Musician and Vocalist Artist Interviews

Director Peter Sellars On Art, Music, And Politics

American director Peter Sellars, 58, has been at the forefront of contemporary theatre and opera production since 1980. Initially attracting attention from some outrageous productions he mounted as a Harvard undergraduate, then for a staging of Don Giovanni that Opera News called “an act of artistic vandalism,” his early years were marked by cutting edge performances of Mozart, Shakespeare, and Handel.

Although Sellars was already known internationally for his work at the Boston Shakespeare Company, American National Theater in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles Festival, his staging of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, The Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni attracted special attention when they were broadcast on PBS and released on video and (currently) DVD. The Don Giovanni in particular, in which a young, very blond Dominique Labelle (Donna Anna) and Lorraine Hunt (Donna Elvira) were cast against black brothers Eugene Perry (Don Giovanni) and Herbert Perry (Leporello), with the setting moved to the streets of Harlem, especially attracted attention.

Sellars went on to direct at the Glyndebourne and Shakespeare Festivals; collaborate with choreographer Mark Morris, and stage the premieres of Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin and John Adams’ Nixon in China, The Death of Kinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic. I saw several of these premieres. He most recently directed a production of Nixon in China for the Metropolitan Opera, and George Crumb’s Winds of Destiny for the Ojai Music Festival in Ojai and Berkeley. For my review of the Berkeley performance, see http://www.sfcv.org/reviews/cal-performances/devastating-winds-of-destiny

On August 6, 2011, close to three months before the U.S. premiere of Toni Morrison, Rokia Traore, and Sellars’ Desdemona at Cal Performances, Sellars and I engaged in a long chat about his work. I’ve omitted the discussion of Desdemona and instead focused on material that examines Sellars’ body of work. The interview seems particularly relevant in light of Sellars’ current position as professor of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, where he teaches Art as Social Action and Art as Moral Action.

An Interview with Peter Sellars

Jason Victor Serinus: I want to ask you about your body of work in general. I’ve seen a couple of pieces, including Dr. Atomic. My review of The Winds of Destiny was not without controversy. And when I first saw your Don Giovanni on TV, my eyes were bugging out at how fabulous it was.

How many of the pieces you’ve done have an extra-political message?

Peter Sellars: I have to say, Jason, that nothing is a particularly political message. The whole point is, politics is part of everybody’s life. It’s part of the total mix. I have to say, Jason, that nothing is a particularly political message. The whole point is, politics is part of everybody’s life. It’s part of the total mix. I never want something to be just political. But anything that doesn’t include the political is just not telling the truth. Everything is politically charged, of course. Every part of our lives has political consequences. It’s better to be alert to that than to be asleep at the wheel. So, for me, politics is part of life.

On the other hand, I’m very obsessed that art is not propaganda. It’s not marketing. I’m not convincing anybody to think this or that way. It’s quite the opposite: I’m making a poetic field in which I’m not telling anybody the answer or anything, I’m just insisting that they themselves find their own answer.

JVS: To play Devil’s Advocate, some would say that when we get a printed theater program for The Winds of Destiny whose notes tell us that we’re spending $121 billion this year alone on the war in Afghanistan, and then you stand up and preface the performance by telling us exactly what it says in the program, that’s hitting us over the head with propaganda and telling us we’re supposed to see and hear something in a certain way. When you follow that by a performance that some (not me) considered unrelenting in tone, they cry foul.

PS: What actually happened is that we discovered, at the first performance, that the audience hadn’t actually read the program. Because the audience was quite mystified, the presenters at Ojai asked me to give the talk beforehand. I was only repeating the information because it was clear that the audience genuinely wanted to know. The amount of money we’re spending in Afghanistan is perfectly relevant, and it’s not tendentious to announce it. It’s just a fact.

Art always is about creating a context. Particularly because we live in America, in the context of no context, is exactly the nightmare of classical music.

With all due respect to the critics who got after you, there was an era when they and a few elderly white men knew everything. That era is long past. Most people in the seats have no idea what they’re looking at, and absolutely need some points of entry. That is just the reality of the present and future of classical music. I’m sorry to offend his absurd royal self, but the fact is that most people have no idea what they’re looking at, and I daresay he didn’t either.

It absolutely does help to have a context. There are 150,000 Ring productions, all of which look at different aspects of the Ring. It’s a little useful to have a sense in advance of which angle are people coming from. There is no one definitive Ring performance – there’s going to be a million of them – and everyone has the particular vantage that they have.

To me, the more upfront you are about where you’re coming from, the more honest it is, and the more people are able to come to the performance and meet you halfway and not simply be mystified.

