Peter Sellars: Great to see you, Marc. And how's everything going? I mean, how are you feeling?
Marc A. Scorca: Well, you know, it has been an incredibly challenging couple of years, and yet I am so inspired by the amount of inventiveness and initiative, especially by artists to continue to express creatively, even when they weren't able to be on stage, so I am deeply inspired and hope we don't just snap back to what was, because what was, wasn't good enough.
Peter Sellars: Your eloquence is undeniable and, can I just say, I think as always, when things get tough, human beings come up with amazing new approaches and new things that need to happen, and the old stuff was great in its time, but the time has changed. And we have lots of memories of fantastic things, but there's a new set of things to do right now. And the world needs something else.
Marc A. Scorca: Yeah. And we, as individuals, I think, need something else. I'm a big believer in the concept of repotting yourself. Just as you need to repot a plant, you do need to pick yourself up, and put yourself into fresh soil every so often.
Peter Sellars: Yeah. Or in fact, don't plant yourself in a pot, but plant yourself in the earth.
Marc A. Scorca: Well said. Peter Sellers, thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today. You know, we started this oral history project back before COVID, as part of our 50th anniversary celebration and the project was interrupted, but we've picked it back up, and we are so delighted to add you to the luminaries - very much at the top of that list - for this oral history project. Thank you, sir.
Peter Sellars: Other way, Marc. And can I just say thank you for serious leadership. Thank you for serious vision. Thank you for moving everybody to the next place, and making that possible, cuz what people need is encouragement. These are hard times, and you're providing encouragement and you're modeling really beautiful possibilities for people. Thank you so much.
Marc A. Scorca: Well, it's a team effort, as you know. I start every interview with the same question and this one is: Peter Sellars, who brought you to your first opera?
Peter Sellars: Wow. Okay. You know, I first started hearing opera on records. So I really imagined these incredible things from early records that I had, like Thomas Beecham's version of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, and I was staging it all in my mind, and it was super exciting. And so when I actually finally got to an opera, it was a little boring. I thought, "Wait a minute. All these amazing things were going on that I was imagining when I was hearing the recordings". And so, what I have to say was amazing was: I was going to school in Massachusetts, and so what was happening was Sarah Caldwell was making these incredible, crazy productions of crazy repertoire. And so early on, the repertoire that I was exposed to was very, very progressive, very interesting - and at that time, revolutionary. She was the first person (in the US) to do Les Troyens and to do Nono's Intolleranza and Lulu...
Marc A. Scorca: Benvenuto Cellini...
Peter Sellars: I mean, so all these wild things. So that was wonderful to see opera in a very, very, very progressive frame of mind and a repertoire that was constantly challenging. And there were certain performers that came and worked with Sarah every year, like Shirley Verrett, who you just went, "That's what the art form is". And so that was super exhilarating. And when I was 18, my mother moved our family to Paris, and so I saw the Paris Opera in a great moment, a great era of total avant garde, and it was very, very, very inspiring to see some of Patrice Chéreau's first productions, and of course, to hear that amazing Giorgio Strehler Figaro, conducted by Solti. The young José van Dam and the young Teresa Stratas as Figaro and Susanna and the young Teresa Berganza as Cherubino. And you go, "Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh". And it's all done with such care and such fantastic humor and such sharp edge and just very, very beautiful, very inspiring. So I had a lot of early fantastic experiences.
Marc A. Scorca: I wanna pick up on a few things you just said, Peter. So, when you're talking about vinyl and some of your cast and early performances, you imagined staging, and I'm fascinated by that experience. I just listened to the music; you were listening and imagining staging. Is that what I heard you say?
Peter Sellars: Yes. I apprenticed at a marionette theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania starting at the age of 10, the Lovelace Marionettes. And for most puppet shows, the kids wanna hear music. And so I grew up staging things to music and all of the Lovelace Marionette shows had incredible music, that were part of the shows. And then they did puppet shows for adults using the French surrealists. So they did Jean Cocteau's Wedding on the Eiffel Tower. So I was early on, brought up in this atmosphere of Stravinsky and the French surrealists, and also that music itself was theatrical. Public theater was all about miracles and surprising transformations and people flying or descending from the sky - all those phenomenal things that, of course, opera is about: this magical, profound metaphysical level that is constantly opening the possibilities of life.
