resources: ‘You really have all that?! You can do that? You can do that? Well wait a minute, let me just do this with that …’

So here you get this genuine, brilliant, complete musical genius, whose sound-world is on the outer edge of consciousness and buzzing with intergalactic messages and worlds and sci-fi surrealist things, which is why Stanley Kubrick used Ligeti’s music in 2001: A Space Odyssey and it made a world sensation when people heard these sounds. And Ligeti himself, being Hungarian and coming through the Eastern European avant-garde, was also obsessed with African music, with strange vibrations, sound interruptions – an impurity of sound. In fact, what sound is like in the world and in our lives, when we’re listening to all these strange registers of sound simultaneously. It’s that sense that the world is constantly surprising if you actually listen to it. You’re hearing the wildest and most contradictory sets of information. So that sense of astonishing surprise, contradiction and deep pleasure from randomness, creating conditions that mimic random conditions but are not random at all and that recognize the play of sound in your life.

Ligeti’s a playful composer.  There’s all this hilarity, sense of fun, sense of what is incorrect, sense of what’s inappropriate (Ligeti’s speciality is 'the inappropriate') And so you have an entire evening devoted to inappropriate behaviour, inappropriate music – everything’s inappropriate. So it gives a lot of pleasure!

The other cool thing about Ligeti is the sense of spiritual, mystical, hidden universes. Le grand macabre is the title in French. It’s from a play by Michel de Ghelderode, a Belgian playwright, and the grand macabre is Death. And it’s an entire evening where the main singer is Death. Death shows up. But it’s not like Ingar Begman’s Seventh Seal, it’s a ludicrous farce. At the same time, Ligeti lost almost his entire family at Auschwitz. So actually, he’s quite serious. The piece has this very playful approach to something that is not a joke. That’s what gives the piece its amazing qualities and surprising dimensionality and what keeps you in it. It looks like a series of unrelated, strange and ridiculous experiences. But, of course, a lot of things in life feel like that! And then it turns out, they are adding up to something, and something that is quite deep.

So the piece has this marvellous quality of not being pretentious, not wearing its seriousness on its sleeve at all, but going out of its way to be ridiculous. Because everything in the world that’s acting like it’s serious at the moment is so ridiculous. And the interplay of what matters and what doesn’t matter, and how human beings tend to reverse those things all the time everyday, is what gives this piece its dramatic piquancy and tastiness and its musical outrage.


On working with Ligeti

Ligeti and I got to know each other rather well when he would visit California. And of course in California he was very far away from Europe and he could just really kick back and have fun. So he was at his most fun and relaxed in California. And a lot of his interests were in African music and all of that. We had a lot of that in California. So it was with a very cool vibe that I got to know Ligeti for the first time. So we talked about the piece and we talked over the years about continuing to work on the piece because he wrote it very quickly in very strange situations in Stockholm.

By then Esa-Pekka Salonen was the Music Director of the LA Philharmonic, and Esa-Pekka and I were collaborating regularly and we were seeing Ligeti regularly. And so we came up with this idea to propose to him that he take Le grand macabre and write late in his life, 25 years after the premiere, that he go back to it and make a real finished version that was really composed from beginning to end, that was composed through, to cut certain things, expand certain things and really lift the piece to its real level of promise.

So I was able to work with Esa-Pekka Salonen and be involved in conversations with Ligeti about arriving at this version. Then Ligeti went off – and nobody influences him for God’s sake! – and he did exactly what he wanted to do on his terms the way he wanted to do it. But I think we were able to nudge the piece forward. Then the new version came and he had really worked on it. And I think he realised that before he left the world he wanted it to not just be an avant-garde blow-out, he wanted it to be a classic. And so the final version a real classical opera and not just a crazy collage. And that’s kind of thrilling.

That was in the mid-90s. So really it’s 20 years later now that I’m coming back to it. And let’s see what happens!


On Mozart and Ligeti

When it was new, the piece was a genuine shot in the arm in the history of avant-garde opera. And I include the history of avant-garde opera Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. It was one of those things that Ligeti figured out, like Mozart figured out in The Marriage of Figaro, if you’re going to talk about something serious then it better be funny, it better be entertaining, and it better have some kind of surprising human elements, and at the same time to turn the world upside down. So Marriage of Figaro does a lot of the same stuff in a certain way.

