WHEN an opera company performs an opera in concert, it is cutting to the bone. When a symphony orchestra does the same thing, it is reaching for the stars. The players can spread their wings in glamorous regions they rarely get to explore. Audiences share the thrill of fresh discovery, whether the repertory is standard or the rarest of the rare. Does it matter if the singers are barricaded behind music stands? Or should the concert hall simulate the production values of an actual opera house?
Over the years many symphonic institutions have tried, with inconclusive results. In his first season as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert is pursuing a more experimental, potentially more exciting, agenda. For the New York premiere of Gyorgy Ligeti's "Grand Macabre," opening a three-night run on Thursday at Avery Fisher Hall, he has opted for a portable multimedia staging by the diminutive production company Giants Are Small, based in Sunset Park, a blue-collar neighborhood in Brooklyn.
"I want to bring the visual element into the concert hall in an appropriate way," Mr. Gilbert said recently in his studio at Avery Fisher Hall. "Opera staged in concert makes you think differently about the spaces in which you hear symphonic music. It develops the orchestra's narrative facility. Orchestras should be telling stories all the time."
For future seasons, Mr. Gilbert is planning Janacek's "Cunning Little Vixen," seldom heard in New York, and Messiaen's "St. François d'Assise," a New York premiere (unless someone else beats him to the punch). "Not every piece has sufficient orchestral interest," he said. "The operas we do have to be things the New York Philharmonic can bring something special to."
Since 1968, Ligeti's name has rung a bell with general audiences for "Atmosphères," nine minutes of orchestral music that Stanley Kubrick incorporated into the soundtrack of "2001: A Space Odyssey" to distinctly extraterrestrial effect. "Le Grand Macabre," an earthier work, has been raising a ruckus on four continents since its premiere at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, in 1978.
According to Ligeti, who died in 2006, the original version was received "with some difficulty" because of excessive spoken dialogue, thick orchestration and a hasty, ineffectual ending. Since an extensively revised edition was unveiled at the Salzburg Festival in 1997, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and directed by Peter Sellars, the opera has played in more than two dozen cities. Yet there has been only one production in the Americas, at the San Francisco Opera during the brief tenure of the Eurocentric general director Pamela Rosenberg. Love it or hate it — and those would seem to be the choices — a New York hearing seems long overdue.
Given Ligeti's stature in the pantheon of the 20th century's classical oddballs, the curiosity value of the piece and the tardiness of occasion, Mr. Gilbert could claim bragging rights just for playing the music. But would that do justice to Ligeti's way-over-the-top theatrical imagination? "Le Grand Macabre," a vaudeville for the end of time, is set in motion when Death himself ascends from a tomb promising to annihilate the human race at the next tolling of the midnight bell. Rounding out a Rabelaisian cast are the goddess Venus, the boozer Piet the Pot, a cross-dressing astronomer, his dominatrix wife, a petulant boy prince who sings in the range of a castrato and sundry others. (Ligeti adapted the libretto with Michael Meschke, founder of the Marionette Theater of Stockholm, from a play by the Belgian absurdist Michel de Ghelderode.)
By Metropolitan Opera standards, "Le Grand Macabre" will be a shoestring affair. Yet to judge from the meticulous storyboards, the papier-mâché goblins with mouths of fire, the king-size goblets of blood made of packing tape wrapped around armatures of dressmakers' wire, the toy palaces and a doll-size portable video studio all crammed into the one-room workshop of the director and designer Doug Fitch, the show could deliver precisely the kind of total music-theater experience the Met now aims for.
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.
Ms. Zuber said she had $40,000 to spend, about half of what she would have liked, so there have been concessions. (The chorus will wear black.) Mr. Fitch could not give a specific figure for his contribution, but excluding fixed orchestra costs, a New York Philharmonic spokesman projected expenses of approximately $500,000. (That would be in the same ballpark as Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the Verdi Requiem or "My Fair Lady" in 2007.)
Mr. Fitch first teamed up with Mr. Gilbert on "Das Rheingold," the curtain raiser for Wagner's epic "Ring" cycle, at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in 2002. Though financed more or less from petty cash, Mr. Fitch's theatrical solutions seem to have been extremely apt. Looking back, Mr. Gilbert mentioned Valhalla, the gleaming fortress of the gods, conjured by flooding light on the pipe organ. In another scene, light bulbs placed below the orchestra players' chairs turned the stage into the subterranean labyrinth of Nibelheim, where terrorized dwarves (the instrumentalists) slaved away among grotesque shadows. Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Fitch have since collaborated on full-dress productions of Puccini's "Turandot" in Santa Fe and Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" in Los Angeles.
