A funny man, that Peter Sellars

'Magic Flute' on a freeway, 'Figaro' in Trump Tower, 'Orlando' in Cape Canaveral: Peter Sellars has earned his reputation as the director opera critics love to hate. Mark Pappenheim watched him at work
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"So, hi there, everybody. I'd just like to talk you all through the production as it exists now. But let's just see how it goes. I really am, you know, like Mr Flexible. If at any time you're unhappy, you just have to say, 'Peter, that's a stupid idea' or 'This is not working, let's do something else.' But try just not to make me actually cry. It's always embarrassing to see the stage director led from the room in tears."

There can't be many opera directors who spend most of their first rehearsal discussing American politics, end up by inviting everyone to stay behind afterwards - "and, if you've got time, we might watch a little TV" (New York City Ballet dancing Balanchine, to be precise) - and break off midway to reassure the cast about the reviews. "You're all prepared for the reviews, right? I mean, this'll just be so attacked, you know." But then, there aren't many opera directors like Peter Sellars.

Sellars enjoys a particularly high (or should that be low?) critical profile here, given that he has only ever done two original stagings in this country, both for Glyndebourne. The first, the 1987 world premiere of Nigel Osborne's The Electrification of the Soviet Union, hit the headlines when the baritone walked out over its explicit sexual language and on- stage nudity (well, he did have his Radio 2 audience to think of); the second, a Mozart bicentenary year Magic Flute - dialogue-free and set on and under a Los Angeles freeway - provoked the first recorded outburst of booing at the Festival and the resignation of its artistic director, Sir Peter Hall.

Small wonder that Sellars - with his famously spiky hair and diminutively elfin wunderkind looks (though now, at 38, the hair is neither so spiky nor the wunder so much of a kind) - is the director the critics most love to hate. They particularly love the way he packages his productions so they can wrap them neatly up in some dismissively catch-all cliche and forget them. Just as his Glyndebourne Mozart was filed away as the "Flute on a Freeway", so his televised Mozart / Da Ponte trilogy from Pepsico Summerfare went down in shorthand as "Figaro in Trump Tower", "Don Giovanni in Spanish Harlem" and "Cosi in Despina's Diner". Why, he's even given the world a Handel Orlando, "in Cape Canaveral", with the hero in a space- suit. Enough said!

But his new staging of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, which opened on Thursday to mark the exact centenary of the composer's birth, offers no such easy equation of time and place, least of all the "proper" period setting - a sort of Mastersingers-ish 16th-century Germany, one supposes - that some might expect for the work's first ever staging by a British company.

If asked, Sellars might well explain, as he did to his cast on that first day of rehearsals six weeks back, that the massive architectural set of steel struts and gold-tinted plexiglass - the buckled skeleton of a once tall skyscraper brought crashing down to earth with a bang - stands for "the collapse of capitalism" (or how, after a few false starts, his designer George Tsypin delivered the final shell-shocked model just four days before the Oklahoma City bombing).

He'll talk a lot too about politics: how US Congress has just voted to cut all state funding of the arts from 1996 ("so the message is sent: if you're an artist, you better have a day job"); how Congress has also just passed a law ("at one in the morning") making it illegal for non- profit organisations - ie social workers and the arts - to engage in political activity ("whereas if you're for profit - a major defence contractor, say - no problem!"); above all, how the voters of California have just passed Proposition 187, which denies healthcare, emergency medical treatment and basic education to the children of illegal immigrants. "It's just like 1933 - except that, when the Nazis passed their law against the overcrowding of schools, it applied only to secondary and university level, because even Nazis believed that every human being deserves an elementary education. So the voters of California have gone one step further."

It's just such talk, one suspects, that upsets British critics (though, as Sellars says, apologising for going on about America so much, "As you know, any virus that gets hatched there gets washed over here and within three years becomes your social policy"). But how can any opera, written in 1933, and with an inflammatory book burning scene, not be political? How can any director not point the parallels?

"All my life," Sellars tells his cast, "I grew up with the question: why were the German people silent? And now, in my own life, I have to ask the question: why are the American people silent? As artists, we occupy one of the last public spaces, we need to stand up in front of everyone and say: Excuse me, what's going on here? We can't not notice it's happening, so how do we respond?" And, of course, these are the selfsame questions Hindemith puts into the mouth of his artist hero (based upon the historical Matthias Grunewald, master of the Isenheim Altarpiece) in the opera's first lyrical outpouring: "Have you fulfilled the task God gave you? Is art enough?"- questions that Hindemith was forced to ask himself following Hitler's seizure of power in 1933.

In effect, says Sellars, Hindemith wrote Mathis as a personal letter to Hitler, and, like Pasternak's similarly motivated missive to Stalin in Dr Zhivago, it involved the composer in an equally fundamental change of idiom. "Like Stalin could never have made it through one stanza of early Pasternak, so he had to stop and write another way. I find it terribly moving that Hindemith, this avant-garde composer, had to write what is really the next Wagner opera - because Mr Hitler was able to hear Wagner, and Hindemith just had to ask himself: what can I do to get into those ears?"

The message never got through, of course: Mathis, and all the composer's other music too, was soon banned as the work of a "cultural bolshevik", and in 1938 Hindemith himself went into exile, the only non-Jewish German composer to do so.

Mathis allows us to eavesdrop on the soul-searching behind his final decision. Not so much a work of autobiography as of auto-analysis, it functions on many levels: political, personal, artistic, emotional and - hovering above all, as indistinct yet omnipresent as the shadowy reels of Super-8 footage Sellars has playing across his shattered plexiglass surfaces - the spiritual. "Its complexity is one of its most satisfying dimensions," the director enthuses. "And you can keep things just as complicated as they are."

Quite what message Mathis was meant to send out is another matter. By setting his opera at the height of the Peasants' Revolt of 1524-5 and forcing his hero to reassess his role in the face of civil strife - creed against creed, class against class, Lutherans versus Catholics, the poor versus the rest - Hindemith certainly poses key questions about the artist's debt to society. Whether he also offers any answers, and what they are, seems less clear.

As Sellars observed on that opening day of rehearsals, "People seem to have come away from the recent New York staging with the idea that what he is finally saying is that art has no role to play in society - that the artist should just create art in his own living-room. I think that's exactly what he is not saying - but I just want to check." Six weeks on, it's hard to believe that anyone will leave his new staging under the same misapprehension, though the solution he finally offers is, on the face of it, a surprisingly unpolitical one.

But then, as he reminds us, "Grunewald painted his major work for a hospice. That's like an artist today whose only work is for an Aids clinic. And, though we know very little about him - we don't even know his real name - we do know that he just suddenly stopped painting. He seems to have spent the end of his life putting in sewers in small German towns."

Hindemith's hero, too, seems at the end to abandon his art. Some have seen his final Prospero-like farewell to the tools of his trade and the souvenirs of his life as a resigned acceptance of failure, a fateful surrender to imminent death. But listen to the music, not just the text; keep your eye on that ribbon as it passes from Mathis - first to Regina, daughter of the Revolution, then to Ursula, handmaid of the Reformation; follow those instrumental lines in the finale (horn and bassoon for Mathis, oboe then flute for the dying Regina, clarinet for Ursula), and, as Sellars shows, it is possible to put a more optimistic spin on the opera's close. "After all the horrors of war, the mass graves, it's like; we've been through that. Now, what would it be like to really try and live?"

Performances: 20, 22, 28 Nov, 1, 6 Dec, 7pm Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2. Booking: 0171-304 4000