Philip Hensher: Opera is no place for vanity productions

Famous as he is as a conductor, Lorin Maazel's reputation as a composer is more or less nil
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The Independent Online

When I saw Covent Garden's programme for this season, and came to the season's new opera, like many I thought there was something peculiar about it. An operatic adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was going to happen sooner or later, and some opera house would put it on. What was distinctly peculiar was seeing Lorin Maazel credited as composer.

When I saw Covent Garden's programme for this season, and came to the season's new opera, like many I thought there was something peculiar about it. An operatic adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was going to happen sooner or later, and some opera house would put it on. What was distinctly peculiar was seeing Lorin Maazel credited as composer.

Mr Maazel, as needs no emphasis, is a distinguished conductor; from 2002 he has been the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, the latest in a long line of high-profile posts. For more information, I recommend his hilarious website, www.maestromaazel.com, which offers accounts of his career boastful even by the standards of international musicians. From it, you will learn if you didn't already know, which you don't, that "today, he's affectionately referred to as 'numero uno' by many of his colleagues. He decries such titles, however." Obviously, not to the point of omitting them from his website.

Famous as he is as a conductor, however, his reputation as a composer is more or less nil. Most of his music has been written over the last 12 or so years, and despite being launched in the most distinguished circumstances a famous conductor can contrive - the Vienna Philharmonic, Rostropovich as soloist, and so on - has made almost no impression on the outside world.

Nevertheless, Covent Garden have agreed to put on this opera, retitled 1984 for some reason, and recently he has been referred to in different terms to "numero uno" by other of his colleagues. A senior but anonymous member of staff at the Royal Opera House, for instance, snappily referred to his opera as "crap".

I haven't seen the opera myself, which opened this week to distinctly dismissive reviews, but those who saw the dress rehearsal have reported back that the production, by Robert LePage, is stylish, Mr Simon Keenlyside sings with his usual elegance, the libretto is a professional piece of work and the music is totally unremarkable. "Sort of competent, but not actually very good," was the comment I heard.

The great mystery of what the opera house was doing putting on a work by an untried composer in such style was resolved at a stroke when the source of the opera's funding was revealed a day or two ago. Rumours to this effect had been flying around, but it was confirmed that Mr Maazel himself had paid some £400,000 towards the costs. Basically - I don't see how it can be described in any other way - this is a vanity project.

The opera house, naturally, denies this, and was at pains to point out that the arrangement offers them excellent value for money. Elaine Padmore, the head of opera, said that their costs amount to only around £500,000, and that the opera production was in addition, not instead of an item in their usual programme.

Actually, I think this makes the production more, rather than less disgraceful a venture. If Mr Maazel had paid for the entire costs himself, I don't think we could have much to complain about from a financial point of view. When an opera house is subsidising a private folly from its own funds, largely from public subsidy, I think the whole thing turns into a matter for the Public Accounts Committee. It is effectively a rerouting of public money in accordance with private vanity.

Of course, this must not form any kind of precedent; no rich amateur composer can again be permitted to stain the programme of the Royal Opera House by the incentive of a substantial grant. To be fair to them, the ROH administrators were at pains to stress this. But once is more than enough. If Maazel's 1984 is a failure, it will certainly enable those who don't want more new music at the ROH to put up a strong argument.

Covent Garden has been doing something for new music in recent years, but not enough, and to many distinguished composers the willingness of the opera house to roll over when offered a donation in this way by a rich but undistinguished composer must seem like a kick in the teeth.

There are probably a dozen British composers now living who would represent a much better return on investment than this project: Judith Weir, Oliver Knussen and John Casken spring to mind; if George Benjamin could be tempted, he would produce something remarkable; David Sawer's new opera, with Armando Iannucci, is being staged by the Komische Oper in Berlin and Opera North here; why not Covent Garden?

The opera house is at pains to stress that this project is in addition to, rather than in replacement of the regular programme of new operas. But I don't see how that can be the case. A production like this inevitably enters into the history of a house, and can't be kept separate.

And a vanity project simply tarnishes the house's reputation. If, as they are now claiming, there is nothing to be ashamed of in the unusual arrangements for the production, it is very odd that they kept so quiet about it until it was ferreted out.

The difficulties of persuading a major opera house to put on a new opera are immense. It is for that reason that audiences deserve to be confident that anything unfamiliar they are presented with is of the highest quality, and commissioned for that reason alone. Any suspicion that behind a new offering is a maestro with money to burn is just going to give an opera house, and perhaps new music as a whole, a very bad reputation indeed.

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