Marc A. Scorca: When did you connect with the possibility of opera as your primary medium of creative expression? Was it after seeing Sarah Caldwell and work in Paris? Was it watching marionette theater and listening to records at home? When did you feel that opera was going to be how you expressed yourself?
Peter Sellars: I think because my life is involved with so many elements - theater of course, but film and visual art, and architecture and dance and a lot of community projects where art is part of the fabric of life itself. So for me, my connection to opera isn't just in the sense of the official opera repertory, or opera houses. I actually haven't worked in that many opera houses in my life. It's more the kind of festivals and things that I've done. Opera is where all the art forms meet. And so it was this logical meeting place for working with painters, for working with architects, for working with great writers, for working with musicians and working with dancers. Opera was the space that we could all meet in, and had that thrilling anthropological root system that was going back to African villages and Korean rituals for the dead and Aboriginal gatherings in the desert, in the middle of a solstice for a dawn. Opera's that place that is so deep for what it means to be alive and be human, and at the same time, be trying to touch the edges of infinity and the universe. And so I think of it as the continuation...you know, that the big opera houses are opposite city hall in the major cities. You are in this place that is civic. The Greeks invented it as a maintenance system for democracy, realizing that democracy needs to be maintained and attended to every day, like feeding your kids. How do you keep democracy alive and healthy? Opera. And so the Greeks realized you had to tell stories that were tragic, that were unbearable, that there are all these things we're not doing well as a society, or even as families, or even as individuals. And you have to make a space to talk about the things you can't even talk about in your own family. You can't talk about, because you don't wanna face those things, and you need to face those things with music, poetry, dance, and beauty, because that's the only way we can deal with this stuff. And if you don't deal with it, you're in trouble. And so opera is this urgent life support system, is this urgent maintenance system for democracy. It has all these incredibly deep, deep, deep root systems that are about how do we keep a society alive and healthy and morally...in focus and in tune. And that idea of this collaborative project that involves the person pulling the curtain and the oboe player and, and, and, and the person sewing the costumes. We're doing something that takes a whole society to create, because we're trying to address a whole society.
Marc A. Scorca: So magnificently said, and every time I hear you speak, you just awaken so many ideas, so beautifully expressed. At Harvard, sort of your first opera foray was a puppet version of the Ring Cycle. And I now understand from the marionette theater, how looking at a puppet version was a really natural outgrowth of your childhood expressiveness. Suddenly I get that. And then Antony and Cleopatra in a swimming pool, and what fascinates me (a) the creativity. But the second piece is that you jumped in with two monumental works: the Ring Cycle and Antony and Cleopatra. So no timid college student, you. What made you...or were you just too young to think about the fact that you were tackling two of the monumental works of Western civilization?
Peter Sellars: No, no. I mean, I was obsessed with Stravinsky. I grew up with Stravinsky on the mind in high school. I did, for six months, Soldier's Story. I was obsessed with Stravinsky and in college, I had a huge argument with a composer who said, "No, no, Wagner Wagner". And of course I thought Wagner was horrifying, 'cause I believed in Stravinsky - that was the mother's milk, and so you couldn't have the two coexisting. And then every summer I had a children's theater in Denver, Colorado, the Elitch Theater for Children. And then, one summer...we were performing (for) the entire summer five shows a day in Larimer Square in downtown Denver. And the rather brilliant woman who was one of the first people to restore older parts of cities and bring them back - amazing Dana Crawford. She said, "Would you come down and just do five shows a day, downtown in this restored part of Denver, Colorado that we're bringing back. And we were three blocks from what was literally billed as the largest Woolworth's in the world. And we thought, "We've gotta do something grand for this situation". And meanwhile, part of my group was this composer who was obsessed with Wagner. And so I said, "Okay, let's check out Wagner; let's do the Ring Cycle", and so the rainbow bridge came from the fourth floor men's room of an adjacent office building and all of that stuff, and we just set downtown Denver alive with this thing. And then I realized you couldn't cut a note of Wagner as soon as I had to cut each opera to an hour. It was very, very moving and I took it really seriously. And there was some comedy, as there has to be in Wagner, but also a lot of pathos. So bizarrely people were coming from Seattle. People were coming from all over the place to see this Ring Cycle in the street in downtown Denver. And then when I went back to Cambridge, we did it indoors at Harvard, but it was born in the street, and it was born for passers-by. There was no admission charge; you just showed up. And so the Valkyries were coming from way down the street. It was this whole scene. And we did it with six people, and it was very exciting and ambitious and thrilling. And of course it gave me a lifelong love of Wagner. And at the same time, that sense that Wagner's project was informed by the imagination of Greek theater of what are the tales we have to tell each other? To talk about what we're doing, and how we're doing it, and how we could do it. And what are we doing with all this? What's the obsession with money, and all that stuff that is like right there. And when you're a teenager, that stuff is so to the point. And so we made a version of it that was very, very real and very moving - at the same time done with puppets. And so it had this freedom to it, as it were.
