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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 May, 2005, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Premiere for opera of Orwell's 1984
Lorin Maazel with flowers following his 75th birthday concert
Maazel (bottom right) conducted his own 75th birthday concert in March
Lorin Maazel, the conductor of New York's Philharmonic orchestra, has held the premiere of his first opera - an adaptation of George Orwell's novel 1984.

The opera received its world premiere in London's Royal Opera on Tuesday 3 May.

Maazel, who turned 75 this year, told BBC World Service's The Interview programme that he believed the book was the "true stuff" of opera.

"I suppose I had always wanted to write an opera, but didn't know it," he said.

"I found that once I got into the material I was very inspired, very motivated, by the breadth of the story, by the challenge of making this extraordinary novel come alive in a different frame and context."

Adaptation challenge

Maazel began conducting as a child, and his professional career has spanned over 50 years - taking in some 5,000 live performances.

He has performed with many of the world's top orchestras - culminating in the New York Philharmonic, where he was made musical director.

He said he was approached to write an opera eight years ago by the general manager of the Prince Regent Theatre in Munich.

"Having set me on that track, I was very dubious that I would be able to meet that challenge - but here I am, eight years later. Same opera, different opera house."

He pointed out that many opera composers have taken the challenge of adapting great works of literature into opera.

Lorin Maazel
The theme of today is a creeping 1984-ism, the invasion of one's private life
Lorin Maazel
These include Verdi with Shakespeare's Othello, Puccini reworking Victorien Sardou's Tosca and George Gershwin, who turned DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy into Porgy And Bess.

Maazel said he had been "shopping around" for a number of titles, but discovered that several of them were taken.

"Then I asked myself what novel of the 20th Century would be most challenging and appropriate to turn into an opera. I was looking for something very contemporary.

"1984 came to mind - I reread it and found within the true stuff of opera - doomed love affair, political intrigue - very much like Don Carlos, or Fidelio, or Tosca."

1984 is the story of Winston and Julia, two people living in an extreme police state who meet and become lovers.

Their problem is that love - along with all other forms of sentiment - is outlawed, and even thought is controlled.

Winston - played in Maazel's opera by Simon Keenlyside - is a fairly well-placed bureaucrat within the Big Brother organisation which controls the state's people, while Julia, played by Nancy Gustafson, is a much younger cheerleader.

Contemporary resonance

Maazel explained some of the ways he had made his opera mirror Orwell's ideas.

In particular, there are three choruses - including a "hate chorus" reflecting the "hate rallies" of the book.

"They are shown at these rallies a picture of the enemy - whoever the enemy happens to be that week - and they scream 'death to the enemy, kill, kill, hate, hate, blood, blood' - that sort of thing."

The other two choruses are a religious chant, reflecting the "cult of Big Brother," and a patriotic chorus, reflecting "our need to believe in our country, so that our eyes fill with tears when we hear the national anthem... unbridled, unquestioning patriotism, in the name of which people are exploited".

Maazel said that he felt that 1984 had a great contemporary resonance with governments around the world.

"That is the theme of today - a creeping 1984-ism, the invasion of one's private life," he added.

Royal Opera House
1984 will premiere at the Royal Opera House before moving to New York
"They know just where you are when you turn on your navigator in your car. They listen to your cellphone conversations. They record and store your email."

In particular, he attacked political correctness.

"We can't really define what it is, but nevertheless everybody seems to know what they should say and what they shouldn't say.

"Why should they be constricted by such a thought?"

However, Maazel also stressed that he had written a love story, that 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."

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