[Note: This interview was originally published in The Opera Journal in June, 1992.
Photos and links have been added for this website presentation.]
Director Peter Sellars
by Bruce Duffie
Peter Sellars. No, not the late British actor (who spells
his name Sellers, with a second ‘e’
rather than an ‘a’, and is famous
for Inspector Clousseau), but rather the young American director who is turning
opera on its ear, so to speak. His innovative and controversial productions
of old and new works have sparked reactions ranging from sheer delight to
outright hostility. Good or bad, right or wrong, they present his views
on the subject in a thought-out and logical manner.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1957, Sellars began his own puppet theater when he
was 10, eventually putting on a version of Wagner’s
Ring. He attended Harvard,
where he was expelled from the student theater organizations. Naturally,
he formed his own troupe, and eventually went on to the American Repertory
Theater, the Boston Shakespeare Company, and was Director of the American
National Theater Company at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Recently, his productions of John Adams’
opera, Nixon in China, and the Mozart-Da
Ponte operas have been hailed in the theater and presented on television.
In demand all over, he contemplates carefully the projects he will undertake.
A couple of years ago, he was in Evanston, Illinois (just outside of Chicago),
briefly and I managed to catch up with him for about a half-hour. Even
as we chatted about producing and directing, the phone rang several times
with pressing needs to be attended to half a continent away. After
one such interruption, he grumbled (good naturedly) that it was maddening,
and that’s where we pick up the conversation . . .
Bruce Duffie: Is
being a theater director too maddening?
It’s been so long since I’ve gotten
to work in theater. I’ve been doing opera for
three years now almost exclusively, and I’m going to
do a movie this summer. Of course I’ve been running
the Los Angeles Festival, which is thrilling.
BD: You get offers
from theaters, opera houses, movie companies. How do you decide which
ones you’ll accept and which you’ll
I’m in a position to initiate a project which is very
great. I’m in contact with artists, and we start
hatching something. Then we go to theaters and propose it to them.
Most of the works I do now are new pieces, so frequently an opera house will
ask me to bring a new project to them. That is extremely nice.
And there are certain of my little obsessions which I indulge... [Laughs]
BD: Are these suggested
by others or do they just come to you in your own mind?
probably a combination. There are certain people I know I want to work
with, and a certain composer who will come with a project which will be just
right. So I think with that composer in mind, and that composer will
have an idea or two. Then we bring someone else into the room who has
another set of ideas, and eventually something happens.
BD: Are these just
right for you, or just right for the theater, or just right for the audience,
or just right for whom?
PS: By the time
we’re done, it’s just right for
all of those. The whole art of placing these things is so that they’re
done in a situation where everyone is getting a wonderful experience.
BD: What is it
that makes a wonderful experience?
hitting a historic moment; getting the right moment in history for a work
to be introduced. The place should be very excited about it, and not
treat it as though it was just something they’re doing.
They should be thrilled. The theater that is thrilled is behind it
all the way, and the cast should be in their prime. Then it all adds
up to be exciting, and a wonderful experience.
BD: All of that
doesn’t make it an occasional piece?
PS: No, it just
means that the premiere is an occasion. It’s got
to be an event. These pieces are huge, and to launch them there should
be a huge fuss.
BD: Is bringing
a major opera to a major opera house too much work?
a lot of work. I can’t say it’s
too much because a lot of people keep doing it and surviving. It’s
hard. I don’t know much else that’s
that hard that I’ve ever gotten to do. It’s
very hard, but it’s worth it.
been dancing around this, so let me ask the big philosophical question.
What is the purpose of opera?
a very large-scale, intensive attempt to represent reality, to say what is
the nature of experience. It comes through all of our senses, and at
the same time it goes beyond them. It exists in time, but our sense
of how that time is moving is frequently ambiguous or fabricated. It
takes a very, very private level of emotion and interior life, and presents
it in a very public arena for a large number of people who are invited inside.
The combination of its big civic profile and the large-scale political implications
of its subject matter, and the idea that singing is actually the
most personal form of expression possible means that you have this fantastic
combination of the inner and the outer worlds held in perfect equipoise to
put forward in the center of a community as a large-scale statement of value.
There’s nothing like it.
BD: You say it
represents reality, and yet so many of these operas are completely unreal.
You’ve got to suspend your disbelief?