Marc A. Scorca: Sure. You mentioned Sarah Caldwell, and I always like following the paths of people. I only met and spoke to Sarah once - an extended time, but only once. Did you know her, and you've spoken about her creativity, what was she like?
Peter Sellars: She was impossible. She was crazy. She did not like me in any way. It was very irritating to her. On the other hand, I did work with her. We did our Julius Caesar in her season one year. And so, we got to see each other. For me, what was beautiful was her constant thirst for works that hadn't been done yet. So to be around for the first Soldaten, the first Lulu, the first Ruslan and Ludmila. I mean, on and on and on...these beautiful operas that she would bring to life in her crazy way. And I knew a lot of the musicians who played in the orchestra. I knew a lot of the people in the chorus 'cause I was working at Emmanuel Church in Boston and my years in Boston were really focused more in Emmanuel Church, with the ensemble there because they did a Bach cantata every Sunday. And so we were going through the complete cycle of Bach cantatas, and that was the real learning curve, because Bach was music that was about a 12 step program for people who were in trouble, and how you put your life back together and how you talk someone down off a bridge, and that's what music did. Bach was about saying, "Okay, this is your drinking problem. This is why you can't look at yourself". All those cantatas were about that. And then we did the Mozart operas, on their spare time, and we rehearsed them in the library of the church. And so it was this idea that, again, I've said it before, it was something in Emmanuel Church to work on Don Giovanni, in a place that had three chapters of AA and a chapter of NA, and you're staging Don Giovanni, and this smoke from the AA meeting downstairs is coming up through the floor and meanwhile there was a Salvadorian underground railroad refugee program. There was a shelter for battered women, and you're in the same building staging act two of The Marriage of Figaro, and you get why the Countess doesn't appear before noon, and you get that there's a lot of violence that she tries not to mention. And you see what Mozart invests that clarinet solo with. And you see the winds are there for everything that we are not able to say. So staging those operas in that context where they were feeding people who are living on the street, you realize that opera, of course, is food. Opera is how do we feed people? How do we feed people in the deepest parts of their beings where they're very hungry?
Marc A. Scorca: In that remarkable description, Peter, you mentioned both Julius Caesar (Handel) with Sarah and then the Mozart operas. And you have such accomplishment in the works of the 18th century: the Mozart/Beaumarchais trilogy and Handel operas. What is it about the Handel works and the Mozart works that make them so available for connection to our world today?
Peter Sellars: I think that the 19th century was this time of grand empire, and you have to take most of those things for granted if you're doing 19th century opera of like, yes, empire is what we're here to celebrate. And we're in a period where we don't really wanna celebrate empire; we realize that was a wrong turn for most things in our culture. And we're left with financial and social and political systems that are not appealing and actually have had dire results in many cases.
