Orwell's Dark Visions in '1984' Hit Opera Stage

LONDON -- The creators of a new opera based on the novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four" did not have to work hard to make George Orwell's nightmarish vision of a loveless and brutal world resonate with audiences today.

Technology used for surveillance and control, the denial of personal freedom, Doublethink, Newspeak and a seemingly endless war place a work written in 1948 firmly in the 21st Century.

Lorin Maazel, the American conductor and composer who began working on the opera in 2000, insisted he did not set out to create political theater.

"Five years ago no-one was really thinking in these terms," the 75-year-old told Reuters backstage after a dress rehearsal for Tuesday's world premiere.

"The theme has concurrently become very current and seemingly ever more relevant ... but that was really not our intention."

There are references placing the action in the present: the sound of helicopters, orange jumpsuits for criminals and an English-American accent for Big Brother. But "1984," the opera, largely sticks to the novel's script.

"We started discussing this project in the year 2000, so it was way before 9/11," said Canadian director Robert Lepage, renowned for his bold and visually inventive productions.

"At that moment we didn't suspect that the piece would resonate in such a strong way in today's world."

Lepage argued that Orwell's work had lost none of its relevance since the fall of Soviet Communism, the totalitarian system with which most readers associate the narrative. Spectators could work that out for themselves, he added.

"You have to have confidence in the intelligence of the audience, you have to trust ... that you don't need to stress or underline anything that has to do with security or terrorism."


The production is high-tech, using giant video images, advanced instruments of torture and perforated steel sets to show that even when characters may feel they are hidden from the prying eyes of the omnipresent state, they can be seen.

There is Room 101, starving rats, bomb attacks, a public hanging and the twisted logic of Doublethink: "War is Peace! Freedom is Slavery! Ignorance is Strength!"

"The story is terrifying and the production looks like Matrix 3," said Maazel, referring to the Hollywood blockbuster trilogy in which humans rebel against a malevolent cyber-intelligence that has created a false version of 20th century life to keep human slaves satisfied.

Maazel said traditional opera-goers could be in for a shock.

But as well as its dystopian horror, at the story's center is a doomed love affair between Winston Smith and Julia, the stuff of classic opera.

"It's not just about political regimes," said Lepage. "It's about intimacy. 1984 is a love story. We are in a non-intimate culture, we're in a culture of spying on everyday life."

Maazel, who conducts the production, has described the music as "kaleidoscopic," blending atonal passages with a national anthem, love arias and nods to times past; barber shop quartets and blues.

He is philosophical about how 1984 will be received by critics, but already there are rumblings that the opera, which Maazel partly funded himself, is little more than a "vanity project" for a venerated conductor.

Maazel is unapologetic, arguing that works like 1984 are likely to attract a broader, younger audience to an art form often dismissed as irrelevant and elitist.

"There is no way of defending a tradition unless one renews it," he said.

"If this opera in its modest way reaffirms other people's conviction that the art form is viable and relevant to today's world, we will all feel that we've made an important contribution."


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