"I call what we're doing now live animation," Mr. Fitch said recently, showing a visitor around his studio. "It's very much a practical solution to a technical problem. How do you put on a production when you have no flies, no trapdoors, no time, no money, and you have to share the stage with the orchestra? When you have live music of such superb quality to play with, it's worth figuring out how to make the marriage work. So subversively, I make a little theater of my own, put on a show that I can rehearse in my living room and then just bring in an enormous, miniature production into the concert hall. And in order to make it large enough for anyone past the first row to see, it has to be filmed live and then projected."
The screen for "Le Grand Macabre" is oval, framed by spikes, forming what Mr. Fitch calls a monstrance, recalling the bejeweled show object made to hold the consecrated Host in the Roman Catholic Church. "It's like a crystal ball," he said. "When you take the angles away, the screen becomes a time tunnel, something infinite. There's something alchemical about it. It transforms things. Transformation is what theater is all about for me. My father was a chemistry professor."
Three years ago, as a guest conductor, Mr. Gilbert led the Philharmonic and the soloist Christian Tetzlaff in performances of Ligeti's Violin Concerto. "That was before it was dreamed of that I'd be music director," Mr. Gilbert said. Even then, the idea of performing "Le Grand Macabre" here crossed his mind. Planning his first season, he thought of it again. "In a way," he said, " 'Le Grand Macabre' is about New York."
In a way. More obviously, it is about love and death, the poles of the axis around which the very genre of opera revolves. But here those grand abstractions take form as actors in an apocalypse as it might have been rewritten by R. Crumb with an assist from the Marx Brothers. Death, a bombastic basso, is called Nekrotzar (necro- as in necrophilia, -tzar as in czar). Love appears in various guises, most strikingly as the inseparable couple Amando and Amanda. Despite the lubricious cast of their names in the original version (Spermando and Clitoria), they exist less as sexual athletes than as an idea of erotic fusion, conveyed by the sounds of two female voices that glide, shiver, shimmer and slither as one. Of plot there is next to nothing. Nekrotzar — part bogeyman, part buffoon — destroys the world, all right, or seems to. Yet somehow life goes on.
The proceedings are set in the imaginary principality of Bruegelland, named for the 16th-century Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Art lovers who flash on scenes of peasant weddings, the hunt or the harvest are on the wrong track. The reference is to phantasmagoria like "The Fall of the Rebel Angels" and "The Triumph of Death," in the psychedelic vein of Bruegel's forerunner Hieronymus Bosch.
Ms. Zuber's costume designs for "Le Grand Macabre" quote Bosch liberally. The transvestite's eccentrically knotted gown is taken from a figure in "The Temptation of St. Anthony," as Ms. Zuber recently pointed out in her studio. Elsewhere, subtler encryption is at work. The flaring neckline and collar of the dominatrix's dress take the shape of a skate (the fish, not the footwear) in that same painting. "Nekrotzar's head decoration is taken from here," Ms. Zuber added, pointing to spiky vegetation in the polymorphously perverse "Garden of Earthly Delights." "This piece is so strange. I've really been enjoying myself scouting for beautiful insanity. It put me in the right spirit."
But lest we forget, the rationale for the New York Philharmonic to be performing "Le Grand Macabre" is Ligeti's score, which is keeping Mr. Gilbert very busy. "The orchestral fabric is so brilliantly crafted, so fascinating, so layered," he said. "It requires such commitment."
Vocally, the writing is equally extreme. The dense tapestry is as bizarre as the subject matter, from a prelude for a dozen honking car horns to a finale that tiptoes delicately in the ancient form of a passacaglia. (There is an interlude for doorbells as well.) Allusions abound, with a dash of the cancan here, swaths of pseudo-Gregorian chant there. In one spooky passage, the chorus represents, voicelessly but with great intensity, the malicious whispering of the palace walls. Gepopo, the chief of the secret police, wields her icy coloratura soprano like a stiletto.
Ligeti's bag of tricks seems bottomless, especially in the percussion section, where three pranksters go crazy with siren whistles, temple blocks, sandpaper blocks, castanets, ratchets, tubular bells, triangles, sheets of paper that must rustle loudly, a paper bag that must pop explosively, an apocalyptic cuckoo clock, a pistol, a tray of crockery, music boxes, a metronome, quacking ducks, roaring lions, vibraphones, tom-toms and also tam-tams. The winds and the brasses are out in force, but the string section — traditionally the backbone of any symphony or opera orchestra — is reduced to three violins, two violas, six cellos, four double basses and a mandolin.
The theatrical alchemist in Mr. Fitch is finding the instruments and the noises they make completely enthralling. "All the sounds turn into other things," he said. "Added to other sounds, they accrue new meanings. Nekrotzar goes marching up the aisle to the sounds of a tiny piccolo and violin. In context, just the timbre of a bassoon can hold a whole character behind it."
Opera in the concert hall: total music or total theater? Why not both?