PS: It represents
reality in a very religious sense — not a kitchen sink
reality, but what a more exalted view of existence might yield, or what a
deeper look might reflect. People don’t walk
down the street singing, but, of course, they do! It depends on what
level you want to treat, and opera treats the most serious level.
BD: In treating
opera as this serious business, where do you find the balance between the
serious expression and the entertainment value?
PS: Opera should
be entertaining. Like most things, you get farther if you engage people,
so there should be something that really compels people’s
attention, and from time to time check to make sure they’re
awake! I do feel that an audience having a good time is an audience
that’s awake, and that’s important.
Most composers were intent on insuring that their works had high entertainment
values, and it’s irresponsible to produce them in any
other way. There are a lot of slothful productions — which
are, frankly, boring — of pieces which are by no means
boring. It’s one’s job,
as stage director, to come up and meet the piece at its own level.
Wagner considered himself a man of the theater, so it’s
unbearable to him that a section of the piece would be dull. That’s
a little strange to imagine, so you have to go out of your way to actually
try to imagine it. You have to get inside that piece and find out where
its motor is and make sure it’s working.
BD: Are you simply
making sure the motor is working, or are you doing the driving?
PS: You figure
out what the composer had in mind with his audience and how he intended to
BD: Do you try
to impact the audiences of today the same way audiences were impacted 50,
100, 150 years ago?
probably impossible to do it the same way because it’s
a different audience and a different set of social circumstances. On
the other hand, yes, one does search for something that is analogous.
One does search for a way of resuscitating that initial sense of surprise
and that initial sense of direct encounter. So many of these pieces
are so mediated for us by their histories and our awareness of their histories,
that it’s very hard to just experience them with freshness.
We take so many things for granted.
BD: Do you wish
you could take each audience member and erase all their memory of that piece?
PS: No, because
I use what they know of it. That’s actually something
very potent that we can use. We take into account what baggage people
walk in with. You then can address yourself quite specifically to that
baggage, which I enjoy doing. It stimulates and creates the effect
of howling. It’s impossible to do Wagner and
not know that the music was used by the Third Reich. We know that now,
and we can’t listen to that music without knowing it.
It has nothing to do with Wagner, but it’s an association
that has come on later, and you can’t pretend that
it didn’t exist. You can’t
say it didn’t happen because you know that everybody
in the audience knows. So automatically that baggage now comes with
Wagner. Certainly, it was not Wagner’s original
program, but one has to address that if one is doing Wagner. You have
to acknowledge what is around these works — whether
it’s true or false, relevant or irrelevant. The
production has to find a way of sorting that out, and eventually getting
back to the composer. You have to climb over plenty of things to get
BD: When you speak
of baggage, everyone comes with somewhat different baggage. How do
you account for 4000 different awarenesses in a single evening?
PS: One tries for
images that have certain potency that carry beyond parochial levels.
At the same time, the simple answer is that you can’t
account for them all, and I don’t want to. I
love it that there are all these different reactions to a production of mine.
My productions never provoke a monolithic reaction. Everybody has their
own reaction; everybody saw a different show, and I love that. It’s
so interesting, and it’s what gives people something
to talk about afterwards. No two people do see the same show, and I
count on that and I play for that. I really intend to set up most of
my productions so that people have very different experiences on the same
evening. Part of that is just technical — I make
too many things happen at once so you have to decide what you’re
going to look at, and whatever you’re looking at you’re
not looking at something else. Someone else may be looking at that,
and I deliberately set up confusing situations sometimes so that the audience
is making their own choices. I like that. It’s
what separates live theater from TV or film. In television of film,
your gaze is always channeled. You are not consulted; you’re
told where we’re going to look next. What I love
about opera is that your mind wanders, and my job is to set up an interesting
landscape to wander in. No two people come out having smelled the same
clump of flowers.
BD: So they all
go in the same place and come out the same place, but what they do while
inside the maze...
PS: ...is very
diverse, and that’s what’s wonderful.
Obviously, the music is there as a form of communication that hits people
pretty correctly, but again, even there, the beauty of music is its ambiguity.
You can’t quite put musical experiences into words
or describe what it is that’s happening to you.
I love that.
* * *
BD: When you’re
working on a new piece, you have an absolutely clean slate. If you’re
doing a Wagner, for instance, with all its baggage, do you start differently?
PS: With a clean
slate there’s no translation. You don’t
have to spend time de-constructing something or picking it apart to find
what all the pieces are before you put it together again. A new piece
presents itself, and you don’t usually translate it.