And so the 18th century is, first of all, this moment of the 'enlightenment', where there's this idea of people saying, "What else can we do? Are there other structures?" Which is what Mozart operas are about; that's the French revolution. Could we have another structure? Because we're dealing with structural violence; we're dealing with structural levels of inequality that are just unacceptable. And so Mozart was saying, "Okay, inequality, I'm going to break through in this opera. I'm gonna break through every time I write a string quartet; it's about these four people are equal. And now I'm gonna make that quartet human beings in Idomeneo; human beings in The Marriage of Figaro; in Don Giovanni" - that suddenly, a quartet, which is the structure of equality in music, became a structure of equality in the world. So for me, this 18th century material was - well, not all of it - but God knows Mozart.
And Handel was working in this context of the invention of the oratorio and Enlightenment England, which is - if we're gonna have a democracy, we don't want democracy to be based on people saying the lowest, meanest, stupidest...telling lies in public, and falsifying their experience. How can you stand up in public and say something you believe deeply in your heart, and not fake it, not devalue it, but actually value your highest thoughts, your highest self, your highest feeling. So Handel was involved in this project of oratorio, which was taking these mostly biblical things, but of course, other historical topics, and saying, "Okay, how enlightened and empowering could the social structures become, and what is inspired leadership?" Inspired leadership rarely coming from the official leader, but from this new generation: of David in the oratorio Saul; of Theodora in the oratorio Theodora; of a future. And these beautiful Handel oratorios are this image of a future with new voices, new leadership, infusing and renewing these old structures, which are finished, and he would show you old time corruption. Most of those oratorios are about the corruption of the official state, and then these courageous people who frequently paid with their lives for trying to invest it with new hope, new meaning, honesty, equality, and a kind of moral energy that was about treating people correctly. And so, the Handel material has - like the music for the Messiah: it's inspiring forever because he's truly trying to uplift and inspire a new success and, in a way, that's why Handel had no successors in England, 'cause nobody could sustain that level of vision.
And of course, Mozart - in a period of social upheaval, but also just unbelievable violence and sexual violence. And so his big project of forgiveness is how do we reach across the lines? How do we forgive each other? And can we say, "Okay, the only way we can move forward is: can we actually forgive each other?" 'Cause yes, there are abuses, there are unbelievable abuses. Now how do we forgive each other? And Mozart wrote the soundtrack for forgiveness. And so those people appealed really deeply. And meanwhile, the third element in my life at that point was Bach. So, that was really the foundational work.
But of course it was also the foundational work that made Nixon in China make sense, because I was doing Handel's Julius Caesar in Egypt. Like, what happens when the Western leader visits the middle east? So from Julius Caesar in Egypt to Nixon in China was not a big step. And of course Handel's gift was to make these things very amusing, very strange, very delicious and devastating and profound, and because Handel had lunch with Henry Kissinger every day, Handel was in the upper echelon of British officialdom and highest social echelon. So he had access to the people who were the leaders, and so he could put their behavior down, with unbelievable exactitude. So all those things about the 18th century materials really interested me and were quite formative. And meanwhile Bach, as just having that grounding of: how can you address people's real issues? And the things that people are ashamed of, and the things that are holding us all back. How can we put that forward?
Marc A. Scorca: Now you took a step into my next question, 'cause here you're talking so beautifully about the 18th century repertoire, and another pillar of your creative accomplishment is new work. And I'm wondering whether in creating new work, you have a different creative process from interpreting work that's had 250 or 300 years of performance history, and layers of interpretation and contextualization in the political times. In approaching a new work, is it a totally different activity for you, or all connected?
Peter Sellars: Well, I think everything's in some kind of continuum, some kind of flow through, but what you're saying is what hasn't been said yet. What about how we're living now couldn't be said in the 18th century, one of the things that couldn't be said in the 19th century. What can we say now that couldn't be said? And how do we understand things now that, in a way, they've never been understood before. What is the world we're living in proposing to us that it never proposed to Mozart or Handel or Sophocles. And so the actual nature of the simultaneity of our worlds. Of course, new opera is essential, because our generation has new questions and has new possibilities. So yes. And same deal working with composers, obviously John Adams or Kaija Saariaho or Osvaldo Golijov are all beautiful, brilliant, inspired people with real visionary subject matter in their hearts, so it's not that I have to lead them to water; they're already there, and they already want to do something that has impact at all of those levels of humanity and in a profound political context.
