|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.
- J.D. McClatchy & Thomas Meehan