It’s in a musical language that you understand, and
most of the audience gets it, too. You don’t
have to explain the music of Nixon in China
by John Adams to most people.
BD: A new Adams
opera, probably, but the same doesn’t hold for a new
PS: Right, but
I would say that a new Stockhausen piece enters the atmosphere not as a reconstruction
of anything, but as its own event in history. You don’t
have to explain it, and whatever it is it just is, and however people react
is how they react, and it will have been that moment in history. With
an old piece, that moment in history occurred 150 years ago, and you’re
constantly trying to grapple with some analogous moment that you’re
trying to recreate at this time, which automatically makes it a kind of big
headache. The new piece you just do it and introduce it. It is
regenerative and it is what it is, and people can like it or not, but it’s
not going to change for them and they can’t accuse
you of misrepresenting it. What’s so wonderful
is that the composer is in the room. There are so many times I’d
like to ask Mozart about this or that detail and find out what is going on!
John Adams or Stockhausen are right there.
BD: When you do
a Mozart opera you don’t feel he’s
there on your shoulder?
PS: No, not really.
I don’t think about him very much. I’m
mostly thinking about the music. I’m thinking,
“What is this music?” I
don’t personify it that often, but there are some constructions
that are just baffling. I have never seen them solved, and I myself
have not solved them. Just a little more information would be wonderful.
When you have the composer and the librettist in the room, information is
one thing you’ve got. It’s
terrific, and it’s so natural. It’s
a real pleasure.
BD: There is nothing special about that one last
enigma you’re not going to solve?
PS: Believe me,
there are plenty even in the new Adams pieces. Far be it from me to
insist that everything be boiled down and grasped. What’s
interesting about Nixon in China
is how much of it is enigmatic while presenting a surface that is immediately
digestible. The librettist, Alice Goodman, can answer me in a way that
I have no idea what she means, and she smiles! [Laughs]
BD: Is this what
you sometimes try to do with the audience — answer with
There it is.
BD: Is Nixon in China too political, or not
PS: I think it’s
about right. I’m very pleased by how it came
BD: Is it an opera
specifically for Democrats?
PS: As the composer
says, it’s an opera for Republicans and Communists.
BD: Did the former
president see it?
PS: Possibly on
video, but he did not see it live in the theater. The world is wondering
about his reaction, but he’s been silent.
BD: Is that disappointing
PS: Not really.
I didn’t think of this opera as being about him personally.
I really thought of it as about America. It’s
about a whole way of thinking, a whole society. I don’t
sit around and fantasize about what his secret life is. Maybe I should.
I’ve never gotten into him as an individual.
BD: Do you sit
around and fantasize about the inner lives of Don Giovanni, or Figaro?
PS: No. I
spend most of my time saying, “What would they do next?”
It’s not your business to get inside anyone else’s
head. Anybody trying that usually ends up embarking on a set of incredibly
BD: I thought it
was the business of the director to get inside the head of the characters
PS: I don’t.
I don’t like to watch people think onstage. I
like to watch people do things. I don’t want
to know what I think Nixon’s thinking. If I can
get Nixon to do the things that Nixon does, then it’s
up to the audience to decide what he’s thinking.
That’s where it gets interesting. If I say, “Nixon
is thinking this,” and stage it accordingly, then it
blots out any possibility of interpretation on the part of the audience.
So I just say, “Here’s a person
who’s done the following things. Now you tell
me what he’s thinking.”
Then it gets interesting, and the range of reaction becomes wonderful.
In theater, psychology is over-rated.
BD: So is your
advice to the actors onstage is just to worry about nothing?
I don’t want people worrying about things. It’s
not useful. I want them to be. I want them to relax and be who
BD: Do you want
them to become the characters, or to portray the characters?
PS: I don’t get into the distinction.
For me to draw that line is already not a particularly helpful process in
a rehearsal room. My way of direction is extremely simple. If
I say, “Go over here, pick up the glass of water and
drink it,” that’s what I expect.
you want to be more than a traffic cop?
PS: In one way
it’s sort of choreography. I do take possession
of people’s bodies because my stagings are elaborately
physical. But I really do feel it is that the following character performs
the following actions, and we can do that. Then to fill in the inner
life of the character is the responsibility of the artist. I’m
happy to participate in that discussion, but it’s hardly
for me to delineate it in any way. I can’t stand
directors who play mind games with the performers and with the audience.
