Le Grand Macabre (1975-77, revised version 1996) is György Ligeti's only opera. The opera has two acts and its libretto, loosely based on a play by the Belgian author Michel De Ghelderode, was written by Ligeti in collaboration with Michael Meschke. The original libretto was written in German, and the opera has been performed also in Swedish, English, French and Italian.
After having seen Kagel's anti-operatic work "Staatstheater", Ligeti came to the conclusion that it was not possible to write any more anti-operas. He therefore resolved to write an "anti-anti-opera", an opera with an ironic recognition of both operactic traditions and anti-operatic criticism of the genre. From its brief overture, a mixture of rhythmic sounds scored for a dozen car horns, to the closing Passacaglia in mock classical style, the work evolves as collage of sonorities ranging from an ensemble of urban sounds to snippets of manipulated Beethoven, Rossini and Verdi. Ligeti's opera is replete with irony and ambiguities, conveying a deadly serious message in a lightened humorous way.
Its central subject is mortality and its central character is Death, in the form of the character Nekrotzar (meant to be sung by a bass-baritone), who arrives in a city of skyscrapers. The streets are strewn with litter and populated by vagrants, giving the audience the impression that they are in a land on the verge of an apocalypse. Along with the drunkard and the astrologer, Nekrotzar proceeds to the court of Prince Go-Go, and a series of disjointed scenes raises the question of whether they are witness to the impending doom or it has all been a farce.
Le Grand Macabre was premiered in Stockholm on April 12, 1978, and received more than 30 productions since then, being perhaps the most performed contemporary opera. The revised version was premiered in Salzburg on July 28, 1997.