And so what it means to work with a writer like Alice Goodman or Amin Maalouf, and bring those people into the circle of opera. It's very exhilarating. And of course, as always, when you hire artists, you get art, and you always get something that you could never have ever anticipated. That's the beautiful thing. When John Adams shows up with the music, you go, "What? This is incredible", and it's nothing like you could have imagined and that's the beautiful thing of creating new work is, it genuinely is new and it goes to places you could not have predicted. And I think that we're living in a deeply unpredictable time. And so that the fact that it has no predictability is one of the most important things about the new work, and that each work has to break some kind of new ground and open in a place that we need openings - places that are right now closed in our world and how do you open them? How do you create openings in these spaces? And I think we do go to the place the Greeks were at, which is one of the things that still we're unable to say aloud. Okay, we're going to say them very aloud.
Obviously, as you know, the project of the atomic bomb, which we're still paying for. I mean, the reason we have cancer all over the world, it's not an accident. I mean the cancer epidemic is because we introduced radiation into our world in a way that is permanently toxic. And that was a project where the government behaved in total secrecy, and there was a government inside the government which is right now continuing, in a democracy things that none of us would ever have voted for. And that goes on. And this whole program that was meant to be top secret. The pleasure is now we can go to the Freedom of Information Act and get secret documents out that were meant to be hidden from the American public forever. And John Adams can set them to music for orchestra and chorus. Suddenly this thing you were not meant to hear is powerfully in front of you. And so for me, it's that same question of what is still unspoken; what can people not acknowledge or what has to be whispered? And that's what you set for orchestra, chorus, and very gifted soloists.
Marc A. Scorca: Peter Sellers as librettist. So you have written libretti, and - the libretto, such a challenging aspect of opera, to create words that are worthy of being sung. Words that motivate singing and leave room for music, and somehow bring you to a place that was hitherto unspoken as you said so well. So why is this libretto thing so hard and how have you tackled it as a librettist?
Peter Sellars: Well, I would just say I do not consider myself a writer in any way, 'cause I've worked with very great writers, but the libretti that I've created have been more in the spirit of a documentary film of what does it mean to do the research and actually put together these little pieces of research, that create a real story and actually don't just create a story, but create an approach to a story and an angle of a story and a kind of particular way of looking at that story and hearing it. So mostly, everything that I do in that direction is based on very specific historical research, and use of historical documents and poetry, and how you link the poetry to the documentary evidence. And for me, we're in a period where truth is quite slippery, so what it means to say, "No, no, we're actually gonna set the actual document to music. Somebody actually said this". And music will tell you what's in between the lines of what they said, and will go deeper than the actual quotation.
But for me, the idea that in this point where truth is so challenged that we're making operas out of things people really said, and really did, and that we put right up against that and weave that together with poetry, which is what Aristotle said, 'Poetry is more important than history, because history is what happened and poetry is what might happen'. Which is also what music does. Music gives possibility. Suddenly possibility is present. And so to create the poetic, the interface between the documentation and the poetry, and create this work of art that leads to the possible, the unimaginable, and suddenly we're in an imaginative place, because poetry takes us to the place that invites us to imagine something else.
Marc A. Scorca: But Beaumarchais' libretti are phenomenal examples of the art form. Also, Handel was working with a lot of different people writing his libretti. Wagner chose to work with himself. So it doesn't have to be a great libretto to get to a great opera, 'cause there are great operas without great libretti there...
Peter Sellars: I do feel that it would be like saying a great movie doesn't need a screenplay. Actually, most great operas have great libretti. I really believe that. I believe da Ponte made these things for Mozart that he didn't make for other people. So I think Mozart had a very big role to play in it - don't get me wrong. I give Mozart incredible credit for what those libretti are. But nonetheless to me, Handel worked with some of the leading people of his day and he had access to the greatest writers and he worked with a lot of them. So, it's an interesting question. I think it's a holdover from the worst era in opera, when you could set the phone book to music, it would be fine, and that's actually one of the problems with a lot of 20th century operas is that attitude prevailed. And so there are a lot of operas with fantastic music that have almost nothing to say because the libretti are so bad.
