The opera opens in Victory Square, Airstrip One - the London of a not-too-distant future. A crowd is gathered for a blood-thirsty rally against the enemies of Oceania (chorus: "Hate! Hate! Hate!"). The assembled throng venerates the image of the Party's leader, Big Brother, which appears on a giant telescreen, and then takes up the national anthem ("All Hail Oceania!").
Winston Smith, a mid-level civil servant in the Ministry of Truth, has witnessed the scene and gives voice to his hatred of Big Brother and the madness of Doublethink - "War is Peace! Freedom is Slavery! Ignorance is Strength!" are recurring mottos flashed on the telescreen.
Back at his desk, Winston sets to his assigned tasks, which are delivered by a new office girl, Julia. His orders are to continually revise official records so that Big Brother and the Party are always on the correct side of history. Winston chats with his fellow workers, Parsons and Syme, both of whom relish their duties. Parsons extols Big Brother's provision of all that a citizen might desire, even though he asks Winston in vain for a sharp razor blade, while Syme describes his fondness for the malleability of Newspeak, the official Party language, in a virtuosic aria "The beauty of Newspeak, sir!" O'Brien, Winston's superior and an Inner Party member, arrives and questions Winston somewhat mysteriously about his loyalty to the Party.
At home that evening in his dreary flat, Winston sets out his thoughts in a newly purchased diary, careful to position himself outside the view of the omnipresent telescreen ("A place to think for myself"). He falls asleep, half drunk on Victory Gin, and awakes the next morning to the shrill commands of the Gym Instructress emanating from the telescreen ("Hands at sides, citizens!" a comic coloratura aria). Parsons and his children, enthusiastic members of the Young Spies, burst in on their way to Victory Square for the hanging of a Eurasian prisoner-of-war.
The crowd in Victory Square is milling about in anticipation of the afternoon's hate rally and hanging. Various groups are present: Prole Children reciting nursery rhymes ("London Bridge is broken down"), the Young Spies taunting and setting fire to an old beggar-woman ("Die, blind hag!"), a Pub Quartet singing a sentimental love song ("It was only an 'opeless fancy") and Julia leading the Junior Anti-Sex League in a militant parade ("We pledge our lives to chastity"). Just as the prisoner is hanged, a rocket bomb falls nearby and bodies litter the scene. As the crowd disperses, Winston limps away.
Winston stumbles upon the antique shop where he had purchased his forbidden diary. The kindly proprietor, Charrington, shows Winston a bedroom above the shop without a telescreen and the two reminisce vaguely about the city of old. After leaving the shop, Winston notices Julia, believing she is a member of the Thought Police sent to find him out. She runs offs but drops a piece of paper that says "I love you" and instructs Winston to meet her the next day in the belfry of an old church.
In the belfry, Winston and Julia embrace cautiously, and she relates her story, telling of her own disillusionment with the Party ("You hide what you have to"). They declare their love for each other in a duet ("Let darkness do what powers might") before being interrupted by the sudden appearance of O'Brien, who summons them to his flat the next evening.
In his sumptuous quarters, O'Brien turns off his telescreen and then reveals his purpose to Winston and Julia ("We live in a world of slogans and doubletalk"). He asks the lovers to join the Conspiracy against Big Brother and demands their absolute obedience. They agree, but only up to a point. Neither Winston nor Julia will pledge to abandon the other if so called upon. O'Brien accepts this and suggests they hide.
Relishing their privacy in the room above Charrington's shop, Winston and Julia wonder if they will be able to stay together and vow never to betray each other ("What happens in our hearts"). After a blissful night, they overhear a Prole Woman in the backyard singing an old melody ("Stars still hang in the sky") just before Charrington, now revealed to be an agent of the Thought Police, bursts in to arrest both Winston and Julia, who are beaten and dragged off.
