Over the life of this blog I have been trying to figure out the director Peter Sellars, and after all these years I want to try to do a full essay on him. It turns out there are two of him: Peter Sellars the opera director and Peter Sellars the librettist. He has directed other things not opera, but this discussion will limit itself to Peter Sellars in the classical music world. He is America's foremost representative of the Regietheater movement.
To briefly review, the principles of Regietheater involve:
- moving the action to another time period, including costumes which usually look modern
- more sex than strictly necessary
- creating an interpretation that emphasizes modern day issues.
Peter Sellars the Regisseur of other people's operasI am attempting to reconstruct my own experience of his work and find this hard going for the operas staged before the beginning of this blog. I now believe that my experience of his stagings began with the 1987 PBS presentation of John Adams' Nixon in China with Alice Goodman as the librettist. I especially enjoyed the comic Henry Kissinger. Who knew Nixon was funny? I liked Madame Mao's aria, the play within a play and the portrayal of Pat Nixon. I enjoyed its proximity to real life. The time frame is not changed because it's already modern. (film)
It might be important to remember that as an undergraduate he did a puppet version of The Ring.
My next experience with the work of Peter Sellars the opera director probably dated from his 1990 filming of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy which played on PBS. In the Sellars' Don Giovanni we are among the American urban lower class in the 60s. People shoot drugs and sniff cocaine. You may and probably should view this here, here, and here. I should probably watch it again myself for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Donna Elvira if nothing else. Leporello and the Don are played by twin brothers. At the time it was very shocking and caused an enormous stink. But isn't that the problem with Don Giovanni? That it just isn't shocking enough. The other two operas in the trilogy were not nearly this shocking.
So I did. You should too. Lorraine is fabulous, but what else could she be? The filming is a bit heavy on the close ups but otherwise completely brilliant. When these guys act like they will kill one another, you believe them. Every scene rings true. How often does that happen? There is a lot of kissing and snuggling but no fake sex. The hero strips down to his briefs a couple of times. At the end, after the Don has descended to hell, it appears that the sun has begun to rise. This is actually more timely today than when it was originally done. (film)
I attended a performance of Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer, libretto by Alice Goodman at San Francisco Opera in 1992, shortly after its premier. When the opera was withdrawn from the HD season in 2014 for political reasons, I discussed it in the blog. It was trying to be even handed about a terrorist attack, which I found difficult. One side are terrorists, the other tourists. What's even about that? The direction by Sellars was not remarkable. (live)
L'Amour de Loin ("Love from afar,") (2000) Music by Kaija Saariaho, seen later in 2005 on a DVD from Finland, was also directed by Sellars with a kind of mysterious simplicity. I simply wanted to see and hear this work. A shallow pond of water representing the Mediterranean Sea covered the stage, and on each side was a winding metal staircase. On the left staircase was Dawn Upshaw in France, and on the right was Gerald Finley in Lebanon. A messenger in a boat brings their communications back and forth. I found everything about this fascinating, including the music and the fabulous singing stars. The story comes from the mythical past, but everything here seems modern. It was a deep and wonderful experience. (film)
My next encounter with Sellars wearing only his director hat was Vivaldi's Griselda at Santa Fe. I also attended his lecture here and agreed with him that Griselda is a terrible opera. The most notable thing here was that the always smiling Isabel Leonard never smiled once. They look rather like people from the 60s. I don't know if this opera could be saved. How about staging it like Platée with a man in the title character? (live)
After all these years of hearing about but always missing it, I came upon Peter Sellars direction of Bach's Saint Matthew Passion from Berlin. A religious work became a ritual, an aspect of religion that cannot be disparaged, at least not by me. I was deeply moved by this enhancement to a long loved work. The wonderful musical performance also helped. A glimmer of light began to appear. (film)
