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Article Published: 06 Feb 2023

Oral History Project: Director Peter Sellars

In celebration of its 50th Anniversary in 2020, OPERA America set out to record the recollections of 75 key figures who have shaped the American opera field over the past 50 years.

Director Peter Sellars

An excerpt from the Oral History Project interview with director Peter Sellars:

I apprenticed at a marionette theater, the Lovelace Marionettes, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, starting at the age of 10. And for most puppet shows, the kids wanted to hear music. … So I was brought up in this atmosphere where 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.

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. [It] 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.

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. … 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 — this urgent maintenance system for democracy.

Explore the full Oral History Project collection.

This article was published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Across the Board, a publication of OPERA America for opera company trustees.