BD: Is all of your
work done in rehearsal, or do you expect a little bit of extra spark on the
night of performance?
one of those people who’s at every performance.
I change the staging every single night. I make adjustments and turn
things around, and when we’ve done it one way, we try
it another to see what that gives us. I’m very
free about that sort of thing. I like what’s onstage
to be precise in a technical, physical sense. That is the same as having
a C-sharp be a C-sharp. The point is made. I feel the same way
about dance. If somebody’s body is in a certain
position and they turn at a certain time in a certain way, the point is made
without any sort of psychological statement having to be issued. That’s
what I like about opera — the available signs are so
potent that you don’t need to get into mere psychology.
BD: Then how do
you balance the music and the drama?
PS: I think the
music always takes priority because music is a more precise language than
words, and is frequently able to be exact, whereas words are approximate.
The words kind of point you, but in an opera, the composer always has the
last word because the text is written first. So, in cases such as Mozart,
you’re in positions where the music absolutely contradicts
the words. So who do you go with? Finally, Mozart.
BD: Do you look
to the conductor so that the tempos are right?
always a discussion. That’s what is wonderful
when you’re working with wonderful collaborators.
It’s a very free discussion, and we try it different
ways to see how it works. Different people have a different inner sense
of it, and we get to this moment where the tempos connect to the meaning,
and we know we’ve got something. It’s
not a question of slower or faster, but it must mean something.
* * *
BD: What advice
do you have for others who would like to direct grand opera?
PS: The main thing
that obsesses me is that people begin to amass a little more visual culture
and a little more musical culture and a little more literary culture.
[Laughs] I wish people who staged operas read more books, and were
really acquainted with the literature and literary devices and literary structure.
That’s so often shortchanged in opera. People
who come from a musical world are staging opera, or they’re
from a show-biz world, but they don’t consider these
pieces as literary forms, which they also are. When dealing with eighteenth-century
opera, for instance, it’s very important to be thinking
of Henry Fielding and Lawrence Dern and Alexander Pope as formal relations.
We need to place a lot of the history of opera in a literary context because
too often it’s viewed in the context of the history
BD: So you’re
looking for audiences in the opera house from the theater rather than from
the concert hall?
PS: Yeah, although one of the things that is so
important when you’re staging opera is the musical
structure, and making that visible. All my life I’ve
had the example of Balanchine making the music visible. He’s
staged works that I couldn’t possibly listen to, and
by looking at his work I can finally hear the score. That’s
what you want to offer the audience.
BD: But in Handel’s
day, the emphasis was clearly on pure vocal beauty, and to hell with drama
except to get the voices on and off the stage to sing.
PS: You have to
make a distinction between what a composer imagines when he writes a piece,
and what the limitations of the theatrical form of their day are. I
would hate to limit Handel to the maddeningly unambitious early eighteenth-century
British stage, where literally it was a theater of machines —
not unlike our Broadway of today. Everything was a retread.
Real tragedy was not possible, and they had to rewrite King Lear with a happy ending.
To hold a composer of the ambition and profundity of Handel hostage to the
lack of ambition of his theatrical contemporaries is also not fair.
One has to realize that there is a level where the music rises above everything
seen on the stage during his time.
BD: OK, let me
go the other direction. Are we limiting someone such as John Adams
by having permanent audio and video recordings of the production so anyone
can see exactly what was done with the composer present?
I’m the first person who wants additional productions
of Nixon. Every new opera
that I produce makes me want the second production. Some have been
done in Germany and were very different from mine, and I’m
very pleased with that. The composers have been horrified because they
preferred mine [laughs], so I tell them that they no longer own the opera.
Others will do all kinds of things to their works, and that’s
what gives it life. That’s what’s
BD: So the composer
and librettist live, and the director comes in, does his work, and then dies?
BD: Do you like
being a comet?
You accept early on that you are a second-class creator. The first-class
creators are those who start with an empty piece of paper. Where there
was nothing, they make something.
BD: Yet you go
to the theater and the billing is, “Peter Sellars’
Nixon in China composed
by John Adams.”
PS: We try to avoid
that, but in Paris it was billed as “Mozart/Sellars.”
I just have to say, “Puh-leeze!”
At the same time, you look at almost any point in the history of theatrical
playbills, and you’ll see the same thing. For
about a century, you couldn’t even find the author’s
names. At least we credit them now. But their fame is enduring
and ours is fading, so I guess ours take everything they can. [Laughs]
BD: Is the director
getting too much power these days? That’s been
a somewhat constant complaint recently.
