[Note: This interview was originally published in The Opera Journal in June, 1992.  Photos and links have been added for this website presentation.]

Conversation  Piece:
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 thats where we pick up the conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Is being a theater director too maddening?

Peter Sellars:    It
s been so long since Ive gotten to work in theater.  Ive been doing opera for three years now almost exclusively, and Im going to do a movie this summer.  Of course Ive 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 youll turn aside?

PS:    Frequently, I
m in a position to initiate a project which is very great.  Im 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?

PS:    It
s 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, its just right for all of those.  The whole art of placing these things is so that theyre done in a situation where everyone is getting a wonderful experience.

BD:    What is it that makes a wonderful experience?

PS:    It
s 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 theyre 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?

PS:    It
s a lot of work.  I cant say its too much because a lot of people keep doing it and surviving.  Its hard.  I dont know much else thats that hard that Ive ever gotten to do.  Its very hard, but its worth it.

BD:    We
ve been dancing around this, so let me ask the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of opera?

PS:    It
s 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.  Theres 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 dont 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 theyre awake!  I do feel that an audience having a good time is an audience thats awake, and thats important.  Most composers were intent on insuring that their works had high entertainment values, and its irresponsible to produce them in any other way.  There are a lot of slothful productionswhich are, frankly, boringof pieces which are by no means boring.  Its ones job, as stage director, to come up and meet the piece at its own level.  Wagner considered himself a man of the theater, so its unbearable to him that a section of the piece would be dull.  Thats 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 its 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 impact them.

BD:    Do you try to impact the audiences of today the same way audiences were impacted 50, 100, 150 years ago?

PS:    It
s probably impossible to do it the same way because its 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 its 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.  Its impossible to do Wagner and not know that the music was used by the Third Reich.  We know that now, and we cant listen to that music without knowing it.  It has nothing to do with Wagner, but its an association that has come on later, and you cant pretend that it didnt exist.  You cant say it didnt happen because you know that everybody in the audience knows.  So automatically that baggage now comes with Wagner.  Certainly, it was not Wagners original program, but one has to address that if one is doing Wagner.  You have to acknowledge what is around these workswhether its 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 dont 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.  Its so interesting, and its 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 technicalI make too many things happen at once so you have to decide what youre going to look at, and whatever youre looking at youre 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.  Its what separates live theater from TV or film.  In television of film, your gaze is always channeled.  You are not consulted; youre told where were 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 whats 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 cant quite put musical experiences into words or describe what it is thats happening to you.  I love that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you
re working on a new piece, you have an absolutely clean slate.  If youre doing a Wagner, for instance, with all its baggage, do you start differently?

PS:    With a clean slate there
s no translation.  You dont 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 dont usually translate it.  Its in a musical language that you understand, and most of the audience gets it, too.  You dont 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 Stockhausen piece.

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 youre constantly trying to grapple with some analogous moment that youre 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 its not going to change for them and they cant accuse you of misrepresenting it.  Whats so wonderful is that the composer is in the room.  There are so many times Id 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 hes there on your shoulder?

PS:    No, not really.  I don
t think about him very much.  Im mostly thinking about the music.  Im thinking, What is this music?  I dont 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 youve got.  Its terrific, and its so natural.  Its a real pleasure.

sellars 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 a smile?

PS:    [Smiling]  There it is.

BD:    Is Nixon in China too political, or not political enough?

PS:    I think it
s about right.  Im very pleased by how it came about.

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?

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 to you?

PS:    Not really.  I didn
t think of this opera as being about him personally.  I really thought of it as about America.  Its about a whole way of thinking, a whole society.  I dont sit around and fantasize about what his secret life is.  Maybe I should.  Ive 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?  Its not your business to get inside anyone elses 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 characters onstage.

PS:    I don
t.  I dont like to watch people think onstage.  I like to watch people do things.  I dont want to know what I think Nixons thinking.  If I can get Nixon to do the things that Nixon does, then its up to the audience to decide what hes thinking.  Thats 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, Heres a person whos done the following things.  Now you tell me what hes 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?

PS:    Right.  I don
t want people worrying about things.  Its 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?

sellars 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, thats what I expect.

BD:    Don
t you want to be more than a traffic cop?

PS:    In one way it
s sort of choreography.  I do take possession of peoples 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.  Im happy to participate in that discussion, but its hardly for me to delineate it in any way.  I cant 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?

PS:    I
m one of those people whos at every performance.  I change the staging every single night.  I make adjustments and turn things around, and when weve done it one way, we try it another to see what that gives us.  Im very free about that sort of thing.  I like whats 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 somebodys 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.  Thats what I like about opera — the available signs are so potent that you dont 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?

PS:    It
s always a discussion.  Thats what is wonderful when youre working with wonderful collaborators.  Its 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 weve got something.  Its 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 theyre from a show-biz world, but they dont consider these pieces as literary forms, which they also are.  When dealing with eighteenth-century opera, for instance, its 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 its 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?

sellars 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 Ive had the example of Balanchine making the music visible.  Hes staged works that I couldnt possibly listen to, and by looking at his work I can finally hear the score.  Thats 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.

[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with Dawn Upshaw and William Christie.]

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?

PS:    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 Im 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 thats what gives it life.  Thats whats wonderful.

BD:    So the composer and librettist live, and the director comes in, does his work, and then dies?

PS:    Right.

BD:    Do you like being a comet?

PS:    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 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 youll see the same thing.  For about a century, you couldnt even find the authors 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 were all there is the music and the text.  Thats where Id 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.  Im dying to do the Ring and I will do it probably in this decade.  Youre the first person Ive 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.  Thats 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 dont know.  Those are pieces I wouldnt know how if I had to stage them tomorrow.

sellars BD:    So if a manager says he
d like to stage a Ring sometime when youre 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 getting better?

PS:    I
ve 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 youd seen it two years ago.  So we got them to a point where we were very happy, and theyre filmed and theyll 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 Ive 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 youre in the middle of all kinds of moral contradictions.  Youre right, these things are meant to live onstage, and thats the basis of my productions.  Theyre contemporary, theyre up to the minute, so five minutes later they are dated.  At the moment theyre 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, its 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 dont 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.

PS:    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 dont 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?

PS:    [Laughs]  I write the most elaborate program notes of anybody in the world.

BD:    One last question.  Is directing fun?

PS:    Yes, it
s thrilling.  Youre 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.  Im constantly surrounded by people who are more interesting than I am.  Its a very heady atmosphere, and you have a great time.  Its 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.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.