Then in 2017 came Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito from Salzburg. This story about ancient Rome became a modern racial encounter. The encounter was emphasized through the use of cast members who belonged to the suggested races. Sellars added some other music (which he also did in Griselda) from a mass by Mozart to enhance the sad parts. I found this entire production profoundly beautiful. Two home runs in a row. How was I to explain this? It made me think that he is actually capable of the truly profound and should work harder. As usual, the costumes are modern. I saw as never before that this was an opera about forgiveness and reconciliation. It may possibly be Mozart's greatest opera. (film)
I followed my curiosity over to an easily available film of Handel's Theodora from Glyndebourne in 1996. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Dawn Upshaw are also in this. It turned out to be a much earlier example of his true gift: the portrayal of large, significant issues. This is an oratorio with a story rather than an opera, and consists of a lot of very beautiful music suitably staged in modern settings. I recommend it. (film)
Can I write about stagings I have not seen? After his wildly popular, at least in Europe, Mozart-da Ponte trilogy, he staged Saint François d'Assise by Olivier Messiaen at Salzburg in 1992. There's a film about this but not of it. He says, "Anything that finally matters doesn't appear in the plot synopsis. So this history of staging the plot synopsis is one of the things that has made opera so intellectually inert and dull and expressively limited. And opera becomes incredibly expressive just as soon as you forget about the story and try and stage the music." I would go with a statement that said: what does this opera express? Stage that.
Don Giovanni expresses exploitative sexuality; Nixon is just people out of their context; Klinghoffer expresses that terrorists are people, too; L'Amour is about love conquering all; Griselda is about men treating women badly, or maybe it's just about singing; Matthew Passion is about the life and death of Jesus; Clemenza is about forgiveness; Theodora is about the life and death of a Christian; Saint François is basically the same with vastly more complex music. Clearly the staging works best where the message is clearest. You may feel free to hate my simplified summaries.
This vision statement I quoted above may explain everything. I think if you are staging an existing opera, you need to focus on enhancing its musical expression within the delineated characters. But generally when you are composing an opera, the libretto is usually slightly ahead of the music. There must be a vision of the opera before the composer can write it. That's my idea anyway.
Great things: Mozart La Clemenza di Tito, Handel Theodora, Bach Matthew Passion, Iolanta / Perséphone
Hits: Saariaho L'Amour de Loin, Mozart Don Giovanni, Nixon (1st)
So so: Mozart Figaro, Giulio Cesare
Misses:Vivaldi Griselda, Adams The Death of Klinghoffer, Nixon (2nd)
This is an excellent record for any director. I will add to this list where I can. Next is Giulio Cesare. Clearly he follows the first rule of Regietheater: everyone will wear post WWII clothing. Stuff you can buy in a department store or thrift store. They will look like people you know. This is key.
There is one thing that he does that I can think of no one else who does. Claus Guth took all the spoken dialog out of Fidelio and replaced it with groans and sound effects, but he left the music alone. We are living in the era of reconstructing old scores to accurately represent their eras and original condition. Doctor Gossett called this a critical edition. Peter Sellars consistently changes the score, sometimes adding from somewhere else, sometimes cutting sections, in order to reflect his vision. Academicians will object to this, especially the adding part.
Peter Sellars the Librettist and regisseur of his own operasWhich brings us to the other Peter Sellars, the librettist. After the stink that surrounded The Death of Klinghoffer, Alice Goodman abandoned her career as an opera librettist, or it abandoned her. Her libretto for Nixon in China was very successful, but no one was willing to forgive Klinghoffer. She began working on Doctor Atomic with Adams, but withdrew after a while. Adams was used to working with Peter Sellars by then, and he took over the task of librettist.
As a librettist, it is not possible to add or subtract from the score or the original theatrical concept because one is the person creating it. One may do what one wishes.
The John Adams/Peter Sellars operas are El Nino (2000), Doctor Atomic (2005), and Girls of the Golden West (2017).
