Opera Profile: Lorin Maazel’s ‘1984’

By John Vandevert

1984 is an English-language opera written by Ukrainian-Jewish, American composer Lorin Maazel (1930-2014) based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel.

The libretto was written by American writers J. D. McClatchy and Thomas Meehan, the latter having written the literary works for various well-known musicals such as Annie and Hairspray. The opera received its premiere at the Royal Opera House on May 3 of, 2005 under the directorship of Robert Lepage

“1984” was written when Maazel was 75 and is the only opera he wrote during his lifetime.

In reflection, Maazel noted, “I suppose I had always wanted to write an opera, but didn’t know it.”

Only after dealing with the material did he understand how to create an opera and bring Orwell’s story to life. Eight years prior, he was confronted by the General Manager (August Everding) of the Prince Regent Theatre to write an opera, so he began looking around for stories. He wanted something contemporary and finally settled upon Orwell’s story due to its poignant message. Eventually, following Everding’s passing, the project was taken on by the ROH and Tokyo Opera and soon became a joint project.

However, TO soon backed out, and having completed the opera, the ROH was forced to pay the remainder of the costs for Maazel’s costly production. However, Maazel had formed the company “Big Brother Productions,” and had spent half of the charges, although the financial burden of the show would cause pushback and public criticism. The opera was called ROH’s “vanity project,” and sources from inside ROH had called the opera disparaging remarks. 

Reviews of the opera were extremely hostile. The Guardian’s Andrew Clements’ chastised the work for its subpar quality and mediocre music. At the same time, The Financial Times’s Andrew Clark rebuked the work’s existence by noting it wouldn’t have gotten to the opera house without Maazel’s accumulated wealth. The Daily Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen went so far as to call it “operatic fast food.”

Others were more sympathetic to Maazel’s attempt, Newsweek alluding to the score’s occasional excessiveness and vocal flatness at times by the leads. La Vanguardia, however, did praise the opera for demonstrating Maazel’s technical skill with music and orchestral composition.

Despite the bad press, the premiere was sold out, and performances at La Scala were also full. A DVD of the production was released in February of 2009, but no attempt at reviving the work has been undertaken. 

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