Le Grande Macabre: An Opera in the Age of Madness

By Anneka Murdoch ’21

A scene from Le Grande Macabre (Photo Credit: Lens Views)

In the age of silent anxieties, the ironic and the macabre combine in a jarring discord of nonsense. Absurdity becomes normality.


Nowhere is this more present than in György Ligeti’s contemporary opera, ​Le Grand Macabre​. One of the few postwar operas to earn a place in the modern repertoire, Ligeti’s work serves simultaneously as an immense artistic feat, throwing light on 20th-century politics and culture, and as a giant middle-finger to all the avant-garde composers who shun opera as an outdated medium.


Written in the 1970s, Ligeti based the libretto on Michel de Ghelderode’s play, La Balade du Grand Macabre, which perfectly fit Ligeti’s vision of something “cruel and frightening...”—a common theme in many modern compositions. After several bawdy edits with his co-librettist Michael Meschke, the work premiered in 1977 and has been performed in English, French, Italian, Hungarian, Danish, and the original German.

Ligeti arranged a fragment of the play to be performed by a soprano and an orchestra, titled ​Mysteries of the Macabre​. Conductor and singer Barbara Hannigan performs it with Sir Simon Rattle here.


Hannigan masters the challenging vocals with all of her usual flair. Dressed as a schoolgirl, she perversely babbles Gepopo’s aria, delivering astonishing vocals and gifting the audience her personal slice of absurdity. Her character, the Chief of Espionage in Ligeti’s mock-apocalyptic world, wails in code to her employer, Prince Go-go, and warns him of a peoples’ uprising. He comprehends the message, and the fragment ends.

Jerking and dancing over the stage, Hannigan sets the bar high for “getting into the flow.” She and Sir Simon Rattle work flawlessly together, navigating complex rhythms and musical scenery, barely leaving room for the audience to breathe. The cartoonish mockery, combined with the grotesque, fantastical world of Ligeti’s anti-anti-opera, makes for a thrilling performance.

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