It wears itself very lightly and also has these truly spectacular moments in it. But Ligeti, like Mozart, doesn’t let the most spectacular moment linger. It’s like a Mozart Piano Concerto where the phrase that breaks your heart is two bars long and then he moves no to other things. He doesn’t sit in it. He really keeps it so that the thrilling moments in this opera are like 15 seconds. And some amazing sound-world will just open, and for one second you’re like 'What?!’ before it’s gone and we’re on to something else.

So the opera is more like a movie in that sense. It’s not like 'This 15 minutes is this giant ensemble that builds to here’. It’s a flash in an LSD trip. It is something that is unrepeatable. And you just say 'Did I really hear that?!’ It has this thrilling, unexpected quality because Ligeti not only doesn’t prepare things, he specifically prepares things by distracting you and leaving you unprepared for what’s about to occur. You can’t sit and wait for it to appear. Instead most of your experiences of it are of unexpected delight. That’s the best part of this piece.


First Encounters

Most people encounter the piece as university students who are looking for something interesting and so that’s one of your first stops. And you get that old record that Elgar Howarth conducted with the Viennese and it’s the first version of the piece and it’s a mess! But it’s fantastic and as a student you just go ‘Oh yes!’ It’s like a thing in dorms. It’s that moment in your life when you want the world to explode and you’re exploding and you’re irreverent about everything and this is the piece.

I met the piece then. But it’s quite another thing to undertake to do it because as high-spirited as the piece is, it is so. damn. difficult. for the musicians. This is the hardest music on earth to play. It’s fun to hear, but it is not fun to play. It is HARD. And Ligeti is holding that orchestra to such high standard of ensemble and wildness of execution. It is beyond virtuosic. It is this last limit of how virtuosic could the orchestra experience become. So thrilling to experience, but for the musicians it is just a meltdown! So it’s one thing to be a student and like it, but you can’t be a student and put it on, because it just needs better people than that. You need to wait until you have a really crack ensemble to even take this piece up, a large group of really amazing musicians to even go there. So I was older by the time I was in a situation where I could even think of doing it.


On working with the LSO

I first worked with the LSO on John Adams’ Flowering Tree, which we did together at the Barbican in 2007. And the LSO is the best. I love them.

I would say that what’s interesting is that I knew Le grand macabre quite well. Simon [Rattle] has never conducted it before, but has always been interested in it. So he said to me, 'Why don’t we do Le grand macabre?'

Normally, one of the things about working with Simon is that he knows more about this music, any music that he’s working on, he knows more than any other person. Simon’s level of research and depth of understanding of any piece of music is overwhelming. So normally when I work with Simon I’m learning from him, every day. But with this one – I’m not going to say the shoe’s on the other foot because I’m not going to claim to teach Simon anything ever … but let’s put it this way, this is a piece I know (at last!) and it’s Simon’s first time. So I think we’ll have a really fun time dealing with it. And he’ll surprise me with things he’s discovered from something that I thought I knew, of course, because that’s Simon. Meanwhile, I can probably suggest one or two things for him to enjoy.


On the joy of this opera

So much of the classical music repertoire is so overexposed. It’s the same 50 pieces played endlessly. And it’s such a pleasure, a palate cleanser – you know if you grew up on mutton your whole life, what is it to taste sushi for the first time? An unrelated experience! Yes, it’s also eating, but there is nothing to prepare you for what sushi is like after Yorkshire mutton! It’s a completely new universe. For me, that’s the pleasure of this piece: go ahead and have some sushi. Have a completely different palette, a completely different range of tastes, a completely different range of texture. There’s not one thing that’s familiar and that’s the joy of it, that’s the liberation of it, that’s the exhilaration of it. 


On this production

Ligeti felt very deeply about irreverence. So we’ll try and match his depth of feeling in this question!


The London Symphony Orchestra performs Ligeti's Le grand macabre at the Barbican on 14 & 15 Jan 2017, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and featuring a cast of Peter Hoare, Ronnita Miller, Elizabeth Watts, Pavlo Hunka, Frode Olsen, Heidi Melton, Audrey Luna, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Peter Tantsits and Joshua Bloom in a new semi-staging from director Peter Sellars.

First image (Peter Sellars) ©Ruth Walz

Second image (György Ligeti) ©Marcel Antonisse

Third image (Sir Simon Rattle) ©Jim Rakete