It’s a farce, a grotesque piece

György Ligeti’s name should ring a bell. A very dissonant bell.

Ligeti composed some of the most striking music heard in the 1968 screen classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” (He scored the scene in which the ape-men discover the monolith.) Ligeti’s shrieking atonal chorus has since creeped out several generations of moviegoers.

That snippet from his “Requiem” is only a fraction of Ligeti’s musical output. A Hungarian Jew and Holocaust survivor, Ligeti also wrote an opera, “Le Grand Macabre,” which makes its American debut at the San Francisco Opera. (It premiered in Stockholm in 1978.)

“This is one of most important works of the 20th century,” says conductor Michael Boder. “It’s a farce, a grotesque piece about death, sex and politics.”

Sung in English, “Le Grand Macabre” takes place in mythical Breugeland (named for the Flemish artist of the Renaissance), a realm on the verge of an apocalypse. The lead character Nekrotzar ascends from a graveyard and, along with a drunkard and an astrologer, heads for the court of Prince Go-Go to determine whether they have experienced the apocalypse or whether it has all been a great farce.

Ligeti believed that the opera’s underlying message is not to be threatened by anything, “even the most horrible things,” Broder says. “Have hope, otherwise you get stuck, and life is not worth anything. [Ligeti] calls it ‘an anti-anti-opera.'”

Boder knows this because he has spent a good deal of time with Ligeti. As a young conducting student, Boder saw a performance of “Le Grand Macabre” in Hamburg in the early 1980s, and from that day on had hoped to stage it himself someday. He became intimately familiar with Ligeti’s music, and even performed at an 80th birthday bash for the composer last year in Vienna. It was a well-attended party, given Ligeti’s stature in the European music scene.

Born in Transylvania in 1923, Ligeti began his musical studies in 1941, but war postponed his scholarship. He was interned at a forced labor camp and lost his entire family in the Holocaust. But after the war, he resumed his studies at the Budapest Academy, where he began teaching in 1950. After the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, Ligeti left his homeland. He has lived in Germany, Sweden and Austria, and in 1972 spent a year as artist-in-residence at Stanford University. He now primarily resides in Vienna.

Ligeti has long been a central figure in the European avant-garde, with a style that followed in the tradition of Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály early on, but evolved over time. He is admired for his use of what’s known as micropolyphony, or combining instruments into shifting clusters of sound.

Ligeti is certainly not the first Jewish composer to write an opera. Other greats include Kurt Weill, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Jaques Offenbach, George Gershwin and Philip Glass. But Boder doesn’t necessarily see a musical link between Meyerbeer the romantic and Ligeti the whacked-out modernist.

“The Jewish world after Auschwitz has changed completely,” says Boder, himself the son of a Hungarian Jew. “The whole approach of Jewish artists is different since then as well.”

Boder has conducted the most famous Mozart, Wagner and Verdi operas around the world. But given the comic cacophony “Le Grand Macabre,” how does he think more tradition-minded music lovers can get into the opera?

“Even if it’s music you never heard, the only thing you can do is open your mind,” says Boder. “When I first saw this opera, I thought it was absolutely bizarre and exciting. It’s not like Shoenberg. This music will grab you.”

“Le Grand Macabre” will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 5, Saturday, Nov. 13, and Tuesday, Nov. 9; at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21, at the San Francisco Opera, 301 Van Ness Ave. Tickets: $25-$215. Information: (415) 861-4008.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.