I began blogging about his direction with the premier of John Adams' Doctor Atomic at the San Francisco Opera in 2005 where Sellars wore both librettist and director hats. Some of the work was done by Alice Goodman, but she bailed somewhere around mid way. Perhaps around the beginning of Act II. Added to this trio of collaborators was the boss Pamela Rosenberg who thought of it as a Faust play. I think it is this mish mash of influences that muddies the plot here.
Other people's ideas about Faust seem to be different from my own. It's true that Faust was an intellectual, a scientist, but his soul was clearly not threatened by this fact. It was threatened by the fact that in old age he began to regret wasting his life with serious efforts instead of having fun. The devil immediately pops in to offer other activities that might attract his attention. In short: science is the good path, seducing women and debauchery is the path to hell. Please, Faust, take one of these and love it. Wearing lab coats is irrelevant. But this is a side issue. Apparently Rosenberg did not win the argument.
For me the production was a bomb hanging in the air, a bomb which looked nothing like the photos of the bombs that were dropped on Japan. Contrary to my comments, the bomb used in the production looked just like the experimental version of the bomb that was exploded in New Mexico. I ranted, "I attended Peter Sellars' lecture before Doctor Atomic where he enthusiastically raved over what a great opera it is and what a great production he had invented. I don't care if the opera sells when you're talking about it. I don't care if part of it came from John Donne. I only care if it plays while I'm watching it. Do the characters matter? Does the drama draw me in? Or is it all BS?" I got carried away. (live)
In the first half people came out and spoke to the air. The first part of the opera was OK if somewhat static, but the entire second half was empty. We waited and waited, and there wasn’t even an explosion at the end. This was supposed to represent time moving slower and faster, but remember I am the person who never reads the program before. If that's what it means, show me.
My next encounter was with a film of another John Adams work: El Nino (2000), also with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Dawn Upshaw, which I reviewed in 2006. I couldn't stand how the film switched constantly from filming the performers and showing still pictures of other people. I rejected it for its film direction, but it is also a work where Peter Sellars wears both librettist and director hats. I really wanted to see this but could not stand looking at it. A live performance would probably have been easier to deal with. Even a split screen would have been better. I offer no opinion of the work itself. (film)
Doctor Atomic was significantly changed when it played at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008. This version was directed by Penny Woodcock. The empty act II was filled out with action. So here Sellars wore only the librettist hat. I am still unclear about the meaning of this opera. What does it mean that a man reads John Donne who searches for God while simultaneously developing the largest bomb ever seen on earth, a bomb destined to kill thousands in Japan. This is the story I wanted to see and did not. I wanted to see the conflict of good and evil.
This season I saw in San Francisco Girls of the Golden West . The text is yet again assembled around a structure provided by letters of Louise Clappe with the pen name Dame Shirley. There are many other sources. I was again missing a sense of clear narrative, though this doesn't seem to have been fatal. Dame Shirley is telling stories about her experiences during the gold rush, which is a kind of narrative.
If there are other operas by John Adams on librettos by Peter Sellars, I have not seen or reviewed them. I didn't get the impression from anything I have read or heard about these works that Peter Sellars actually wrote any of the words sung from the stage. I believe he only selects and assembles them. So if you get the impression that no one is speaking to anyone else, it's because the words came from something written down by people not named Peter Sellars and never attempts to simulate conversation. Glass successfully writes operas in Sanskrit and ancient Egyptian and still does not make you feel lost without a sense of narrative.
What does this opera express? Then include structures and text that accomplish that.
You may also have noticed that the narrative never quite gels. An Oratorio like Messiah can be assembled, but no staging is implied. Assembling a text in English, generally the language of the audience, made up of literary texts never intended to represent conversation or action is a problem. No amount of moving people around is going to make up for the fact that the words were never intended to be theater. For me this requires that the action be absolutely clear.
Clearly Mr. Sellars' operas haven't given me the sense of genius that his work on other people's operas have.