PS: In a decadent
period in the history of opera, it’s only logical that
the attention is focused on the side-shows. As soon as the repertory
consists mostly of new pieces, believe me, the focus will go right back to
the music where it should be. For the first half of this century, there
was this aberrant focus on the conductor, and for the last part of the century
there is an aberrant focus on the stage-director, and all the way there has
been a certain aberrant focus on certain star singers. Frankly, the
reason we’re all there is the music and the text.
That’s where I’d just as soon
the focus be. Everything that I do is just about trying to get close
to those two items.
* * *
BD: Why the special
interest in Wagner? What about him piques your imagination?
PS: I have a very
complex relationship with Wagner because I distrust him. I distrust
the material. I distrust Wagner, and I hate that he has such control
over me. I hate that it’s so compelling.
The greater the opera, the more abhorrent the message. I find it morally
extremely complex. On the other hand, the Ring and Tristan each fascinate me. I have
to say that I think those are the great achievement. I’m
dying to do the Ring and I will
do it probably in this decade. You’re the first
person I’ve admitted that to publicly! I always
pretend that I hate it, but it interests me and I listened to it recently
BD: How do you
see the Ring?
PS: Well, I don’t
know. That’s one of the hardest things.
There are lots of operas I have productions fully-formed in my mind and ready
to go, but for the Ring I have a
couple of images, but I really don’t know. Those
are pieces I wouldn’t know how if I had to stage them
BD: So if a manager says he’d
like to stage a Ring sometime when
you’re ready for it, how much time are we waiting?
PS: Five years.
I really need to just soak in it for awhile. These things don’t
come fast. I spent ten years on these Mozart operas. After awhile,
they got good, but it took a long time.
BD: Are they still
had to stop. We reached a point, and we wanted to stop before any decline
set in. You want to remember them wonderfully and not say, “Oh
if only you’d seen it two years ago.”
So we got them to a point where we were very happy, and they’re
filmed and they’ll be available in stores and on PBS.
So that will be great.
BD: Might you let
Mozart go for 10 or 15 years and then perhaps come back to it?
PS: Exactly right.
Right now I’m completing The Magic Flute for Glyndebourne, and
that will mean I’ve done the four big Mozart operas,
which is fine for one decade.
BD: You stage it
for the theater. Do you like knowing people will be in their living
rooms or at the corner tavern watching your work on a little box?
PS: The videos
are very hard. I’m very conflicted about them
because there you’re in the middle of all kinds of
moral contradictions. You’re right, these things
are meant to live onstage, and that’s the basis of
my productions. They’re contemporary, they’re
up to the minute, so five minutes later they are dated. At the moment
they’re done, they are perfect. Five years from
now will anyone remember most of the references? I doubt it, and every
time I would revise the operas, I would change things. An Oliver North
joke one time became, two years later, flag burning. So in the video,
it’s stuck as flag burning forever. Ten years
from now will people remember what an issue flag burning became during the
past ten years in America? Maybe, maybe not. And will people
elsewhere in the world know about it? I don’t
know that either.
BD: Perhaps the
collapse of the Berlin Wall might be remembered much longer, and be known
more universally if you did or will use that kind of thing.
The operas themselves are filled with local references which nobody gets
now, but the opera still functions. In Don Giovanni, Mozart makes reference
to a favorite cook in Prague, or all kinds of other ‘in’
jokes like the operas that get quoted musically. For that audience,
everybody knew that Martin y Soler was being made fun of, and so on.
Do we really understand them today? We hear tunes but don’t
know what they mean. I think of my productions a bit the same way.
Years later, some of the references will be just mystifying, but people will
enjoy them at face value.
BD: Should you
issue a little booklet of footnotes?
I write the most elaborate program notes of anybody in the world.
BD: One last question.
Is directing fun?
PS: Yes, it’s
thrilling. You’re in the room with the most interesting
people in the world. What you get to do is invite people with tremendous
talent to be in a room with you for six weeks. I’m
constantly surrounded by people who are more interesting than I am.
It’s a very heady atmosphere, and you have a great
time. It’s a wonderful life.
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© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Evanston, Illinois, on February
16, 1990. This transcription was made and published in The Opera Journal in June of 1992.
It was slightly re-edited and posted on this website in 2017.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website,
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie
was with WNIB,
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