I’m concerned about the future of classical music. These critics have to remember that for an entire generation, music has already been removed from their life in the schools. There is already a generation and a half that literally has no clue what they’re looking at. All you want to do is be as helpful as possible.

JVS: What kind of outreach do you do for young people? In Oakland where I live, we just managed to preserve all $720,000 that Oakland gives to the arts.

PS: Wow, that’s so impressive. That’s just so impressive.

JVS: Of the five City Council people out of a possible eight whom I interviewed about the cuts, one had a mother who was head of the Oakland Symphony League, another worked for awhile teaching art and is a craftswoman, and another studied classical music. Oakland may have an incredible murder rate despite a host of violence prevention programs, but the city also has this incredible liberal streak. It’s in a statistical dead heat with Long Beach as the racially most diverse city in the United States.

PS: I would add that it’s simply one of the richest cultural cradles in the history of America. One of my obsessions is that Cal Performances increasingly deal with the East Bay as what I’ve been calling a cultural archipelago. There’s a royalty of the arts that lives in the East Bay, and it’s a completely different world. In the next years, I really want to focus on that.

JVS: FYI, population-wise, Oakland seems to have the highest concentration of lesbians and lesbian couples in the United States. It also has the largest population of visual artists in the country.

PS: To me, Oakland is royalty. And not the puffy Queen Victoria / Queen Elisabeth stuff, but artistic royalty. It speaks of a new generation that is looking elsewhere and recognizing what there is to offer and where interest and integrity and imagination and necessity all transpire to create a movement.

An Interview with Peter Sellars

JVS: What do you think that we as (a) artists, and (b) lovers of the fine arts, lovers of classical music, and lovers of theater can do right now? Where does our power lie to (a) change course and (b) influence this lost generation?

PS: Everything has to be built up from the ground again. It’s not going to be a top-down operation. That’s what we learned with the Obama Administration; everything has to start from the ground up. That’s what the arts are about. The solution is at your fingertips, literally. The activism and the community building and sustaining and ability to engage people who are in trouble or who are on the edge is what the arts are about. To create a space where people are not condemned, or where there’s another response besides punishment, that not every response to every crisis has to be a negative one, but that in fact we can respond positively and with healing rather than with rancor and vindictiveness.

Nobody needs punishment at this point. We don’t need incapacitation, which is what the state of California is now leading the world in, but instead the arts of capacitation.

People are violent because there is a genuine crisis in the society. People are not violent because they’re bad people; that the famous George Bush stuff, and it’s ridiculous. People are not bad people. People are under enormous duress – terrible stress and terrible pressure – and where are the alternatives?

What the arts about is making the alternative present, viable, and totally captivating and alluring and irresistible. And also creating a safe space where disagreement and difficulty does not have to result in violence, but where sophisticated adults are working through difficult things together. That’s what the arts exemplify.

Again, what we have seen is the same tired “solutions” clearly do not work. We have watched failed programs after failed programs. Again, the arts are about being creative with the solutions, not returning to the same old clichés, but actually creative alternatives.

I think this is the best time for artists to exist in the history of the world, because, for one thing, you have, unlike any previous time in history, this exhilarating diversity and exhilarating possibility of rich and amazing conversations that we’ve never had before. At the same time, because everything is so dire, the arts move from a decorative role to what is actually a leadership role. It’s a role that delivers the essential values that the society is missing, and reinforcing positively our future at a time when, frankly, the politicians and economists have absolutely no idea of a future and keep canceling a future every single day with every one of their actions.

If you’re going to create a space of vision, and a space of something to move forward towards and something to move forward with, that’s what artists do. That’s our job description. That’s why I think this is the most important time to be an artist.

JVS: All the pieces of yours we’ve talked about take place in theaters that charge high prices to small audiences; only some have an afterlife with DVD. What other things do you do to reach beyond the proscenium and get out into the community?

PS: Again, the Panthers breakfast program was a handful of kids. Frankly, when you start anything, it’s small.

The arts do not work through numbers. It’s not like business; it’s not like advertising. What we do has nothing to do with the numbers.

What we do spreads in all kinds of other ways. It’s so important not to think about it the way marketing people think. A social movement doesn’t begin because of widespread numbers; it begins because its moral integrity and its power gets one person talking to another person. It gets people saying, “You know what I just saw last night?” It starts people who never saw it talking about it.

For me, a lot of what the arts are about is actually opening up more space. Even if you just hear about it, it’s deeply opening up a space. Especially if you just hear about it, because it’s no longer about the object; it’s about your own imagination.

In my life, I never worry about what the show looks like that night. I always avoid when people want to talk to me at intermission about how it’s going. I say, “Let’s just wait until tomorrow and we’ll figure that out.” Because what is exciting for me is not what anybody thought that night. What’s exciting is the next morning, someone calls someone they care about, and they go for a half hour. They say, “I just saw this thing last night, and it was the worst thing ever, or it was the best thing ever.” It doesn’t matter which “ever.” They talk to someone they care about for a half hour.