And I have to say, every once in a while, there's a composer like Messiaen's libretto for St. Francis is kind of beyond belief, and he also has the words of St. Francis to go on, which are not bad. But it's important, as you said earlier, that there has to be something worthy of inspiring, not only music, but inspiring changes in people's lives. Those words have to reach deep, have to touch something deep. And the stronger the words are, guess what, the stronger the music is. And, guess what, the stronger the audiences' feelings are.
So I think in opera, it's not just the composer's game. Everybody has to be at the top of their game. The scenery has to be beautiful. You have to bring people into a world that's visually opens them - opens, opens, opens, opens people's sense of vision and possibility. The dance has to be...we're not gonna be stuck. We're not gonna be in a time of political paralysis. We need dance. Let's move through this, which Mozart did, and which Prince did. It's like, get people dancing. Stop standing there. And again, the sad era of opera was when people stood there and thought the libretto was worthless. Verdi worked so hard on every libretto. He was very serious about, "No, I'm not gonna have one wasted word". Because he wanted words to become action, which is what we want, politically. We don't want a society of spectacle where we stand by and watch the spectacle. We actually need what the Greeks made opera for, which was ritual. Ritual is something you're part of. You're not there to watch. You're there to be in it. You're there; you are made to take action. This music is meant to activate you in your life and not just you individually, but all of us as a community to move forward together. And that's why Verdi wrote opera. That's why Handel made these oratorios. That's what Mozart had in mind was action, which is why every aria is a piece of dance music, because it's movement. Let's move this thing. Let's move. Let's not just sit here and be trapped. Wagner's energy is to move these huge structures forward. And so for me, opera is this activist location. It's meant to not be like a concert where you can sit there with your arms folded and think profound thoughts. Opera is - nobody's arms are folded. It's about (makes electrical/lightening sound)...this power of people working together. What can that create? And there's nothing like it. And there's no substitute.
Marc A. Scorca: So people working together, as you say. And I wanted to chat with you about sustained creative partnerships, because when I think of your great work, Peter, it is frequently in sustained partnerships, with composers you've named, with some singers we know, with designers you've worked with - that clearly you value the long-going, ongoing creative partnerships of artists. What's the value of getting to know one another over time through your artistic medium?
Peter Sellars: Well, as George Tsypin, the great designer says, "It's all one production". We're trying to articulate one thing across our whole lifetime. And I do think of what we're doing as - not piecework - but as life work. These things we're committed to across our lives, and across our lives we're gonna keep coming back and saying, "Now, how can we go farther? What else can we add? How can we go?" And it's a body of work. And the body of work means that we don't have to start from scratch every time. We can say, "We got this far, last time, let's pick up and go farther". And that sense that you're in the room with somebody you don't have to explain everything to, but we already have made really powerful breakthroughs together. And that's empowering us to make the next breakthrough, and with Lorraine Hunt or Dawn Upshaw, people I've worked with for decades, it's an ongoing way of working. It's an ongoing understanding of what we're trying to touch and where we're trying to go. And those are difficult places to access.
And so when you find someone who can open up that emotional world and can take music to those heights, well, you want to keep working, and keep working, and keep working. And I'm not really involved with a kind of star system, which is very...it's quite surface oriented, and in order to work, (and that's why I just don't work that often in opera houses), and I work mostly in festivals where you just have time. Where you have time to just spend time with people and not just deal with your first, second and third idea, but get to your 15th and 30th idea, and just keep saying, "Wait a minute, there's still a kernel of something we're not touching here. How can we find it? How can we go deeper into this?" So, that is so exhilarating. And to work with Amin Maalouf across years; to work with Alice Goodman across years, of course.
Also to work with someone like John Adams, who...well, there's no one like John Adams, but to work with John who, for example...no two opera are remotely the same. There are many composers for whom, okay, you heard one and you kind of know what the others are gonna be. John, every single piece is some new musical world, some new sound, imprint, some new way it moves; some new kind of texture. Each opera is a new breakthrough for John. And I have to say, that's so impressive. So in a way, that's beautiful about being able to create a body of work, and also keep that work, changing up all the time, and not saying...
