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The International Writers Magazine
: Modern Opera

Is Maazel’s new career as a composer a sign that conductors are facing an identity crisis?
George Burrows

'In my view, the conductor role is in a process of revision...'

The seventy-five year old conductor Lorin Maazel has turned his hand to composing in the latest attempt to turn George Orwell’s 1984 into a piece for the stage. In a BBC interview Maazel stressed that he had written a love story of "two people enmeshed into this political monster machine".
"They are tortured, brainwashed, and then returned to society to be paraded. Later they will be killed.
"The thrust of Orwell's novel is about memory, and its importance to the survival of the human race as we know it. Without human memory, there is no way of evaluating what transpires today."

His opera, opening last night at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, follows the Hollywood film (aptly released in 1984), and numerous stage versions, including a notable one given a year or two ago by the Northern Stage company. To use the jargon of Newspeak, the opera throws us some "doubleplusinteresting" questions. The most interesting for me is, what motivates a conductor to become a composer at age 75? Maazel has said that he turned to composing to spend more time with his young family, and this change of role undoubtedly affords him this opportunity, but perhaps there is another more interesting and revealing thing going on here.

The role of the conductor is a changing one. Arturo Toscanini set in motion a culture of the great maestro, a sort of surrogate-author figure who dictates a definitive, non-negotiable interpretation of the score to the players from the podium. This masculine figure displayed his powers over music and the players, often in confrontational and non-compromising working practices. He was always ahead and above of his players. However, in spite of its pretence to the contrary, the orchestral world has not been isolated from the sociological changes that affected the rest of Western culture in the decades following the Second World War. Times, attitudes, and working practices have changed, and the days of the great, all-controlling maestro are numbered if not gone.

In my view, the conductor role is in a process of revision. There are orchestras that make a point of not using a conductor (e.g. Orpheus Chamber Orchestra), many orchestras prefer to employ gifted instrumentalists to lead their efforts (e.g. Northern Sinfonia), and whilst conductors still persist in many quarters of the orchestral world there is no getting away from the fact that they simply do not function in the way they once did. It would seem to me that the job is now about encouraging an interpretation as a team player and less about dictating as a surrogate-author. Thus it is not surprising to see conductors of the old vintage like Maazel moving into an area where they feel they can still maintain that once essential and vital authorial control – their raison d’etre. Why assume the now problematic role of a surrogate author when you can be the actual author?

Maazel’s career is entrenched in tradition. He is famous for his leading of the New Year concerts from Vienna and his conducting of the great orchestras in Munich and New York. During his career he has seen his business change: the Vienna orchestra has even started allowing women to appear on the concert platform! Like many a conductor of his generation he is known for his ability to enthuse and inspire but this comes with the more dictatorial traits: for example, he is notorious for losing his temper with the players during a day-long marathon concert featuring all Beethoven’s symphonies in the late 1980s. On Saturday, during the dress rehearsal for the opera, Maazel could be overheard demanding from the podium that one passage of the music be "softer, softer". Who would dream of arguing with him; after all he wrote the score!
© George Burrows May 4th 2005

1984 The Opera is now on at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
MAY - 03rd - 06th - 11th - 14th - 16th - 19th - 2005 AT 7:00 PM

Winston: Simon Keenlyside
Julia: Nancy Gustafson
O'Brien: Richard Margison
Gym Instructress/Drunken Woman: Diana Damrau
Syme: Lawrence Brownlee
Parsons: Jeremy White
Charrington: Graeme Danby
Prole Woman: Mary Lloyd Davies
Café Singer: Johnnie Fiori

Libretto by J.D. McClatchy and Thomas Meehan after George Orwell's 1984



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