There is no question that Gyrgy Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre is one of the weirdest and most extreme operas of the 20th or of any century.
It’s not easy to stage, and it’s not easy to sing, but if approached with relish, as character tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke has approached it, rehearsals and performance are a joy and a thrill.
Le Grand Macabre opens in a new production at English National Opera this week and Ablinger-Sperrhacke, who has been dying to play the role of Piet the Pot for around 12 years, finally gets to hiccup, fly and croon his way through Ligeti’s colossal, bonkers and only opera in the slick but raving realisation by La Fura dels Baus (the creative mavericks behind the Barcelona Olympics).
For those singers who wouldn’t dare to stray from the blockbusting staples of the operatic repertoire, a musical challenge is as fearful as a dramatic one. For Ablinger-Sperrhacke though, a physical jolt feeds directly into performance, and pushes him onto the next level “This kind of production tickles me; crawling out of giant breasts and flying around. As an actor it’s vital to have a different approach for each work.”
And as far as laughs go (this devilish parade of seedy characters is, of course, a comedy), Ablinger-Sperrhacke speaks like an old hand on the boards of the Globe: “you should never sit on a laugh. The audience will know that you’re desperate and won’t find it amusing.” So how should an opera singer, or any actor get laughs? “It’s best to play a funny scene as if it isn’t funny at all. Instead of trying to milk an audience, I prefer to let them try to milk me”
A disarmingly frank and amiable man, Ablinger-Sperrhacke is quick to dismiss convenient clichs about this work, citing comparisons to Brueghel as “far too civilised – this is more like a painting by Bosch. It appears to be all flesh and chaos, but it’s very controlled. In fact I think Ligeti was a control freak, down to every last metronome marking. The funny thing is, people think of this opera as being enormously complicated but there is a very simple story at the centre of it, and a very simple theme.” The theme is death, and the fear of death. And the funniness of death. “Since Ligeti lived with the menace of death so apparent in his life, his reaction was to see the funny side. It’s a way of coping, and it’s also very entertaining.”
Ablinger-Sperrhacke has a genuinely open attitude to repertoire; Ligeti isn’t a departure for him, nor does he think of atonal music as particularly problematic, either for performers or audiences. This seems to be largely due to the fact that he found his own way into music and music making. Coming from a non-musical family, he discovered a love for Verdi at the same time as a passion for Berg. With no reigning preference among his family or peers there was neither urge to rebel, nor pressure to conform. “As a child I grabbed all music. No dissonance could freak me out,” he says.
For this reason Ablinger-Sperrhacke has been happy to perform everything from Mozart to Wagner and far beyond. But it’s not as if he’s uncritical of those who write for his range “Wagner was very nice to us character tenors, but not the Italians. Though there were a lot of boring, pretentious operas written in the last hundred years, luckily for me some of the greatest character roles were written in the 20th Century.”
With car horns, mechanical buttocks and sado-masochism all sharing the stage with ideas of death and brutality, I put it to Ablinger-Sperrhacke that audiences might still be a little reluctant to accept this as a classic of the grand opera repertoire. Reassuringly, he disagrees. “Perhaps they were more conservative when this piece was brand new, but audiences no longer think music stopped when Richard Strauss died. I knew I wanted to perform this opera as soon as I’d seen the revised version in Salzburg in 1997. After all, this is a masterpiece.”
A masterpiece of oddness and of wonder, obviously, but is there scope for a singing actor in a piece as wild as this? Ablinger-Sperrhacke tells me that after being put off becoming a guitar prodigy by an over-pushy tutor he turned to acting, and that this is what fed into and fired his desire to sing. So what is there for an actor to do in Le Grand Macabre? “Piet is always drunk so it’s difficult to work out his intentions, which is wonderful for an actor. The whole thing is off kilter, and in the end the characters are as much at a loss as the audience, but that sort of ambiguity allows for a more interesting interpretation.” And, I would suggest, a more pleasurable night for the audience.