As you know, in the '80's and '90's, so many famous artists realized that the money was about branding. And so they created an artwork that you could say, "Oh, right, that's an Andy Warhol", like right away. But for me, branding is a little the opposite. What we're trying to say is each situation suddenly calls for new awareness, new depth of understanding, new emotional approaches and new political and historical awareness. And so to make a body of work with people, but have that bodywork continue to change and evolve and tackle new frontiers and new edges of experience. That's just exhilarating. So I'm so grateful for (the) amazing people I work with every day, because again, I do nothing. I mean a director can sit in a room alone and nothing will happen. Things only happen when everyone else comes into the room.
Marc A. Scorca: And it's good that you started young, so these relationships can be so longstanding.
Peter Sellars: We also started as young people, so we remember the things we cared about, because the world over time causes a lot of reasons to no longer care so much about certain things. So it's cool to have the first flame always in the room.
Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely. I can identify with that. In your incredible career trajectory: role models, whether they knew it or not? Or mentors, whether they knew it or not?
Peter Sellars: Well, I don't ever think of anything as a career, 'cause it's a life and what do you want in your life? Go ahead and live that life. So for me, it's never a career. It's always life choices. And what do you wanna have in your life? Who do you want to have in your life? Go ahead and live that life.
And of course, my life was changed by so many teachers, so many great people. I mean, obviously most everybody I'm working with is my teacher, 'cause I'm just there to learn from these amazing people. I'm not a great musician; so I'm surrounded by great musicians. I'm not a painter; so I'm surrounded by amazing visual artists. I'm not a writer; so I'm surrounded by incredible writers. I think the deepest and kind of most beautiful part of that is the sense that something keeps you moving that is not necessarily from inside you, is that it's when you start to work and get into the habit of working with a community of people, the community itself provides the momentum and nonetheless there are exceptional individuals. And for example, Gerard Mortier changed my life completely.
You know, The Metropolitan Opera for its hundredth anniversary had this giant (celebration), and they decided that they should have something new also represented in the three days of gatherings of famous people, and so I was invited to present, which was shocking at that era. And they put me in the Sheriton...my little talk with my little panel was at 9am on Saturday morning after Khovanshchina. So it was clear no one would be there. And so, we talked about what the young generation was thinking of in opera. I was like 25 or 26 at the time. And there was this scattering of sleepy people about 10 rows, 13 rows out there, somewhere in the dim ballroom. And then I thought, "Well that's over". And then I said, "I might as well hang out; I'm here. I should hear what people are saying". And there was this amazing panel of the future of opera from the point of view of several (participants). Beverly Sills was there. People who ran opera companies. And every single one of them talked about their subscription season, the marketing, and then they got to this guy who ran the Brussels Opera House and he didn't mention the subscription season. He didn't talk about ticket sales. He said, "We are living in a world of so many lies. There has to be a place where every night at eight o'clock, somebody can lift the curtain and see what's behind it". What? And he said, "We're going through our lives, not knowing how to breathe. There has to be a place we can go where people are breathing deeply, and therefore able to create beauty that's unbelievable and inspiring". I thought, "Wow, I think I have to meet this guy". And then the next question was asked him. He said, "Well, actually, there's a very interesting young man who spoke this morning named Peter Sellars". And Gerard started quoing me. And he had been the 9am session. So we had to meet. And then he began really supporting my work and my European debuts and so on were with him. And then when he took over the Salzburg Festival, we were planning together things like the Messiaen Saint François and these real breakthroughs. So, my life was only possible because of amazing people. There's not one thing I've ever done alone and well, there's not one thing any human being does alone. We all need everyone in our lives.
