Peter Sellars: Maverick maestro

Michael White meets the director Peter Sellars, whose politically charged productions have made him one of the most controversial figures in opera
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The Independent Culture

One of Glyndebourne's more endearing paradoxes is that for all the have-some-champagne-darling social niceties you witness front of house, the place has always functioned backstage as a refugee camp for the dispossessed. From its beginnings in the 1930s, it gave jobs to Austro-Germans on the run from Hitler. Ever since, with an aristocratic indifference to cultural trends or the requirements of state funding (which the Glyndebourne Festival neither gets nor wants), it has rather liked the idea of backing the unknown, the maverick, the oddball. And in all its history it has rarely or with more insistence backed an odder-ball than the one I'm watching in the courtyard café (aka the artists bar) during the interval of Handel's Theodora - a classic show revived for the 2003 season.

It's in many ways a standard backstage scene in opera houses: the surreal sight of people dressed as heroes, monsters, gods, whatever, queuing for a cup of tea and a torpedo roll. But the strangest-looking person here is none of those things and, in fact, not in the show at all, although he's largely responsible for it.

Shrouded in a flapping ethnic shirt, with neck-beads and the kind of haircut cartoon illustrators give to characters in sudden shock, he hugs and kisses everyone in sight. Extravagantly and with effort, since he's rather short.

"You were so beautiful," he says in lilting Californian, "such an artist ... and you too, magnificent ... you've never been so good... the second aria, fabulous ..."

I'm told this love-feast happens every night. You can't complain that Peter Sellars doesn't verbally support his cast.

But the possibilities for complaint against Sellars don't stop there. One of the world's most celebrated stage directors, he is also thought of as the one that everybody loves to hate. It isn't true; most singers find him inspirational - and if you asked an average opera-goer, you'd be given six or seven names of comparable offenders. But not many court such controversy with such relish. Or what seems like relish.

When I put it to him he denies he's naturally combative. "Not at all," he says. "It's really not my nature or the atmosphere I like to work in. I prefer congeniality." But from the start, when Sellars made his name by setting Figaro in the Trump Tower and Cosi fan tutte in a fast-food outlet called Despina's Diner, he was, as his fellow-Americans have it, pushing the envelope. And although the quirky irreverence of those old shows from the 1980s is remembered fondly now, with smiles rather than grimaces, there's an abiding aspect to his work that riles his critics and divides his audience. A strong, some would say shrill, political agenda.

Almost all his shows are set, regardless of the original context, in modern-day America and turned into a critique of American society. His Theodora, for example, retells a story of Christian martyrdom in ancient Rome as a story of contemporary seekers after spiritual truth in conflict with the blinkered orthodoxies of presidential government - including a final scene that reproduces in chilling clinical detail the methodology of modern execution as practiced in the state of Texas. In Mozart's Idomeneo, another Sellars production running at Glyndebourne this season, the setting is less specific, with abstract designs by Anish Kapoor; but even so, a story of the aftermath of the Trojan Wars becomes (in part) a story of the fallout from the Afghan and Iraq wars, with Trojans turned into Muslims, Ancient Greeks turned into modern Western powers, and an unmistakable reference to Guantanamo Bay.

Machine guns, body bags, women in burkhas ... here we go again, protested Sellars' critics when Idomeneo premiered. Why does every opera he directs get dumped from a great height into the faeces of contemporary America? It's a fair question.

"And here's an answer," says Sellars, amenably (for someone with a strong political agenda, he's surprisingly amenable). "When Mozart sets an opera, say, in Ancient Rome, is it because he has some special affection for Rome? No. It's because Rome is an emblem of world power. Well, the emblem now is America. So if you're discussing power; how an empire handles itself in the crisis and decline of civilisation, America is the starting point, a metaphor I try to manipulate in an interesting way."

But isn't it, I wonder, arrogant to assume that European audiences will share his interest? He may think the metaphor of modern America will open up a piece of 18th-century opera to modern eyes, but many of us remember one of his first Glyndebourne stagings - a Magic Flute set among West-Coast crazies living rough beside a Californian freeway - as the opposite. It seemed to scale down a universal work to a parochial level, which was why it was booed on the opening night.

"Oh, that's because audiences only clap what they expect to happen - though I think it's more interesting for them to be surprised. Magic Flute is something they don't usually deal with at all, because they 'know' it. But take away the landmarks, the standard set of pre-programmed responses, and it acquires a new kind of urgency that you have to deal with. And the view of America I provide isn't what you get from, say, the Walt Disney corporation or Arnold Schwarzenegger. There's isn't a whole lot of inner life in Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm interested in inner life."

