George Orwell’s 1984 Staged as an Opera: Watch Scenes from the 2005 Production in London

Should we have any doubt about the mal­leabil­i­ty of George Orwell’s dystopi­an 1948 nov­el 1984, we need look no fur­ther than its most recent, very loose incar­na­tion in a com­ing film titled Equals, which Vari­ety’s Peter Debruge writes “should res­onate most with the art­house-going seg­ment of the ‘Twi­light’ fan­base.” That’s not a descrip­tion that fills me with hope for a film project that might have brought us a wor­thy update of Orwell’s clas­sic, as rel­e­vant as ever in a world full of high-tech sur­veil­lance states, tech­no­log­i­cal­ly-enabled post-fac­tu­al­ism, and choose-your-own creep­ing total­i­tar­i­an polit­i­cal sce­nar­ios. These are con­cerns that deserve, nay beg, for a mature cin­e­mat­ic treat­ment, and a sophis­ti­cat­ed new film adap­ta­tion of 1984 might be just the thing we need to grasp the moment. Instead, we may have to set­tle for glossy, Orwell-esque teen romance.

On the oth­er hand, we might con­sid­er what should pre­sum­ably be a sophis­ti­cat­ed treat­ment of the nov­el in a recent adap­ta­tion that pre­miered in 2005 at London’s Roy­al Opera house. Com­posed by New York Phil­har­mon­ic con­duc­tor Lorin Maazel, with a libret­to by poet and crit­ic J.D. McClatchy and Tony-award win­ning writer Thomas Mee­han, the 1984 opera would seem to offer much more than an enter­tain­ing diver­sion. The work is Maazel’s first pro­duc­tion, and he told the BBC, “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.”

As Maazel points out, and as the com­ing Equals movie exploits, the novel’s plot does indeed turn on a romance, among oth­er poten­tial­ly the­atri­cal ele­ments. Maazel says he “found with­in [it] the true stuff of opera—doomed love affair, polit­i­cal intrigue—very much like Don Car­los, or Fide­lio, or Tosca.” How suc­cess­ful were Maazel and his writ­ers at trans­lat­ing the dark polit­i­cal plot­ting of the nov­el to the bright­ly-lit stage of the Roy­al Opera? Well, you’ll notice that the “Press Arti­cles” sec­tion of the opera’s web­site is telling­ly thin, per­haps because the crit­ics were not kind to the pro­duc­tion, many call­ing it a van­i­ty project, giv­en that Maazel had financed it him­self (with a com­pa­ny called Big Broth­er Pro­duc­tions). Nonethe­less, the New York Times praised the libret­to as “an effec­tive treat­ment of George Orwell’s com­plex and icon­ic nov­el” that hon­ors Orwell’s “themes and char­ac­ters,” though they found the music in gen­er­al much less com­pelling.

Wide­spread crit­i­cal dis­par­age­ment did not seem to impact tick­et sales, how­ev­er; the per­for­mance near­ly sold out for three nights in a row. Opera hous­es every­where, strug­gling as they are to attract new audi­ences and patrons, may yet con­sid­er reviv­ing the work for its pop­u­lar­i­ty. In the mean­while, curi­ous fans of opera, the nov­el, or both, can pur­chase a DVD of the pro­duc­tion and see sev­er­al clips here. At the top of the post, hear the over­ture and below it, see the love duet of Win­ston (Simon Keenly­side) and Julia (Nan­cy Gustafson). Fur­ther down, hear audio of the hymn “All Hail Oceana,” and just above, see the production’s finale. Speak­ers of Ital­ian may find this brief tele­vi­sion seg­ment on the pro­duc­tion of inter­est as well. While nei­ther Maazel’s ambi­tious opera nor the upcom­ing, very loose com­mer­cial film adap­ta­tion seem to offer the con­tem­po­rary 1984 we need, I for one hold out hope for a treat­ment that can effec­tive­ly crys­tal­ize our fraught polit­i­cal present and Orwell’s dis­turbing­ly imag­ined future.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Very First Adap­ta­tion of George Orwell’s 1984 in a Radio Play Star­ring David Niv­en (1949)

George Orwell Explains in a Reveal­ing 1944 Let­ter Why He’d Write 1984

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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