The International Writers Magazine: Modern Opera
Maazels new career as a composer a sign that conductors
are facing an identity crisis?
my view, the conductor role is in a process of revision...'
year old conductor Lorin Maazel has turned his hand to composing in
the latest attempt to turn George Orwells 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
"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 detre.
Why assume the now problematic role of a surrogate author when you can
be the actual author?
Maazels 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 Beethovens 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
© 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
MUSIC BY LORIN MAAZEL
Libretto by J.D. McClatchy and Thomas Meehan after George Orwell's 1984
Conductor LORIN MAAZEL - Director ROBERT LEPAGE
all rights reserved