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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Big Brother Goes to the Opera

By Norman Lebrecht / April 21, 2005


There ought to be a tingle of excitement. The most talked-about English novel of modern times is being brought to the opera stage. The composer is a universally renowned musician, a former head of the Vienna State Opera, now music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The director is a multi-skilled renaissance man, more sought after than Osama Bin Laden. There ought, by rights, to be a buzz about this production.

Yet, a fortnight before the Royal Opera's world premiere, Lorin Maazel’s opera of George Orwell’s 1984, directed by Robert Lepage, arouses something akin to ambivalence in the crush bar, if not outright embarrassment. It is a matter of public record that the composer has paid the physical costs of the production out of his own pocket, a contribution tantamount to self publishing. It is also no secret that Maazel is 75 years old and has never written an opera before.

No conductor presently active commands more respect from orchestral players than Lorin Maazel. He is a phenomenon of the podium, an immigrant kid who first raised a baton for Toscanini at the age of seven and has since conducted 5,000 performances. Brimming with self-esteem, his website reports unblushingly that ‘he is affectionately referred to as “numero uno” by many of his colleagues.’ He plays three sets of tennis with people half his age and is contracted to lead New York’s finest until the end of the decade.

Still, 75 is a bit late to start writing opera. No debut work by a senior composer has ever succeeded. The only ones to make headway past 70 were Verdi and Janacek with a sheaf of masterpieces behind them. So why is Covent Garden, a publicly funded house, putting on Maazel’s spinster effort as its only new opera this season?

The simple reason is that Maazel offered it to Michael Kaiser, the last ROH chief executive, after his negotiations fell though with La Scala. Kaiser, calculating that he could get a world premiere for less than the cost of a Figaro revival, grabbed the bargain with the glee of a Boxing Day sales shopper.

There were other attractions. Every world-class opera house needs a roster of top conductors. It has been 26 years - Luisa Miller in 1979 - since Maazel last conducted at Covent Garden. He magnanimously agreed to waive his conducting fee and undertook the cost and headache of building the scenery in Quebec, under Lepage’s eye. The production is owned by Maazel’s company, Big Brother, and he controls any future revivals or transfers. ‘It is a hybrid,’ said a Covent Garden official uncomfortably. ‘Nothing like this has ever happened before.’

Nor should it ever happen again, for this is no way to run an artistic institution which depends on public goodwill and corporate support. But such is the chaos enveloping new operas that the commissioning process has fallen prey to external pressures.

Ten days after 1984 opens, the Metropolitan Opera in New York will stage Cyrano de Bergerac by Franco Alfano, a budget-buster seldom revived since its overblown Rome premiere in 1936. Alfano is best known for finishing the third act of Puccini’s Turandot. His own works plod wearily around set-piece arias.

The only reason the Met is doing Cyrano - and that Covent Garden will take it next season - is that Placido Domingo, the eminent tenor in the time-added on element of his singing career, wants to sing the role before his final whistle. Domingo has an exquisite way of shaping a musical phrase and couching a request of this kind, but when it comes to dramaturgical discrimination he has, like most busy singers, poor taste and no judgement whatsoever. The list of Domingo’s costly flops is extensive: Menotti’s Goya, Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly, Morreno Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda, Il Guarany by Gomes, Merlin by Albeniz – these and many more, all one-run wonders, never to be seen again.

But what Domingo asks, Domingo gets. If the Met and ROH don’t put on his Cyrano, they fear he might not sing in Walkure, undermining precarious Ring cycles. So opera bosses bite their knuckles til they bleed and pray that the rewards of Wagner will outweigh the folly of Alfano.

This genteel form of arm-twisting is practised by the biggest names in the business, just because they are the biggest names. Covent Garden would never have commissioned Sophie’s Choice from the underpowered Nicholas Maw had not Maw been backed by Simon Rattle whom the ROH were desperate to have back. The result was an opera of no consequence, neither surpassing the movie of William Styron’s novel nor offering any stretch of music that sticks in the memory or stretches the mind.

Maazel’s 1984 follows in the footprints of Andre Previn who, in 1998, imposed A Streetcar Named Desire on San Francisco Opera, decorating the Tennessee Williams masterpiece with music that was, at best, innocuous. Commissions like these are crazy paving stones on a wobbly path to an operatic future, if there is to be a future at all.

Thankfully, there are signs that some artistic directors are beginning to get a grip. Antonio Pappano’s priority at Covent Garden is to renew core repertoire but he is taking an intelligent interest in the periphery. Next season, he has inserted Carl Nielsen’s comic Maskarade, an early 20th century gem, alongside another of Donizetti’s lost scores. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

But the real energy is going into new work. A five-year partnership is to be launched with the Genesis Foundation to commission operas for the smaller Linbury Theatre, which is the obvious way forward. Opera is so expensive to mount and must sell such a huge proportion of seats to break even that the chances of a new work taking off are choked by its own umbilical cord. The last new opera to sweep the world was John Adams’ Nixon in China, and that was 18 years ago. Far better to take opera back into the smaller chamber where it began and allow composers to find their voice without pressures of great expectations.

That said, I shall be out there in the stalls rooting for 1984. I admire Maazel’s intellect and know that his acute self-criticism will not let him produce a dud. Seats are selling pretty well and other companies are taking an interest. Still, even if 1984 sets all the senses swirling, it will not alter the public conviction that grand opera houses lack credibility in contemporary opera. The interesting stuff must be sought elsewhere.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001