Marc A. Scorca: What a great story about being quoted by Mortier the session after yours. That's fantastic. Your Salzburg address: "Listening to the Ocean: Planetary Change and Cultural Action." Your class at UCLA: Arts as Social Action and as Moral Action. And you have said it throughout our conversation today, about the intersection of opera and the way we want to change the world for the better, and the way the great artists had a vision of how we needed to move and moved us. So in many ways you've touched on it, but I wanted to be explicit in bringing out this question, because so often people wanna treat opera like another season of Downton Abbey - let's do some, what I call, time travel entertainment. And opera for many is a retreat from the challenges of the day, rather than a step into the challenges of the day. So again, I wanted to be explicit in hearing you talk about this interconnection between opera and our world, or the world we want to live in.
Peter Sellars: You know, one of the things...I'm obsessed with Rameau at the moment, because Rameau, for example, wrote operas where a river was a character, and there's a whole opera about the winds, and it's like, hello: the human and the non-human are totally inter-penetrating. And I think that's one of the most beautiful things that so much music is about water. So much music is about the natural world and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony...but those things were already part of Bach; they were part of Handel.
Music is about the connection of the human to the not human, and about the fact that the rocks are weeping and the rocks are singing: that's Orfeo. The beginning of opera is that even the rocks speak, and in fact, the rocks have a lot to say. And the rocks are history and the rocks are waiting for us to move. We can move. They're not allowed to. So just to say, the beauty of opera is, as you said, first of all, it's not that we have to create change; change is the given. It's watching people resist change that's sad, because of course their skin is changing; their eyesight is changing. Everything's changing. You're not gonna have anything. Nothing's gonna stay. Everything's moving all the time. So can we move with it? And can we, in some cases, get a little bit ahead of the curve, but change is the given. How do we move gracefully with change? And how do we let change release us from the things we're holding onto that we actually are gonna have to let go of? We really are.
And then, how do we recognize ourselves again, not as spectators, but as actors, as people. We are actually actively participating in what needs to move forward, and letting go of those parts of ourselves and those parts of our society that are just self-defeating and damaging and self-destructive and recognizing self-destructive behavior. And recognizing that not only are you destroying yourself, you're destroying the planet. That's pretty intense. And our kind of vectors for self-destruction have rarely included...Well, Wagner's trying to say, "OK, hello, this has planetary consequences. Guess what? The River Rhein is drying up". That's pretty wild. And so just to say, opera has this beautiful way, because it's about a universe. It's about a world. Opera takes you into the place where everything in the world is connected. Everything affects everything and opera's the art form to demonstrate that.
In Salzburg, the other beautiful thing about opera is...it affects, it creates, it has two audiences, basically one is the audience that has no money and comes anyway, and they're up in whatever balcony - and I was in that audience for years, which is why in my shows, I always sit in the fifth balcony to see what it looked like 'cause that's how I saw opera. But also downstairs are the people who run the governments and the corporations and, you know, Angela Merkel is there all the time. She goes, I mean, bless her. And so you are addressing the elite power structure, as well as a wild segment of the general population of crazy students and retired people. And so it's important to articulate those things that face all of us; that we're all facing, and opera is a perfect platform. So to talk about the oceans and the nature of the ocean was logical 'cause I was doing Mozarts Idomeneo, where the ocean is a character and the ocean says to the king, "I'm sorry, you have to step down. You have actually defiled the planet and I'm going to elevate the next generation, because you have still not noticed what is at stake". And there's an opera about that called Idomeneo, and Mozart writes all this music for the ocean, and the ocean is definitely a character. And peace is only made once peace is made with the ocean. That is Homer. That is every ancient civilization. And that's why I invited artists from the Pacific Islands to come. From Kiribati, the first island that is going under right now, as the oceans rise and to testify; to be present because opera is about gathering people and saying, "Let's gather everybody in the room to talk about this and to look at what's going on", and to listen and opera's about advanced listening. So any time you can say something that should be listened to - not just the way you listen to the news, but listen to deeply with your heart, we go for it.
Marc A. Scorca: Peter Sellars. It is extraordinary to listen to you, to be inspired by you and to understand some of the genesis of the great work that you've done for decades now. I am truly honored to have this time with you.
Peter Sellars: Thank you for taking OPERA America forward, forward, forward forward.