HIGH NOTES

When Lorin Maazel, the charismatic director of the New York Philharmonic, was mulling the possibility of writing his first opera, he went back to great 20th-century literature in search of a subject. "I reread [George's Orwell's] '1984' and felt it had all the ingredients for opera, and that it would stimulate my imagination as a composer," he says. The work premiered May 3 at London's Royal Opera House, with a dark, imaginative set by director Robert Lepage. Yet Maazel's "1984" remains one of only a handful of modern operas that have drawn on contemporary writing. "It's immensely powerful to know that the piece onstage really matters now in our own world," says Paul Bentley, who wrote the libretto for a recent Royal Danish Opera production based on Kafka's classic "The Trial."

While theater and musicals have drawn on contemporary literature for new productions--including Philip Pullman's outstanding "His Dark Materials" at London's National Theatre--the world's opera houses have long been mired in familiar repertoire, gussied up with powder and ancient periwigs. Innovation has barely scratched opera's surface (not counting groups like Opera Babes that add pop beats to classic arias and productions like Calixto Bieito's cocaine-fueled adaptation of "Don Giovanni"). There's "a persistent, not entirely unjustified, prejudice of opera being only for the rich and educated," says Danish composer Poul Ruders. "It's seen as a haughty form of theater in which fat ladies in wigs scream for hours on end before collapsing. That's the stereotype, but it's there and shouldn't be ignored."

It wasn't always so. Throughout the 19th century, composers drew on the latest writing for well-honed plots, full of drama, tension and contemporary resonance. Audiences had the pleasure of hearing their most current concerns and political preoccupations dramatized in gut-wrenching arias. Verdi's "Don Carlo," for instance, explored the Spanish Inquisition, which wrapped up after five centuries in 1834, just 30 years before the opera was written. Richard Strauss turned to controversial author Oscar Wilde for his erotic, iconoclastic "Salome," whose flaunting of social mores scandalized fin de siecle audiences. More than 50 operas were based on works by contemporary French author Victor Hugo, including Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia" and Verdi's "Rigoletto."

While rare, Maazel's "1984" is not the only innovative production dealing with contemporary social issues. Lepage emphasized the idea of transparency in staging "1984," using translucent screens, invisible doors and monitors to create an eerie feeling that the characters are constantly being watched. "It echoes the creeping invasion of personal liberty which is to be found everywhere today," says Maazel. "We believe we're free until we discover we haven't been for some time, and then it's too late." The 2002 Royal Opera House production of "Sophie's Choice" by Nicholas Maw is an adaptation of William Styron's harrowing Holocaust novel. And with "A Handmaid's Tale," which premiered in 2000, composer Ruders stipulated that any given performance should be set as though the revolution, which in Margaret Atwood's narrative established a world governed by right-wing religious fanatics, is to happen in two years' time. "It will always be just around the corner," says librettist Bentley.

Gradually, opera is winning new devotees. The annual BBC Proms, which aim to bring classical music to a broader audience, have taken opera as one of this season's themes, staging 10 full productions--more than in any previous year--such as Purcell's "The Fairy Queen," an adaptation of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and "Coro," Luciano Berio's choral setting of poems by exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Opera is also courting music lovers in more unusual venues. In July, performances of Donizetti's "Anna Bolena" will be staged at the Tower of London--the very setting of the opera's second act, in which the ill-fated queen is imprisoned and executed. And opera houses around the world are getting makeovers; major new venues include Santiago Calatrava's stunning new Valencia hall, which opened last year, the Shanghai Arts Center and the Welsh National Opera's new home at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff.

Ultimately, though, an opera triumphs or tumbles into obscurity on the strength of its human drama. "At its heart," says Lepage, " '1984' is about a couple trying to establish a love relationship in a world in which it's very difficult to have any kind of intimacy." Winston and Julia's doomed affair draws the audience in. "There's no way of understanding the horrors of '1984' unless one can identify with the people caught in its web. Then the horrors become real and personal and timely," says Maazel.

His score may occasionally sound more like an overblown film soundtrack than the meaty orchestration of an opera. But it effectively conjures up the dispiriting emptiness of Orwell's awful vision. The unusual and inspired choice of a baritone, Simon Keenlyside, for the lead role of Winston, lends the work a darker edge. His final aria, as the walls close around him, is heart-breaking, its pledge of allegiance to Big Brother belied by a bleak score. Love in "1984" is grandiloquent, an escape from reality, based on false hope and desperation--just as it was in the book. Modern literature may be helping revive opera's fortunes. But as one of those stuffy opera fanatics might mutter between sips of interval champagne, plus ca change...

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