Big Brother sings!
by Tim Ashley
Guardian, 29 April 2005


When Lorin Maazel decided to make 1984 into an opera, he needed a sure touch for the libretto - so he turned to a Broadway hit-maker and an Ivy League poet. Tim Ashley meets the men who put Orwell to music.

"Every day, the news from Iraq feels like splashes on the telescreens in Oceania," Thomas Meehan remarks, with a touch of fury in his voice. Meehan is talking about George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which he and his fellow writer JD McClatchy have turned into an opera libretto for composer-conductor Lorin Maazel. Meehan - an operatic first timer, who describes himself with self- deprecating humour as "stepping from the crass world of Broadway to the crass world of opera" - is best known in the UK for Mel Brooks's musical The Producers, though he has a huge number of Broadway hits and screenplays to his credit, including Annie, Hairspray and Brooks's remake of Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be. McClatchy, well established in the US as a poet, teaches creative writing at Yale, and has already written several librettos, of which Emmeline, for Tobias Picker, is perhaps the most familiar.

"Every time I read it," Meehan continues, "it seems worse. It's almost here. It's the future - but it's the present too." I met Meehan in a London hotel just after George Bush had been returned to the White House. The Black Watch, meanwhile, had just been sent deeper into Iraq. Orwell's vision of Oceania - the UK subsumed into the US to form a superpower that is forever at war with some vaguely defined enemy outside itself - is only one of the book's prophecies that have become congruent with contemporary reality.

Each age measures itself against the novel, the product of Orwell's anxieties about both the cold war and the totalitarian potential of British politics. Despite the now familiar debasement of its terminology, to read it is to be reminded of its far-sightedness. Big Brother and Room 101 may now be TV programmes - but someone, somewhere is keeping tabs on us through CCTV, while mobile phone networks have the technology to find out where you are every time you make a call. The Thatcher government's introduction of Clause 28 was effectively an attempt to make gay liberation a thoughtcrime. New Labour's rejection of Clause 4 of the Labour party constitution has overtones of Orwell's fears of the corruption of English Socialism into Ingsoc. Something very like Oceania continues with its dreadful foreign policies, as Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 pointed out. "Orwell considered it a metaphor and not a transcript," says McClatchy, with whom I talked at the Opera House during rehearsals for 1984 - the opera's title having been changed from words to figures. Our conversation was interrupted regularly by speaker announcements that neither of us could turn off. "You can't escape the telescreens," he said, nervously.

Nowadays, however, operas are long in the making. McClatchy and Meehan's libretto was complete well before the war in Iraq. The initial idea came from Maazel. "He isn't known as a composer," Meehan says. "He's known as a conductor, but over the years he's composed many sorts of chamber pieces. It's been the dream of a lifetime to be an opera composer, and the clock was ticking - and he decided the time was now." Maazel was, it would seem, initially thinking of, among other things, Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire - "but someone else did that first," Meehan comments, "someone" being Maazel's fellow conductor André Previn. It was only later that Maazel chose Nineteen Eighty-Four "and it took a long time to get the rights from the Orwell estate," Meehan adds. Having seen The Producers on Broadway, Maazel then approached Meehan for a text. "We hit it off," Meehan says, "but I felt I couldn't do it alone, so I looked for a partner who had experience of writing libretti." Meehan's lawyer suggested McClatchy, who was also one of his clients.

The two men started work in the autumn of 2000, finishing a draft in months. "We worked out most of the scenes beforehand, so we knew where we were going all the way through," says McClatchy. "We just sat in sessions. I would do most of the words. Tom would go over everything and make suggestions and then we'd talk over everything and revise it. Tom brought a great deal of stagecraft to it. What I brought is opera experience. I suppose my background as a poet helps as well, just in terms of the concentration of the language. There are certain points in the novel where we had to move narrative to voices, shift scenes and characters around, do a lot of telescoping. Then, as usual, it went to the maestro."

What followed was the extended process of adjustment and rewriting essential to any opera libretto, once it reaches the composer. Maazel began work on the score during his summer vacations. "He rented a villa in Sardinia, by the sea," says Meehan. "I'm sure it was very elegant. He locked himself in for seven weeks and worked 12 hours a day." McClatchy and Meehan were then summoned to the maestro's farm in Virginia for what Meehan calls "breakfasts and seminars" during which they worked on changes. "He'd come in after a day's work," says McClatchy, "and say, 'I want to make the love duet longer. Can I have two more stanzas?' And we'd sit down, and the next time he'd have two more stanzas and see if that suited his purpose. Then he'd say, 'The music's going in this direction, and I need more syllables,' or, 'The accents are on the wrong place in the word. Could you give me a word that means 'orange' which has five syllables with the accent on the third syllable.'" The pressure to complete the opera eventually took its toll on Maazel's other activities. "Lorin finally had to cancel a lot of his conducting engagements to get this music written," Meehan says.

Throughout operatic history, however, relationships between composers and librettists have been symbiotic. McClatchy and Meehan were able to press Maazel to make changes at points when they considered the musico-dramatic balance was adrift. Both felt the notorious torture scene - in which Winston Smith breaks down in Room 101 when faced with rats - wasn't long enough. "It was the dramatic climax of the piece and it needed a kind of Mahlerian swirl," says McClatchy. "It seemed to stop short of that. He did extend that music. And at the end, we thought it was too cluttered. When Winston and Julia admit they've met one another and betrayed one another, that's not the dramatic climax, but the emotional climax. The time between the emotional climax and the curtain needed to be shorter, so we urged him to take out a lot."

McClatchy describes the idea of distilling Nineteen Eighty-Four into a libretto as "a very dangerous prospect, when the source material is very familiar". Meehan was aware of the book's musico-dramatic potential from the start. "When I examined it," he says, "I thought, yes, this can be musical, this can be dramatic." Both were convinced, however, that some of the presuppositions surrounding the novel needed to be swept away. "When you mention Nineteen Eighty-Four to the average reader," McClatchy says, "they'll remember Big Brother, they'll remember doublethink and thoughtcrime, but the real emotional point of the novel seems fuzzy to them."

The pair agree that the book's centre lies in Winston Smith's dissidence, and his relationships with Julia, whom he loves, and the seductively sinister O'Brien. "It's about the way in which Winston tries to find the friend who will save him and the woman who will love him and then is betrayed by the man and in turn betrays the other. That's become the heart of the opera, and I think people will be struck again by the force of the story." McClatchy believes the central narrative has strong parallels with Verdian subject matter. "It's particularly like Don Carlos, which has the confused individual trying to survive the oppression of the state and find the forbidden love, as Carlos tries with Elizabeth. The Grand Inquisitor and Big Brother are cousins - and I hope the opera will be heard in that context."

Whether 1984 works or not depends, however, on Maazel's music. Few of his works have been performed in the UK, and as a composer he remains an unknown quantity. Meehan describes the score as "a mixture of atonal and lyrical, with dramatic crises," while McClatchy compares it with that of Alban Berg, a model that is far from inappropriate: Wozzeck, like 1984, portrays the individual destroyed by the system. "I understand, really," says Meehan, "that in the world of opera, it's all about the composer. Nobody notices the librettist except for a few people."

In some respects he's wrong, but his words express the librettist's ambivalent position. No opera can come into existence without its text - but every opera that enters the repertoire ultimately does so on the strength of its score. Now, more than ever, we need to heed the messages and warnings of Nineteen Eighty-Four, though whether Maazel has been able to turn Orwell's nightmare into a musical actuality remains to be seen.

- 1984 is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, from Wednesday.






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