Winston is alone in a stark, white waiting room, though he is soon joined by a Drunken Woman who flirts crudely with him ("Come, my pretty"). A group of male prisoners, including Syme and Parsons, enters the cell, each accused of Thoughtcrime and subject to the terrors of Room 101. O'Brien appears, flanked by guards, and it dawns on Winston that O'Brien has been working for the Thought Police all along.
Winston is taken to an examination room and strapped to a bed. O'Brien enters to preside over Winston's torture and "cure." Gradually, he breaks down Winston's resistance and describes how the Party seized control. He also reveals that Julia is being similarly tortured in another cell. An utterly exhausted Winston is left alone to hallucinate about his past in an anguished aria ("I remember the Golden Country"). He collapses and is ordered to Room 101.
O'Brien again oversees Winston's torture, now in Room 101, where prisoners are confronted with their greatest fear. O'Brien insists that Winston will finally be made to love Big Brother, and threatens him with something unendurable to Winston: rats. This is enough to break Winston, who cries out, "Set the rats on Julia!"
Some time later, Winston and Julia - both dead-eyed figures - meet by chance in the Chestnut Tree Café off Victory Square. With strains of a nostalgic cabaret song ("Remember when") filtering in from next door, the former lovers coldly acknowledge their betrayal of each other and part, knowing they may never meet again. Winston looks up at the telescreen, which has announced a great victory for Oceania, and for the first time declares his love for Big Brother. Around a transfixed Winston, life goes on in Victory Square and the Prole Woman appears to wash the Café's window, humming the same tender song once overhead by Winston and Julia.
"One of the most influential English writers of the twentieth century."
- The Observer
Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) was born in 1903 in India, where his father worked for the Civil Service. The family moved to England in 1907 and in 1917 Orwell entered Eton, where he contributed regularly to the various college magazines. From 1922 to 1927 he served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, an experience that inspired his first novel, Burmese Days (1934). Several years of poverty followed. He lived in Paris for two years before returning to England, where he worked successively as a private tutor, schoolteacher and bookshop assistant, and contributed reviews and articles to a number of periodicals. Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1933. In 1936 he was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to visit areas of mass unemployment in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) is a powerful description of the poverty he saw there. At the end of 1936 Orwell went to Spain to fight for the Republicans and was wounded. Homage to Catalonia is his account of the civil war. He was admitted to a sanatorium in 1938 and from then on was never fully fit. He spent six months in Morocco and there wrote Coming Up for Air. During the Second World War he served in the Home Guard and worked for the BBC Eastern Service from 1941 to 1943. As literary editor of Tribune he contributed a regular page of political and literary commentary, and also wrote for The Observer and later for the Manchester Evening News. His unique political allegory, Animal Farm, was published in 1945, and it was this novel, together with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which brought him worldwide fame. His works have been sold in over 80 translation markets.
George Orwell died in London in January 1950. A few days before, Desmond MacCarthy had sent him a message of greeting in which he wrote: 'You have made an indelible mark on English literature. You are among the few memorable writers of your generation.'
The world-renowned conductor, composer, and mentor, Maestro Lorin Maazel, devoted more than 75 years of his life to music making.
A second-generation American, born in Paris on March 6, 1930, Lorin Maazel began violin lessons at age five and conducting lessons at age seven. He appeared publicly for the first time at age eight. Between ages nine and fifteen, he conducted most of the major American orchestras, including the NBC Symphony at the invitation of Arturo Toscanini at the age of eleven "May you be blessed!" said Toscanini to the child prodigy Lorin.
In the course of his over seven decades-long career, Maestro Maazel conducted more than 150 orchestras in no fewer than 5,000 opera and concert performances. He has made more than 300 recordings, including symphonic cycles of complete orchestral works winning ten Grands Prix du Disques.
Maestro Maazel was also a highly regarded composer, with a wide-ranging catalog of works written primarily over the last 15 years of his life. His first opera, 1984, based on George Orwell’s literary masterpiece, had its world premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and sold-out revivals at La Scala, Milan and the Palau des les Arts in Valencia, Spain.
