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Inside The Big Mac (Le Grand Macabre)
by Tom Reed, Chorus
At last! An opera that the audience doesn't understand either! Le Grand Macabre is the great equalizer. Normally we choristers experience the show only in bits and pieces. If we're not actually in a scene, we're told to clear off and wait in our dressing rooms. But then on cue we're expected to pop back onstage fully engaged, as if we know everything we just missed. Well, in this opera, even with the advantage of actually seeing the show, the audience is just as baffled as we are. Or are they?
How does one describe an opera such as this? You know how a Big Mac sandwich is thought of as a single unit, but in reality it is an amalgam of many different ingredients, flavors and textures? It starts with multiple layers of bread that both support and separate two distinct patties of beef. Acting together they separately form the base of the sandwich. One patty is topped with cheese. But the other is covered with spicy onions, zesty pickles, crisp lettuce and tangy/mellow secret sauce. Yet when consumed, all ten layers meld into a single, delicious experience called The Big Mac. Well, just put that image out of your mind. There's no point in thinking about food, because Le Grand Macabre isn't anything like that.
Hungarian composer György Ligeti's early experiences with Nazis and Communists may have influenced his sense of humor. He's able to chuckle at all of life's petty annoyances. Death, for example. Who knew it was such a laugh riot? His musical score may seem complex, but in truth it can be summed up in one uncomplicated image: A Looney Tune orchestra playing Vivaldi's “Tom and Jerry,” Beethoven's “Fiddle Dee Dee,” Stravinsky's “Wrongs of Spring,” and “Slop & Chop” Joplin … while riding a poorly maintained subway train … through Transylvania … with a gaggle of unhappy geese … during the Blitz. It's that simple.
Before the curtain rises, when the announcer tells the audience to switch off their cell phones, they should also tell them to switch off the left side of their brains. In this opera you just have to go with the flow. It makes no sense whatsoever, except as a political cartoon. In that regard it mirrors our society perfectly, which is to say again that it makes no sense whatsoever.
It's a charming story about Death with a capital D. Going by the name of Nekrotzar, Death just wants to be taken seriously by the citizens of Breughelland. He figures he can get their attention by destroying the world. But the citizenry has other things on its mind.
In the first scene the chorus reacts in horror at the appearance of Nekrotzar as he rides up from the grave on an escalator. To maintain the required “Quasimodo in Hell” postures throughout the long scene, some resort to a simple acting technique — tightening every muscle on just one side of the body. Though difficult at first to hold, these tortured postures and expressions get easier as the scene progresses, due to the tendency of muscles to lock once they cramp. Thereafter no effort is required, except backstage when it comes time to pry loose.
In one of the most shocking and disgusting scenes of the evening, the chorus enters to discover several tables spread with food. At first they approach the feast with caution, but gradually they lose all sense of decorum, eventually shoving, grabbing and wallowing over each other in a gluttonous feeding frenzy. And all this takes place during intermission in the basement employee lounge right in front of the lovely lady volunteers of the Opera Guild who had intended the refreshments for the members of the orchestra! Disgraceful!
Later on stage they do it again! After attending a raucous political convention the chorus breaks into a banquet like a swarm of locusts and devours everything, even the fake stuff. It requires none less than the Grim Reaper himself to drive them off! What is it about singers and food?
But at the real crux of the story is humanity's propensity for following its leaders off a cliff. Nekrotzar's fear-mongering turns ultimately into a self-apocalypse, and the people survive to see the value of living without fear. Would that politics were so simple, and so much fun.