The New York Philharmonic is not where audiences typically go for end-of-the-world adventures with potentially scandalous music.
But in an event that's sure to draw at least as many listeners from outside the city as from its core audience, the orchestra this week not only will perform its first-ever fully staged opera, but will do so with a prickly, sprawling work that the usual operatic institutions lack either the moxie or the money to mount.
Heralded by an overture played on automobile horns, Le Grand Macabre by Gyorgy Ligeti will have its first New York performances Thursday through Saturday at Lincoln Center, in a high-tech production directed by Douglas Fitch and featuring a cast of Breughelesque grotesques led by Philadelphia's Eric Owens. Is it a maiden-season indulgence for the orchestra's music director, Alan Gilbert?
Fresh from delivering the commencement address at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, his alma mater, Gilbert is happily wrestling with the largest, wildest score of the great but aggressively uncompromising Hungarian composer - in an event that will land the New York Philharmonic in the city's intellectual life in ways that haven't happened in a while.
"The New York Philharmonic belongs there - and is already there," Gilbert said last week between rehearsals. "I'm hoping that I'll be doing this kind of thing for a long, long time. Special projects are crucial to a season."
Though Le Grand Macabre is the latest in a series of prestigious new-music credits for bass-baritone Owens, he's inviting Philadelphians with care: "It's not necessarily a show for children," he said. "There are choice four-letter words. . . . " And they're sung in English.
The language may be the least outrageous aspect of the fearlessly provocative opera, which depicts an absurd world ruled by the ineffectual Prince Go Go and visited by the dictatorial Nekrotzar (played by Owens), who plans to end the world through mass extinction. But in a Waiting for Godot-style portrait of shambling, unheroic survival, nobody dies except Nekrotzar, who eventually melts into the floor.
Lacking the usual stage machinery to do so, Owens will expire on the Avery Fisher Hall stage by simply dropping his costume and retreating to a less-central part of the stage. There's a point there: "He's a normal guy who is taking on the role of Death in his own mind and is manipulating people around him into believing that everybody will die at midnight," says Owens. "But in fact, he's Joe Schmoe."
The phantasmagorical nature of the piece lends itself more to illustrative than representational presentation. When the populace begs Nekrotzar for mercy, the stage screen will be filled with a field of stick figures with mouths plaintively opening and closing as they plead.
"It's about the struggle for identity and meaning in a chaotic, apocalyptic world," says Gilbert, "but it's written in such a stylized, exaggerated way, the biggest challenge is making sure it doesn't feel cartoonish."
Walking that line while mastering Ligeti's leaping, frenetic vocal lines is a particular challenge in two brief weeks of rehearsals. "I knew what I was getting into and I adore Alan and I wanted to do the piece," says Owens. "But you don't realize how daunting it's all going to be it until you're in the middle of it."
Le Grand Macabre, first performed in 1978, is relatively popular in Europe, particularly since the 1997 Salzburg Festival production conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, directed by Peter Sellars, and recorded on Sony Classical. The opera might be even more widely heard were its requirements not so grand as to demand a major opera house, and too idiosyncratic - it needs 10 exceptionally savvy singers plus lots of extra non-instruments - to be easily slotted into day-to-day repertoire. Demand may just outweigh supply.
That's where Le Grand Macabre looks less like an indulgence and more like a longterm strategy. The production's high-tech qualities kept the budget down to a reasonable $600,000 to $700,000. It's also quite portable. "We have plans to do it in Paris, Hamburg, and Stockholm," Gilbert said. "I kind of belong to this production. The Paris Chatelet Theater is interested and may expand it into a more fully realized production."
That business model has long been a trend in the European festival circuit: One-of-a-kind productions are funded by government subsidies and then exported to forward-looking settings such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Lincoln Center Festival. Le Grand Macabre reverses the import/export formula. Also, pairing extreme repertoire and a New York Philharmonic-caliber orchestra is rare - but is certainly a touring alternative to visiting Paris and Hamburg with Tchaikovsky and Mahler.
Besides his commitment to presenting worthy but seldom-heard repertoire, Gilbert is also big on having the orchestra collaborate with other artistic disciplines: "I like to show that it's all connected, all part of the same pursuit," he said.
The question remains: Will the core Philharmonic audience stay long enough to notice?
Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre"
will be performed by the New York Philharmonic Thursday through Saturday at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center. Information: 212-721-6500 or