The ever-quotable Peter Sellars, now appearing at the Met

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Clearly Peter Sellars was born without a gene for conformity. The theater director’s creative blood is fueled by provocation. For more than three decades, Sellars, who lives in Culver City (he used to live in Venice ‘but Julia Roberts moved there and it became overtaken by movie stars and so I moved inland’), has supercharged classics by Sophocles and Shakespeare, Handel and Mozart, with the political voltage of modern times. As a result, he has weathered thunderstorms of criticism.

But the innately ebullient Sellars, who this week makes his debut at the Metropolitan Opera with a new production of the John Adams opera ‘Nixon in China,’ dances in the rain of bad reviews, assured that what makes classics classic are their timeless relevance to all facets of human life, very much including politics.

In conversation for a Sunday Arts & Books profile (available here), Sellars sounds like the professor (which he is, at UCLA) who was so enrapturing and enthusiastic about the arts that he changed your young life. Some enterprising editor should compile a book called ‘The Quotable Peter Sellars.’

From his recent conversations with me about art and politics, here could be some entries:


‘There may be political messages in my work but there are also political messages on Fox News. What I do goes so far beyond that. What I do is to make sure the atmosphere is politically charged. The difference is I’m telling you to think but I’m not telling you what to think.’

‘The minute ‘Hamlet’ is not a challenge, the minute ‘King Lear’ doesn’t shock you, something is wrong. Classics were meant as permanent challenges. They were meant to rearrange your personal furniture in very serious ways. The day Mozart and Shakespeare and Sophocles become an object in a diorama on the other side of plate glass, you are in trouble.’

‘In this age where discussion is polarized and prepackaged and words are symbols rather than substance, I work really hard to do something that is indescribable. Because it’s so hard to describe, people, in the act of describing it, are forced to become creative themselves.’

‘When people accuse my work of being political agitprop, I say it’s quite the opposite. Art is one of the only non-propaganda experiences you can have. Today, someone is always trying to sell you something or convince you of something. I’m creating this radically open space that you haven’t had access to before.’

‘We all have better selves and worst selves. Someone needs to address our better selves because if you just address your worst self the result is ugly, as we see right now in America. Accessing people’s better selves reminds them of a better ideal. When you see or hear something enlightening, you don’t think what you previously thought, or what the polls tell you to think, you think again and more deeply.’

‘Life isn’t about what you like and don’t like. What an uninteresting way to go through life. Get past your own limitation and reach into another place and see what people are doing and why. Try and understand their motivations. That’s why we go to the theater.’ ‘Tragedy is meant to create a liberated space where lies don’t suffocate you. The dimension that takes in my work is pleasure and spiritual energy. There has to be something beautiful and engaging and delicious and sensual. There has to be something that is viscerally thrilling and activates your senses -- which then activates the rest of you.’

--Kevin Berger