The Original Big Brother ; Lorin Maazel, the Composer of 1984, Looks Forward to Shock and Outrage after Next Month's Premiere. Orwell's Novel Makes Perfect Opera, He Tells JESSICA DUCHEN

By Duchen, Jessica | The Independent (London, England), April 22, 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Original Big Brother ; Lorin Maazel, the Composer of 1984, Looks Forward to Shock and Outrage after Next Month's Premiere. Orwell's Novel Makes Perfect Opera, He Tells JESSICA DUCHEN


Duchen, Jessica, The Independent (London, England)


Although the words 'Big Brother is watching you' are so much a part of contemporary consciousness, you wouldn't expect to encounter them inside the Royal Opera House. On 3 May, however, Covent Garden audiences will be watching Big Brother at the world premiere of a new opera based on George Orwell's iconic novel Nineteen Eighty- Four, by the American composer and conductor Lorin Maazel.

It will be the Royal Opera's third world premiere in three years: 2002 saw the commission of Sophie's Choice by Nicholas Maw, and in February 2004 The Tempest by Thomas Ads took the house by storm. But Maazel's work, although it was not an ROH commission, looks likely to be the most explosive debut piece to date.

The opera's genesis surprised even its composer. In the mid- 1990s, the director of the Prinzregenten Theater in Munich, August Everding, heard a work by Maazel for violin, cello and orchestra and approached him about the possibility of commissioning an opera. 'Writing an opera had never crossed my mind before,' insists Maazel, 75. 'But Professor Everding heard a latent operatic potential in that piece that I had not even considered was there. It took him a long time to convince me even to look for a subject. After that we discussed it for a year, and finally he said he'd like to commission it.'

Everding's death, however, left the project in limbo, with funding still not secured: the theatre could not proceed. 'So it came to London " which is, of course, its proper home,' Maazel says. In the opera's nightmarish, futuristic oligarchy, England has been renamed Airstrip One, its former existence preserved only in dim recollections of 'Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clements'.

Transforming such a famous literary work into an opera is a task that would make many composers blanch. Maazel, however, speaks of it as a man with a mission. And with the involvement of two librettists " the structuralist Tom Meehan, who worked on a number of Broadway hits including The Producers, and the poet JD McClatchy, professor of poetry at Yale University " Maazel should have avoided at least one of the many pitfalls that await new operas (one, indeed, that hampered Maw's Sophie's Choice, for which the composer had written a libretto that proved less than ideal).

'I know my own limitations,' Maazel says, 'and I'm very happy to have an extremely professional libretto that has been beautifully fashioned.' Involving the stage director from the start as well " the Canadian Robert Lepage, widely celebrated in everything from Shakespeare to film to the Cirque du Soleil " has made a tremendous difference: 'It means that the opera is a completely unified event. We have all been working together and complementing each other's efforts.' The aim, Maazel says, is 'to tell the story as simply and directly as possible. We all believe that the story itself is so strong that we don't have to resort to artifice.'

The team has condensed Orwell's book into a devastating, all too believable scenario, conjuring up a world 'beyond 'isms',' as Maazel describes it, 'beyond communism, fascism, any political system " a world in which power is wielded by a faceless few for the sake of power itself.' Lynch mobs burn a helpless old woman and hang a randomly seized prisoner; bombs (whether from the enemy or the state) strike at random; children betray parents; and the villain, O'Brien, head of the Thought Police, sets about the destruction of the lovers Winston and Julia as part of his day's work.

This is a land where giant telescreens blare out early-morning exercise instructions specifically at Winston, and brainwashing announcements declare the 'unprecedented raising' of the chocolate ration to ever smaller amounts; and where the blind terror of being sent to Room 101 can reduce a mild- mannered family man to begging his captors to kill his children in front of him instead.

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The Original Big Brother ; Lorin Maazel, the Composer of 1984, Looks Forward to Shock and Outrage after Next Month's Premiere. Orwell's Novel Makes Perfect Opera, He Tells JESSICA DUCHEN
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