Opera Is No Place for Vanity Productions ; Famous as He Is as a Conductor, Lorin Maazel's Reputation as a Composer Is More or Less Nil

By Hensher, Philip | The Independent (London, England), May 6, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Opera Is No Place for Vanity Productions ; Famous as He Is as a Conductor, Lorin Maazel's Reputation as a Composer Is More or Less Nil


Hensher, Philip, The Independent (London, England)


When I saw Covent Garden's programme for this season, and came to the season's new opera, like many I thought there was something peculiar about it. An operatic adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was going to happen sooner or later, and some opera house would put it on. What was distinctly peculiar was seeing Lorin Maazel credited as composer.

Mr Maazel, as needs no emphasis, is a distinguished conductor; from 2002 he has been the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, the latest in a long line of high-profile posts. For more information, I recommend his hilarious website, www.maestromaazel.com, which offers accounts of his career boastful even by the standards of international musicians. From it, you will learn if you didn't already know, which you don't, that 'today, he's affectionately referred to as 'numero uno' by many of his colleagues. He decries such titles, however.' Obviously, not to the point of omitting them from his website.

Famous as he is as a conductor, however, his reputation as a composer is more or less nil. Most of his music has been written over the last 12 or so years, and despite being launched in the most distinguished circumstances a famous conductor can contrive " the Vienna Philharmonic, Rostropovich as soloist, and so on " has made almost no impression on the outside world.

Nevertheless, Covent Garden have agreed to put on this opera, retitled 1984 for some reason, and recently he has been referred to in different terms to 'numero uno' by other of his colleagues. A senior but anonymous member of staff at the Royal Opera House, for instance, snappily referred to his opera as 'crap'.

I haven't seen the opera myself, which opened this week to distinctly dismissive reviews, but those who saw the dress rehearsal have reported back that the production, by Robert LePage, is stylish, Mr Simon Keenlyside sings with his usual elegance, the libretto is a professional piece of work and the music is totally unremarkable. 'Sort of competent, but not actually very good,' was the comment I heard.

The great mystery of what the opera house was doing putting on a work by an untried composer in such style was resolved at a stroke when the source of the opera's funding was revealed a day or two ago. Rumours to this effect had been flying around, but it was confirmed that Mr Maazel himself had paid some pounds 400,000 towards the costs. Basically " I don't see how it can be described in any other way " this is a vanity project.

The opera house, naturally, denies this, and was at pains to point out that the arrangement offers them excellent value for money. Elaine Padmore, the head of opera, said that their costs amount to only around pounds 500,000, and that the opera production was in addition, not instead of an item in their usual programme.

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