Needless to say, the political colouring in Sellars' vision of the inner life of America hasn't endeared him to his fellow-countrymen. He says he doesn't get specific harassment, as yet. "But I'm certainly subject to censorship, in all sorts of ways, mostly commercial. Sponsors withdraw, the show collapses, that kind of thing. There's a lot at the moment that simply cannot be said in public in America, and the theatre is the final refuge of debate. That's why it's so important."

One of Sellars' arguments over the years has been that the Athenians invented theatre to prepare people for jury service, exercising their judgmental faculties. It was a platform for discussion of the issues of the day, and it remains so - which is why, when critics berate him for bringing an agenda to his work, he counters that "anyone who isn't at his agenda shouldn't be working in the first place".

"Culture is political because it's our way of communicating to one another," he said recently in a London lecture given as part of the 2003 Proms season. "It's a social act, so of course it's a political activity" - adding for good measure that Greek auditoria were "a giant ear for hearing the voice of the unheard". In other words, the socially oppressed or disadvantaged who, on cue, troop into every Peter Sellars show. To the dismay of the reviews.

Earlier this year, his Tate Modern staging of Antonin Artaud's For an End to the Judgement of God - a piece of 1940s absurdist theatre teased by Sellars into the appearance of a Pentagon press conference during the Afghan War - was dismissed in many newspapers as a tedious harangue. Two years ago, when he was artistic director of the Adelaide Festival in Australia and tried to turn it into (his words) "a festival of truth and reconciliation, ecological sustainability and cultural diversity" he claims he was sacked four months before the programme launched on the grounds that what he proposed was devoid of substance and more a matter of polemics than art. "I doubt if Peter Sellars will be seen again here" ran one of many items in the Australian media which had collectively campaigned for his removal. "He was a flash in our pan and he is now flushed from it ... We are very glad that he and his infernal hugs are gone."

You can appreciate why Sellars gets a bad press. His intelligence is frightening, his breadth of intellect enormous, but he wears it with provocative and childlike innocence that takes some getting used to. Think of Mozart as portrayed in the film of Amadeus and you get the picture - it's not difficult to see him as a clever adolescent with a gun.

But the reality of Sellars is more subtle and more f centred in the craft of theatre than he's given credit for. He's certainly no monster - he's engaging, funny, charming. And the child in Sellars has a slightly bruised bewilderment that so few critics read his work in deeper terms than comic-strip polemics.

"OK, what I do is political. But it shocks me when people think it's only that and fail to see that I spend as much effort, if not more, trying to put on stage something that's beautiful - working on a certain phrase to make it more heartfelt, or on a gesture to make it more expressive.

"What I most love about this Idomeneo is that it's spectacularly beautiful. The lighting, the colours - have you ever seen such colours in a theatre? When we were rehearsing we'd go out into the Glyndebourne gardens during a break and see some incredible, deep-orange sunset over the lake then go back in and say 'let's create that on the stage'. So there it is; it's fabulous. And so is the amazing space of Anish Kapoor's set, and the hundreds of images the abstraction of it suggests - a mountain stream, a moon, a giant wound ..."

And a vagina? Almost every critic confidently told their readers that this was the interpretation.

"Well, that was a schoolboy response, and the one thing it wasn't. Honestly. When the reviews came out Anish called me and said: 'Peter, do you see a vagina there?' It's really not."

Another thing, he says, that people misread is the repertoire of stylised hand gestures he asks his singers to perform. It looks like semaphore without the flags, and critics find it irritating. But it has a purpose.

"It's a way to intensify the expression. And it's not just about the hands, I want a singer's whole body to communicate with every fibre of its being, and I want to see the music as well as hear it - the shape and the structure. Why can't people get that? It drives me crazy how culturally uninformed critics can be. Have they never seen Pacific Island dance? Classical Chinese opera? There's a huge gestural language in musical theatre all over the world, it's not a weird thing. And it's not some kind of random slapstick; it comes out of the music. Everything I do comes out of the music, planned with incredible precision, as opera has to be.

"In theatre, anything can happen, any night. In opera it's the opposite. You know, the third beat of the bar has to be C sharp, and it has to come on the beat, not when you feel like it. So I have to set up a rigorous structure in which C sharp arrives on schedule. The gestures are part of that." They also, of course, give the singers even more to think about than they have already.

