Any new operatic production is a gamble, and a new production of a new opera is doubly so. Yet for theatres and performers, the potential rewards can be considerable – the prospect of adding a major new work to the repertory.

Animal Farm in rehearsal
© Milagro Elstak

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Over the past few weeks, as part of their Opera Forward Festival, Dutch National Opera have embarked on an ambitious project of this kind: a brand new opera based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, with music by Russian composer Alexander Raskatov and libretto by British writer Ian Burton and the composer.

The project originated with Italian director Damiano Michieletto. Considerably experienced, he has directed at virtually every major opera house in the world – Vienna, La Scala, Covent Garden, as well as staging four productions at the Salzburg Festival. This is his first time shepherding a new opera from conception to the stage.

Damiano Michieletto
© Milagro Elstak

I ask Michieletto why such a well-known story as Animal Farm had not been turned into a major opera before. “I really don’t know! It is a classic story, of rebellion and revolution, the making of a new society, of power and dictatorship. It’s very dramatic and theatrical.” And despite its Soviet-era allegory, it remains especially resonant given current events, and the political realities of life in post-Soviet Russia under Putin.

“People in the opera world are always speaking of new directors, new singers, new stagings,” Michieletto tells me, “but rarely do you hear talk of living composers. It’s not that no new operas are presented each year – there are usually several – but they do not always enter the repertory. People tend to forget the importance of the libretto and the story, for the success of any opera. Mozart and Puccini were always complaining about the lack of good libretti, and were constantly travelling around to find them. With this project I really hope to create an opera with the capacity to last, and be performed into the future, with the potential for different sorts of production.”

Damiano Michieletto rehearsing Animal Farm
© Milagro Elstak

I ask librettist Ian Burton the same question – why a large operatic production on this subject has not been mounted until now. He posits some theories: “In the first place, adapting modern novels into opera is not the most obvious move. When Peter Hall decided to make a theatre piece out of Orwell’s Animal Farm in 1984, he asked Richard Peaslee, a New York composer, to write the music for the songs and Adrian Mitchell to write the lyrics. For works of political satire, music theatre had become the medium of choice, following in the wake of the great Kurt Weill / Bertolt Brecht classics of the 1930s, rather than the more formal structures of classical opera.”

The influential productions of Peter Sellars in the 1980s might explain some of the willingness among opera directors and producers to approach satirical literary subjects. “I had wanted to make an opera of Animal Farm for some time,” Michieletto tells me. “I approached Dutch National Opera with the idea for this production, and they agreed. It was they who suggested Alexander Raskatov, who also said yes quite quickly. I had seen A Dog’s Heart, also on a satirical subject, and liked it very much. For him, growing up in the Soviet Union, there are personal reasons to make an opera on this subject.”

Alexander Raskatov
© Milagro Elstak

“Political and social satire has already been present in Russian opera of the 20th century,” composer Alexander Raskatov tells me.Le Coq d’Or by Rimsky-Korsakov, The Nose and Lady Macbeth by Shostakovich – so, I am not the first. One detail: my father in his youth was a surgeon, but later he swapped his scalpel for a quill, becoming a satirical journalist. Maybe in A Dog’s Heart and Animal Farm I took after him.”

“During my life in the Soviet Union,” Raskatov adds, “I never had a chance to read Animal Farm, for a simple reason: it was strictly forbidden. From the point of view of a Soviet citizen, living inside the regime, Orwell could never have known all the manifestations of this pathological political system.” Raskatov allowed himself the freedom to create “certain situations which didn’t exist in the book. I also used some genuine quotations from Stalin, Trotsky, Beria, Bukharin...”

Set design for the rebellion scene
© Paolo Fantin

I ask Michieletto about the way the production handles the scenes of the initial rebellion. “The way we have produced it, at the beginning of the story, all the animals are locked in battery cages. The farm is a kind of slaughterhouse – the animals are there purely for their meat. Farmer Jones, the owner of the farm, is often surrounded by butchers. The dream of Old Major, shown at the beginning, is a dream of liberation, of freedom from incarceration. The animals’ rebellion breaks apart the cages from the inside.” In this one can clearly see echoes of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

“The story progresses through nine scenes and an epilogue,” Michieletto continues. “We see the animals draft their constitution. We see Snowball propose the building of the windmill, opposed by Napoleon – though after Snowball is driven away from the farm, Napoleon presents it as his own idea. Some events occur off stage: the destruction of the windmill, for instance, is narrated by the donkey Benjamin.”