Someone they care about listens about something they never saw, and they themselves have to imagine it. That means two people have just become artists. The person who describes what they saw last night, in the retelling becomes an artist, and what they saw is empowering and becomes their own vision. Meanwhile, the person who never saw it is hearing about it and having to completely imagine something and they’re also becoming an artist. For me, what we do spreads in these magical and profound ways.

That said, yes, I’m doing programs in schools all the time. Yes, as you know, this year, particularly in Chicago, I did this big program with returning veterans, particularly from Afghanistan and Iraq. The Winds of Destiny was a real outgrowth of the times spent in homeless shelters and in veteran’s organizations.

When we did Handel’s Hercules at the Chicago Lyric Opera, we had 350 veterans in the audience every night. So the audience was quite diverse, and most people were seeing an opera for the first time. So for me, these are all absolutely essential parts of what we’re doing.

As I mentioned before, for me, you have to do as much work on who’s in the audience as what’s onstage. You have to do as much work about creating context as you have to do about creating the work of art itself.

JVS: I want to tell you a true story I heard on an hour-long NPR program today. It doesn’t contradict what you’ve said. But it has served to remind me of another truth.

A black woman in Little Rock, Arkansas got a job working with teenagers whom I believe in an institution or correctional program. When she got the job, the woman who was training her said, “One thing you must not do is open your heart to these kids. You have to be careful.”

She can’t live that way, opens her heart, and finds one 10-year old in particular who needs a lot of work. She devotes herself to him. He visits her house, sees her a lot, and seems to be turning around and doing really, really well.

She moves on, starts a program of her own, and eventually decides to try to nip the wounding in the bud by becoming a teacher and working with children before they’re severely wounded. One days she’s coming down and learns about a 19-year old who has shot two people. One has died, the other crawled to the side of the road and sought help. The killer has been apprehended, and it’s the boy she had befriended.

She hears the description of the teenager as having a gold tooth. She knows he doesn’t have a gold tooth, but his cousin does. Hence she testifies on his behalf at the trial. While he’s convicted, she’s told that her testimony probably spared him the death penalty.

He calls every once in a while, but she tries to distance himself. One night there’s a phone call from him that she doesn’t pick up. The next day she learns that he’s escaped from prison. Before he’s caught, he’s killed one man, seemingly on purpose, and another in an auto crash while fleeing the police in the car he stole from the man he killed. He confesses to his crimes, and is sentenced to death. Later on, he confesses to his crimes and embraces Christianity.

She’s devastated to learn all this. Six months later, with the radio crew, she visits him on death row. The radio crew is prohibited from recording the gathering, but the program narrator listens in and reports to the radio audience.

It takes a half hour until she brings up the murders. Then she learns that the gold tooth was a cap that he put on to disguise himself. Not only has he no remorse for the killings, but he murdered the first person intentionally because he wanted to see what it was like to murder someone. He really enjoyed it.

When she asks, “What could I have done to change you?” he replies, “Nothing.”

Peter, we all like to believe that redemption is possible, even for Adolf Hitler. But what do we do when people refuse to be redeemed?

PS: Forgive me for saying it, but every religious tradition is really, really very clear about this. It’s important not to try and play God. You do the best you can do with everyone you meet. But you’re not God, and you’re not in charge of that person. You’re not ultimately responsible for who they are.

You have no idea where that soul is going and what the whole trajectory is. As the Koran says, only God is the knower of hearts. You have no idea what people are carrying with them, what they’re responding to, and what’s really going on. Most people are claiming all kinds of things every day that are not true.

All you can do is create your own zone of compassion and integrity, and positive, deeply healing, cleansing and inspiring energy. The rest is not your job.

Frankly, I don’t think any act of love is wasted. There are so many things we just don’t know enough about. It’s important not to rush to conclusions about anything, and for that woman to not do anything differently. First of all, as you said, and very movingly, she couldn’t live any other way. And that’s really important.

Again, that’s what we stand for in the arts. That’s why, hello, most of history of theater is not about a happy ending. It’s about tragedy, because tragedy is what actually makes us all humble. Tragedy recognizes that none of us have the answer. The Greeks wanted to make sure that tragedy was held in front of human beings on a very regular basis.

I happen to have a taste for tragedy. I think tragedy is really profoundly healing and cleansing. So I don’t need all these stories to have a happy ending. But I need to work toward the most possible resolution, of course. At the same time, you also have to reach that moment of humility and realize it’s not in your hands.

Portions of this review appeared online at sfcv.org, the website of San Francisco Classical Voice