Dispatch from New York: New York Philharmonic readies ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’

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It might be falling into publicists’ trap to call the New York Philharmonic’s three performances of ‘Le Grand Macabre’ last year ‘legendary.’ But what the heck. Classical music as magnificent as the philharmonic’s staging of Gyorgy Ligeti’s 1978 avant-garde opera about a dire romp at the end of the world, with singers in deliriously surreal costumes, can use all the hype it can get.

Besides, in the classical music world, where musicians and administrators worry endlessly about attracting new audiences, ‘Le Grand Macabre’ has become much discussed. ‘It’s an amazing tale,’ says Jesse Rosen, president and chief executive of the advocacy group League of American Orchestras.

Facing the 2009-10 season, only a third of New York Philharmonic subscribers said they would take ‘Le Grand Macabre.’ Most said Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, here I come. But for months the old-school institution went new-school with social media, blasting the Internet with, for instance, a funny video of music director Alan Gilbert playing Guitar Hero with the Grim Reaper (‘Come see what else Alan Gilbert and his friend Death are up to’).

By the time ‘Le Grand Macabre’ premiered in May 2010, individual ticket buyers filled out the hall. Excitement about the audacious concert was tweeted and Facebooked and for the next two nights ‘whatever few tickets may have remained certainly sold quickly,’ says New York Philharmonic spokesperson Eric Latzky. Observers spotted people under 40 in the orchestra section.


’ ‘Le Grand Macabre’ challenged the idea that there’s one monolithic classical music culture,’ says composer David Lang, co-founder of new music ensemble Bang on a Can. ‘Now it has to realize there are all these other subcultures out there.’

On Wednesday the classical world will be watching as the New York Philharmonic stages the Leos Janacek opera ‘The Cunning Little Vixen,’ with the same creative team behind ‘Le Grand Macabre.’ Will it be ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ or ‘Jaws 2?’

On a recent afternoon in a Times Square rehearsal studio next door to the theater presenting ‘Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark,’ the force appears to be with ‘Vixen.’ (Hey kids, Janacek based ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ -- about a female fox who escapes a forester -- on a comic strip, 87 years before Bono and the Edge went to the comics.) The force stems from simultaneously exuberant and anxious director and designer Doug Fitch, last seen in Los Angeles in 2008 when the L.A. Philharmonic presented his ‘Peter and the Wolf.’

Fitch says it’s not quite accurate to call ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ a sequel. Gilbert conceived it at the same time as ‘Le Grand Macabre’ and Janacek’s luxurious score is miles from Ligeti’s fiercely contrapuntal one. ‘This music gets under your skin while the other is in your head,’ Fitch says.

The fantastical feel of the new production, though, is definitely part deux. Fitch’s animal characters look like they escaped from ‘The Lion King’ and went shopping in a Salvation Army thrift store. A green frog wears grunge flannel. A purple beetle’s thorax is formed with a plastic trash can. A bulbous-eyed mosquito wears a little red backpack as if it were a packet of blood.

Fitch’s designs and direction embody Janacek’s wonderful theme of human harmony with nature, especially our animal friends. ‘The opera exists halfway between the world of totally unself-conscious animals and totally self-conscious humans,’ he says. ‘When you remove that difference, suddenly we’re very similar.’

Audiences will enter the concert hall to ambient sounds of the forest. The orchestra will be surrounded by sunflowers on stage. All of which, Fitch says, serve to send classical music spiraling into wonderland. Does he expect ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ to be another hit? Clearly the director knows his material: He grins like a sly fox. RELATED

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-- Kevin Berger in New York