[Note: This interview was originally published in The Opera Journal in June,
1992. Photos and links have been added for this website
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 . . . . .
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
Frequently, 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
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
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.
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
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
treating opera as this serious business, where do you find the balance
between the serious expression and the entertainment value?
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
BD: Are you
simply making sure the motor is working, or are you doing the driving?
figure out what the composer had in mind with his audience and how he
intended to impact them.
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
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 there.
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...
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
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
BD: A new
Adams opera, probably, but the same doesn’t hold
for a new Stockhausen piece.
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?
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!
BD: Is this
what you sometimes try to do with the audience — answer
with a smile?
[Smiling] There it is.
BD: Is Nixon in China too political, or
not political enough?
PS: I think it’s
about right. I’m very pleased by how it
BD: Is it an
opera specifically for Democrats?
PS: As the
composer says, it’s an opera for Republicans and
Communists. [More laughter]
BD: Did the
former president see it?
on video, but he did not see it live in the theater. The world is
wondering about his reaction, but he’s been
BD: Is that
disappointing to you?
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
BD: Do you
sit around and fantasize about the inner lives of Don Giovanni, or
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 presumptuous assumptions.
BD: I thought
it was the business of the director to get inside the head of the
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?
Right. 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 they are.
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
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
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.
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 of music.
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?
Right. 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?
Yeah. 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
BD: Yet you
go to the theater and the billing is, “Peter
Sellars’ Nixon in China composed by John
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
BD: Why the
special interest in Wagner? What about him piques your
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 again.
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 tomorrow.
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?
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 getting better?
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?
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?
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
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.
Right. 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
you issue a little booklet of footnotes?
[Laughs] I write the most elaborate program notes of anybody in
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, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
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You are invited to visit his website
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