"But that's OK. I want to see people struggle; I don't want it to look easy. When you watch someone doing something you clearly couldn't do yourself, you feel they've earned the right to address you - and that raises their moral power. It's harder to achieve in spoken theatre, where you maybe feel 'I could do that'. And it's why opera and dance are such obvious media for making moral statements. They're a gift I seize on."

SELLARS HAS been seizing on the gift of opera since he was a child. Born in Pittsburgh in 1957 (which makes him now 46, although from his Puck-like features you could never tell), he learned the basic business of the stage through puppetry - particularly oriental puppetry which, needless to say, he studied in depth. It shows in those hand gestures.

Sailing through Harvard with a battery of academic scholarships and prizes, he became notorious for f a student staging of King Lear in which he played the title role himself and made his entrance in a Cadillac. Straight from there, he fell in with a church in Boston that dispensed not only religion but a dazzling range of cultural and social programmes side by side.

"Emmanuel Church, Boston, is like nothing else; it's dealing with homeless people, it's looking after refugees from Salvador, and at the same time it's running cycles of the complete Bach cantatas, the complete Schubert songs, oratorios, operas. They asked me to do a Don Giovanni, for performance in a festival. Then there was a Handel Saul and it went on from there."

It was through one of these ventures that he met the composer John Adams and initiated their now-famous collaborations on Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and El Niño (the alternative-nativity piece that played this summer at the Barbican). Currently sitting on Sellars' desk at Glyndebourne is the draft libretto for their next big project: an opera about Los Alamos and Hiroshima called Dr Atomic which will premiere in San Francisco in 2005. Expect more trouble there.

Meanwhile, the church remains a little-publicised feature of his life that he doesn't readily talk about. "Religion," he says, "is the most private thing on earth and when people push it in your face it becomes oppressive." But he was brought up a Christian Scientist and, although his spiritual interests have broadened out into politically pristine multiculturalism - he devours Sanskrit texts and the Koran as well as the Bible - he clearly retains Christian beliefs. Hence his stagings of the Bach chorales, which grew from humble beginnings at Emmanuel Church into hot-ticket international touring theatre. And hence the Theodora, which Handel wrote not as an opera but an oratorio.

"I think it's important to stage sacred material in secular contexts, though not with a label attached. For me, the interest in Theodora is its image of what it was like for the early Christians before the church became a real-estate concern; when it was just a group of people from different cultures meeting by the Sea of Galilee with no language in common and varying customs. All this comes out of St Paul. But it's certainly not the Church of England we put on stage.

"There's a diversity of cultural signals there that lift it out of one cultural perspective. I try to avoid the idea America pushes down the world's throat, that there's only one truth. Truth is multiple."

The multiplicity of truth may help explain why such a dedicated social activist as Sellars has formed such a close relationship with, of all places, Glyndebourne. Although he calls himself nomadic ("my life unrolls across many landscapes and contexts") and seems to have put down few roots in the process of endless travelling between jobs around the world (he is professor of world arts and cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles; he runs the theatre programme for the Venice Biennale, and he is currently planning the theatre side of what will be a massive Mozart anniversary festival in Vienna in 2006), he has, nonetheless, been living at Glyndebourne for some five months of this year, preparing Theodora and Idomeneo. He seems to be entirely comfortable wrapped in this bastion of the Establishment.

"And why not? Let's cancel these absurd binaries that dictate you do one thing or another: street theatre with Los Angeles asylum-seekers or opera for people in tuxedos at Glyndebourne. I do both. And I find the Glyndebourne audience no less worth talking to because they wear tuxedos and represent the power-structure. It's useful to have conversations with those people and for someone like me to make a connection between them and the asylum-seekers - two groups that aren't likely to communicate so well. If I have one thing to bring the world, it's that I'm always coming from somewhere else, with no allegiances, so divisions mean nothing to me.

"I may also say that I find Glyndebourne a progressive and utopian environment, with a broader audience than you'd think. Take Frank here in the courtyard café. He's no corporate baron."

Frank turns out to be a small boy with his mother, looking slightly fazed in the torpedo queue. Sellars ran into him in Brighton on a peace march several months ago and, when he said he'd never seen an opera, promised him two tickets. Sellars does this sort of thing a lot.

"You see, life isn't as you expect, and that's what my shows are about: people look a certain way but they turn out to be different. Only the other day a grand elderly lady made for me during the Idomeneo interval and I waited for the dressing-down but she said: 'This is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen; thank you very much'. And I thought: 'My God, this is the audience that's supposed to want me crucified. Maybe it doesn't.'" E