Sara Hershkowitz: 'The point of satire is to make people aware in a different way, and hopefully in a way that is fun and dazzling'
- Miranda Heggie
- 12 November 2019
American soprano discusses Ligeti's absurdist opera Le Grand Macabre ahead of her performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
'It's taking the piss – can I say piss in an interview? – it's taking the piss out of opera and the seriousness of it all,' says American soprano Sara Hershkowitz when chatting about György Ligeti's absurdist opera Le Grand Macabre. She'll be joining the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on 28 Nov for a performance of Mysteries of the Macabre: three of the opera's coloratura arias, arranged as a concert piece.
'There are very few artists who can say that they truly, truly follow the beat of their own internal drum as completely as Ligeti did,' explains Hershkowitz. 'He was a non-conformist in the extreme. Le Grand Macabre is called the anti-anti-opera because anti-opera was too much of a label! He was always trying to escape labels in order to get to the purest, most honest expression of his work. Ligeti knew enormous tragedy, enormous darkness, enormous loss in his personal life. And his response to all that was to write a comedy.'
Indeed, Ligeti was no stranger to pain. After escaping a Nazi slave labour camp, he spent two weeks walking home to discover another family living in his house. His parents and brother had been deported to Auschwitz, from which only his mother returned. It's little surprise then that he was constantly questioning and challenging the political regimes in power.
'Ligeti was a very political person. He was a radical and he premiered this piece, which is about chaos and about the apocalypse, at a time when there was much chaos going on in the world.'
Judging from the state of politics on both sides of the Atlantic, it would be hard to argue the piece has lost any of its relevance since its 1978 premiere. And Hershkowitz made headlines recently when she performed the work with the North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra dressed as Donald Trump, complete with fatsuit, red tie and orange face (it's on YouTube – watch it).
'The point of art is to hold up a mirror,' opines Hershkowitz. 'It's not to preach a message, and I'm not trying to preach liberal propaganda. The point of satire is to make people aware in a different way, and hopefully in a way that is fun and dazzling. It's extraordinary how many people did not understand that it was satire.' Hershkowitz's performance was the subject of many online comments accusing her of 'mocking the best friend of her people', 'wasting her God-given talent' and even suggesting she should be tried for treason. 'They're the final act of this project,' she says, 'people freaking out.' While Trump may not be making a visit to Glasgow's City Halls, Hershkowitz still has a few theatrical tricks up her sleeve, although she keeps her cards close to her chest as to what they might be.
Despite the trolls, there's also been a hugely positive response to Hershkowitz's blending of music and politics. 'One thing that I'm grateful for is it's opened interesting doors for me artistically, and it's shown me people are interested in artists who are willing to speak out and have something to say that might be less conventional. I had no way of estimating the way it might open up new directions for me – and that's been really exciting.'
Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre, City Halls, Glasgow, Thu 28 Nov; the 'Mad Scene' from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Music Hall, Aberdeen, Fri 29 Nov.
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Formed in 1935, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is one of the UK's leading orchestras, with an exceptionally wide repertoire and a special affinity for contemporary music.