Gennady Bezzubenkov as Old Major, and the Animal Farm chorus
© Milagro Elstak

I ask Ian Burton a little about the process of characterisation. How did he approach writing for characters whose nature is highly allegorical? “Character in Orwell is an interesting subject. It is closer to the way a well-known human being is presented and drawn in satirical political cartoons. Orwell did not have much of an interest in character, or in human relationships that mark a true novelist. He once said to Julian Symons: ‘I am not a real novelist!’” The donkey, Benjamin, is often held to represent the Soviet intelligentsia, while the horse Boxer represents the proletariat. “Boxer is a beautiful and moving sketch of a character who is kind, selfless and heroic. He symbolises the best aspects of the proletariat and their hopes for a better world.” 

The characters’ allegorical complexion is aided by the use of sophisticated masks, required by almost the entire cast. “Masks are crucial, given the subject matter,” Michieletto explains. “Their design took many weeks, in collaboration with the theatre. We needed to deal with the fact that the cast had to be able to sing through them, that they cannot be too heavy, that the cast need to get used to wearing them, and so on. How they are to be removed towards the end of the opera, as the animals become more and more human.”

Germán Olvera as Boxer
© Milagro Elstak

In the past, masks have been used in British opera productions like Knussen’s Where The Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop, and Birtwistle’s The Minotaur and The Mask of Orpheus. Given the British origin of the story, I ask Michieletto about whether there’s anything peculiarly British about this use of masks. “Perhaps! Though it may be more general than that. Masks are something greatly particular to theatre. There is no tradition of their use in cinema, for instance. They are used in ritual and theatrical traditions everywhere around the world, from Ancient Greece to Shakespearean England. They are also close to my heart as a Venetian, growing up with the commedia dell’arte, training at L’École Jacques Lecoq. I do not find any difficulty in using them. Masks enable the action to be bold, direct, distinctly theatrical. They are not a barrier to emotion.”

Michieletto is speaking to me in the midst of rehearsals. “We’ve been rehearsing for eight days so far. Before that, the singers had a week or so of musical rehearsals, on their parts. And actually with this production, it has been the chorus that is really crucial. We have a chorus of forty, 24 adults and 14 children – this lends a very special atmosphere to this production. They are frequently on stage, with a lot of music. Working with chorus is one of those peculiar things about opera – clearly differentiating it from a play, or a film. I enjoy it very much, especially with a small chorus like this, who have been specially assembled for this production. They represent the whole collective of the animals, so you can understand their importance.”

Chorus rehearsing in Animal Farm
© Milagro Elstak

As I speak to Michieletto, he is yet to hear the orchestration of the music. All that has been available has been the piano reduction – as well as the score itself. “The conductor and the composer have helpfully been available during the rehearsal process. Occasionally I find myself asking, about some passage, ‘what was your intention here?’, is the instrumentation loud or soft, and so on.”

“But I like not to make too many decisions in advance,” Michieletto tells me. “Not knowing the precise nature of the sound is normal. As a director, it is a creative journey you take together with the cast, in rehearsal, and in performance.”

Battery cages in Animal Farm
© Milagro Elstak

For Raskatov, this is his first opera in English, and the nature of the language’s prosody has profound effects on the music’s rhythm and construction. “Working on Animal Farm I found a method of using mostly short ‘scalpel’-like phrases, hocketing between the ensembles.” I think back to the image of the animals in their battery cages, ready for the slaughter, and Farmer Jones surrounded by his phalanx of butchers with knives.

Animal Farm runs at Dutch National Opera’s Opera Forward Festival from 3rd–16th March.
This article was sponsored by Dutch National Opera.