The author of the present essay comments on the use of humor in Ligeti's opera "Le Grand Macabre". Reportedly, it may seem unusual to think of an opera as being humorous, or as seeking to make its audience laugh. However, Ligeti stands out as somewhat of a humorist in his opera Le Grand Macabre…
Ligeti uses parody throughout the opera, as well as related techniques such as 'quotation, distorted quotation, ... and pastiche' (Searby, 2010, p.171). This parody is combined with the mixture of 'a number of contrasting musical elements' as diverse as flamenco, a church hymn, and ragtime to further undercut the seriousness of the music (Searby, 2010, p.71). Ultimately the effect of these musical techniques is a kind of incongruity which makes listeners laugh as they struggle to make sense of the mixed-together styles. Additionally, the parody of more serious works invites listeners to compare the opera to those other works as they listen.
Outside of musical parody and pastiche, a good deal of the humor comes from the 'scenario of the opera itself,' which is very 'heavy-handed' and comes in a 'fast, sort of manic fashion'. The scenario, which focuses among other things on people who want to have sex constantly and someone who wants to destroy the world, is clearly humorous, even if it is not a happy kind of humor. As John Morreall points out, two of the things which make us laugh are incongruity or the unexpected, and ' feelings of superiority over other people'. One example of both kinds of humor, complete with heavy-handedness, in Le Grand Macabre is how the astronomer's wife asks for a good lover and is then killed because the sex she gets from Nekrotzar is so rough. While this should not really be funny, it is funny because we can feel superior to her and also do not expect sex to lead to death. ...
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