1984: Orwell's masterpiece comes to the opera stage

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First came the book, then the critically-acclaimed film, then a high-ratings television show.

First came the book, then the critically-acclaimed film, then a high-ratings television show.

Now George Orwell's 1984 is appearing as an opera, which opens tonight at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

The show's conductor and composer, Lorin Maazel, who is the music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, said the aim of the performance was "to tell the story as simply and directly as possible. We all believe that the story itself is so strong that we don't have to resort to artifice."

Thomas Meehan, who has written for a number of Broadway productions including The Producers, and the poet J D McClatchy, professor of poetry at Yale University, have co-written the libretto.

The novel, published in 1949, has had lasting appeal. The story is set in 1984 and presents an imaginary future where a totalitarian state, called Oceania, controls every aspect of life, including thoughts.

Directed by Robert Lepage, the opera has a cast that includes Simon Keenlyside as Winston Smith, the central character, and Nancy Gustafson as his lover, Julia.

Maazel said he gained insight into the mind of the dictatorial character by recounting conversations with former SS officers 15 or 20 years after the Second World War.

"The reason they'd sometimes confide in me was that I was a foreigner and it was like confession time.

"It was quite terrifying. They would say things like, 'I didn't really want to do it, I was ordered to do it and when I pulled the lever or threw in the gas, at least the first time, my heart gave a little wrench, but then you get used to it.' So I learnt something about the mentality of the sadist mindsets which we tend to assign only to others, but which may be latent problems that we are all hiding.

"The human soul is complex and we can all act very unexpectedly under certain circumstances," he said.

While some have questioned whether the stark, sinister world of 1984 the novel is the stuff of opera, Maazel, who wrote his first opera at the age of 75, vigorously defends it.

"At its core is a tender, intimate love story; we've gone to great lengths to make sure that Winston and Julia are believable human beings with whom we can identify... I don't believe there will be a dry eye in the house at the end," he said.

1984 is at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, until 19 May