Backstory: Peter Sellars

by Fred Cohn.

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Illustration by Gary Hovland
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PETER SELLARS USED TO BE  called an “enfant terrible” so often that it seemed like his job title. The term pops up in his first opera news cover story, 1985’s “Taking Issue,” by Thor Eckert, Jr., and so do the kind of provocative statements that earned him the epithet: “It’s painful to go the opera.” “My task is to put an end to lobotomized theater.” “Puccini and Richard Strauss … killed the opera repertory.” Incendiary rhetoric aside, the profile captured the twenty-seven-year-old director’s passionate commitment to creating meaning on the opera stage, right when he was on the verge of launching his most notable achievement yet. Sellars’s staging of Julius Caesar had its premiere that month at the Pepsico Summerfare festival in Purchase, New York; that Handel mounting, along with his Purchase productions in subsequent summers of the three Mozart–da Ponte operas, sealed his reputation as an audacious, occasionally infuriating but always exuberant advocate for opera as a living, breathing art form. By 1987, when he staged the epochal world premiere of John Adams’s Nixon in China at Houston Grand Opera, Sellars had become one of the most important voices in opera. In 2012, he was the recipient of an Opera News Award.

During a recent Skype conversation, Sellars sounds as passionate and idealistic as ever. Looking back on his work of three decades ago elicits understandable pride. “Something that a small group of friends put together has affected a generation,” he says. But he sees its antic humor (Cleopatra swinging on a vaudeville crescent moon; Despina turning into Shirley MacLaine) as unmistakably a product of the era, and of his own youth. “My shows were funny then, but not so much anymore,” he says. “In the ’80s, you could say, ‘Let’s lighten this up.’ The jokes are there in Mozart, or in John Adams.
But in the last fifteen years, the stakes have gotten so high. You have to get unbelievably serious.”

Sellars counts himself lucky that he has been able to avoid opera-house routine, pursuing only the projects that inspire him. At the time of our chat, he is brimming with enthusiasm for his next project—the world premiere in Amsterdam of Only the Sound Remains, a pair of Kaija Saariaho one-act chamber operas inspired by Noh drama. “Kaija has written music you can hear, but you aren’t sure you can hear, because of her electronic effects,” he says. “It’s not grand opera, but it uses all the senses that grand opera uses.” 

Back in 1985, Sellars said, “More than anything else, I want to get my hands on … Falstaff.” He still has not staged Verdi’s late masterpiece, but it remains at the top of his wish list; if anything, his appreciation for the piece has grown in the intervening years. “We’re so much older now,” he says. “Our parents are older, our friends are older. Your body isn’t able to do the things it used to do, which becomes a source of humor, and of melancholy—the sense that something is really over. Verdi is so aware of that—the opera is transparent, like when you’re so old your skin is almost translucent.” Despite his adoration for Falstaff, he won’t tackle it until the conditions are perfect. “Opera is the most thrilling thing in the world,” Sellars says, “and when it isn’t, it’s horrifying!”  spacer 

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