Sunday, May 23, 2010

The New York Philharmonic promotes Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre"

Next weekend, the New York Philharmonic will perform a staged version of Gyorgy Ligeti's opera "Le Grand Macabre."  The orchestra started with the hype about the performances when they announced the 2009-10 season last year.  And their efforts have only intensified in the past few weeks.  Two weeks ago I received an e-mail from the Philharmonic with the subject "It's the end of the world as we know it" and without even opening it I knew it had to do with "Le Grand Macabre."  Last week the Philharmonic's Twitter account icon changed to a black and white eye and they created Twitter accounts for several characters in the opera.  The weekly podcast on the opera piqued my interest in the event even further.  But with all of this promotion, I still hadn't decided whether to attend one of the concerts.  The production wasn't part of my original subscription and I didn't want to switch one of my remaining concerts for it.  I decided to wait and see how desperate the Philharmonic was to sell tickets.

I got my answer last Thursday in the form of an e-mail with offers of discounted tickets for Friday and Saturday.  And in this article in Sunday's New York Times I learned why that e-mail went out.  Subscriber interest in the opera has been disappointing.  But single-ticket sales have been up, with signs that at least the first performance would be a sellout.  In addition to the usual podcast and e-mail promotion and the Twitter account silliness, the Philharmonic posted several videos of music director Alan Gilbert interacting with Nekrotzar, one of the characters in the opera.  My personal favorite is, of course, the video of the two playing Guitar Hero.  The Times noted that "it was hard to say whether [the videos] had translated into any ticket sales." 

In another article in Sunday's Times, the paper explored how the Philharmonic plans to stage "Le Grand Macabre" in conjunction with Giants Are Small, a Brooklyn-based production company:
Giants Are Small is a partnership between Mr. Fitch, who is also a visual artist, and the filmmaker and producer Edouard Getaz. Their approach (pretested in “Peter and the Wolf,” “L’Histoire du Soldat” and “Petrouchka” for institutions including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa) combines low-tech puppetry with high-tech video. In “Le Grand Macabre” elaborate costumes for the soloists, whipped up by the four-time Tony winner and Met alumna Catherine Zuber, will add to the pageantry.
 I attended the Philharmonic's performance of Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" in 2005 and the production design worked well.  There was a small puppet theater at the front of the stage with the puppeteers visible behind the theater.  A camera in front of the theater captured the action and projected it on a screen above and behind the orchestra and the narrators.  You could watch the puppeteers in action and see the results of their manipulations above them.  And you could also see the conductor and the musicians on stage, hidden in shadow but illuminated by music stand lights, something I'm not used to seeing on stage at Avery Fisher Hall.

All of these marketing efforts worked on me.  I bought tickets for Friday evening's performance.  I'm getting more excited about the opera as I read more about the production.  I have no illusions about the music I'm going to hear: it will be atonal and harsh.  Ligeti isn't the most lyrical of composers.  But "Le Grand Macabre" is the kind of performance that I think I would regret missing if I passed on it.  It's going to be a hell of a spectacle.  When something this unusual comes to town, you have to check it out. 

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