Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent
Lorin Maazel, the conductor-composer whose new opera of George Orwell's 1984 opens tomorrow at the Royal Opera House, has put more than £400,000 of his own money into the production, the Guardian has learned, leading to accusations that Covent Garden is staging a vanity project.
Maazel has no experience as a writer of opera, and his reputation as composer is far from stellar.
Rumours from inside the opera house are far from propitious, with one senior member of the music staff describing the opera as "crap". The project has been questioned within the house "at every level", according to a source, since it was agreed to in 2000.
According to the composer Michael Berkeley: "One should not prejudge any work of art, but this is a risk, because Maazel's standing as a composer is not high, especially compared with the many very good composers who would give their right arms to write an opera for Covent Garden."
But the Royal Opera has insisted that the new opera by the 75-year-old American is in addition to, rather than instead of, other new works for the Covent Garden stage.
Elaine Padmore, head of opera, also said that, because of the unusual financial arrangements, the production represented excellent value. About half the costs are being borne by a company, Big Brother Productions, in which Maazel is the chief investor.
"Our costs are about £0.5m," she said. "It ends up costing us about the same as a revival of a Rigoletto, or about half the price of a new production."
She also said ticket prices were modest, with the most expensive seat at £50.
None the less, scepticism abounds. The Guardian's chief music critic, Andrew Clements, while keen not to prejudge the work, said: "The fact is that Maazel has no track record of composing opera. This is an international opera house - it's not as if there is any shortage of composers. They have never mounted a Philip Glass opera on the main stage; there are plenty of European composers whose work they have never done, such as Kaija Saariaho and Hans-Werner Henze."
The composer James MacMillan said: "It may be more usual in the US to give celebrities a platform in this way but I thought we were a bit better than that. But you never know, maybe it will be a good piece."
The opera is an adaptation of Orwell's 1948 novel. Its cast includes the British baritone Simon Keenlyside, and the Canadian Robert Lepage directs.
Ms Padmore said she and Antonio Pappano, the music director of Covent Garden, "absolutely" believed in the project. "The fact that he hasn't written an opera before: that's intriguing for a start. He's conducted a hundred operas. With a new piece you never know whether it's going to be good or bad. It's always a gamble."
Asked whether any composer with large amounts of money might effectively be able to hire Covent Garden during its main season, Padmore said: "No no no no no. I don't think so. This seemed to us to be an interesting artistic project."
Padmore said Maazel proposed the project after the German opera administrator who commissioned the piece died. The Royal Opera decided to take on the project, sharing costs with the Tokyo Opera. But the Japanese house pulled out. At that point, according to Douglas Beck, the general manager of Big Brother Productions, Maazel decided to "essentially self-produce".
He confirmed that Maazel's investment was around a million Canadian dollars (about £416,000).
The French born, US-raised Maazel was the youngest person to conduct an opera in Bayreuth. While he was chief conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the early 90s he was thought to have been earning $1m a year
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