During his career, Maestro Maazel served as Artistic Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and General Manager of the Vienna State Opera, as Music Director of the Radio Symphony of Berlin, the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, and the New York Philharmonic. In the last year, he maintained an active conducting schedule, leading 111 concerts in 2013 alone, from Oman to Munich.
A true citizen of the world, fluent in seven languages, Maestro Maazel led orchestras and performances around the globe. He viewed music as a bridge-builder. During his career, he worked in East Berlin and the former Soviet Union. In February 2008, he and the New York Philharmonic visited Pyongyang, North Korea, to perform a concert broadcast on North Korean state television, airing live internationally. “I have always believed that the arts, per se, and their exponents, artists, have a broader role to play in the public arena. But it must be totally apolitical, nonpartisan, and free of issue-specific agendas. It is a role of the highest possible order; bringing peoples and their cultures together on common ground, where the roots of peaceful interchange can imperceptibly but irrevocably take hold,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2008. The North Korean defector singer Ji Hae Nam told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that the concert was: "an opportunity for North Korean people to realize that America is not as bad as they've learned."
In addition to conducting and composing, Maestro Maazel was an avid reader and
writer, a student of philosophy, astronomy and math. A fan of technology he was
engaged with tens of thousands of fans through his blog, Facebook and Twitter.
With his wife, Dietlinde Turban Maazel, he founded the Castleton Festival in 2009 on his Virginia farm estate where he built two theatres. Knowing the value of mentoring he himself benefited from as a youth, the Castleton Festival's mission is a “vista-opener,” in his words, an opportunity to nurture young musicians through mentoring and performing, to draw audiences to performances showcasing young talent, and to bring fresh energy to classical music alongside established artists.
Translating a famous and familiar novel to the opera stage can be a daunting challenge. But, re-reading Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-four" directly after Lorin Maazel's invitation to collaborate, we were struck at once by its compelling operatic possibilities. Readers of the novel tend to remember the world of Big Brother, of Thoughtcrime and of Doublethink, but at its heart is the riveting story of an ordinary man of extraordinary moral courage who is betrayed by the friend he thinks will save him and who then ultimately comes to betray the woman he loves. The drama of Winston, Julia and O'Brien is played out, of course, against the backdrop of a futuristic totalitarian state and the opera offers a vivid portrait of the state's insidious ways and of the psychology its brutal leaders depend on: its evil lies in the fact that its deluded and misled citizens think that their government is benevolent and good.
While the literal year 1984 is already twenty-one years in the past, Orwell - writing in 1948 of a time thirty-six years away - specifically thought of the year as a metaphor for a dread time looming ahead when our worst nightmares of living in a totalitarian society might terrifyingly have come true. And so it remains, a metaphor, in our 21st century opera, in which Winston, for instance, writing in his forbidden diary, enters the year 1984 but then bewilderedly wonders, "Or is it? Or is it fifty years earlier? Or fifty years later?" The point is that Orwell's 1984 is a year forever yet to come. Or, on the other hand, in an increasingly repressive and militaristic post-9/11 Al Qaeda-terrorized world, has it already come without our having realized it? Such questions are what lend the 57-year-old novel a powerful contemporary relevance and, to our way of thinking, make it so supremely worth the effort to turn into a modern-day stage work.
The making of the libretto required us to telescope the sprawl of the novel; to move crucial narration into the voices of Winston, et al; to shift and to combine certain scenes while totally cutting others; and to focus mainly on characters and plot rather than on Orwell's sometimes long-winded polemics. Any libretto's first obligation is to provide musical opportunities for the composer, and with Lorin's input to guide us, we worked to build the scaffold for a considerable musical variety - for ensembles, trios, duets and solo arias. The point was to give individual singers and the chorus a chance to sing complex and beautiful music and at the same time be dramatically effective. The role of Winston is an especially demanding one: he is on stage for virtually the entire work. The audience follows the story through his eyes, his conflicts, his tragic fate. Orwell's dark moral fable takes on a new life as opera as Maestro Maazel has given its story a remarkable and unforgettable sound.