Animal Farm - what happened next

New opera takes Orwell's political satire forward, offers another a look at the dangers of tyranny.

matan porat 88 224 (photo credit: Evgeny Reider)
matan porat 88 224
(photo credit: Evgeny Reider)
The story is familiar, but the presentation is all new. Animals revolt against their human masters, but end up imitating them and evolving into a totalitarian regime. And they do it in song. Animal Farm, a one-act chamber opera written by young Israeli pianist/composer Matan Porat based on the timeless George Orwell political satire of the same name, will premiere at the Tel Aviv Music Academy next week before making its way to the US. The opera was commissioned to Porat, and was intended to be a family-friendly piece. "Granted, this allegory, telling the story of the animals ousting their human exploiters from the farm and then being exploited in an even more merciless way by their fellow quadrupeds is not a kindergarten fairy tale," admits Porat, "but I believe that it is important to know from an early age that not everything said by leaders should be taken for granted." Still, he says, while this is not an opera for kids, "it's suitable for children starting from the age of 10." The composer, 25, began playing piano in Israel before continuing to the Juilliard School in New York and currently studies with Murray Perahia in London. He explains that compressing the complicated novel with its large number of characters into a simple operatic story, as well as removing the humans from the tale, was among the most difficult tasks for him. "Orwell's novel has always attracted me, and although he wrote his piece back in 1945 as a satire on the Soviet regime, I think it can happen in any place, including in the Israel of today." The opera opens after the revolution when the animals are still happy, and within three days the situation deteriorates. "In our version, Oink - Squealer in the book - becomes the central character. He is kind of the communications minister, the major brainwasher. As we know, nowadays media advisers all over the world run everything, and this is what happens in the opera." "Do you want the humans to come back?" asks Oink. And within the three days the situation returns to the pre-revolution period, when the humans ruled the animals. The music is also telling, notes Porat: It is very traditional and optimistic in the beginning, and then strange things happen in the score as the story develops and the situation deteriorates. THE CAST of academy students features seven characters accompanied by a chamber ensemble. World-class director Julia Pevzner takes the reins, and adds the role of stage designer to her responsibilities. The young Pevzner is known for her direction of The Queen of Spades at the Dallas Opera, as well as Das Rheingold and Die Walküre at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg - along with her numerous accomplishments in Israel. Haya Biran is in charge of costuming, and Ophir Barkan wrote the libretto. Pevzner explains, "From my very first encounter with Matan Porat and Ophir Barkan, we realized that we saw the story in the same way. For me, this opera is kind of a closure of a circle. At the end of Orwell's book, when the people come back to conquer the farm, we do not see a clear difference between the pigs and the humans. In the opera, I see pigs walking on two legs from the beginning - as it is, after all, a metaphor of human society - and deteriorating to walking on four legs by the end of the opera. "This way, I believe, we may question the ways of human society, as well as feel how any regime could turn out to be dangerous," Pevzner says. "While destroying the 'old world' of humans, the animals build a 'new world, better world' - but is it any better or any different than the one they've just fought against? I believe that despite Orwell's book being a very clear metaphor of the Soviet totalitarian regime - something very specific - the story may very well be told about many other times or places." The only Israeli performance of Animal Farm will take place January 8 at 7:30 p.m. in the Clairmont Hall, the Buchman/Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv University. Tickets are available by phone: (03) 640-7047 or (03) 640-6394.