Peter Sellars: <i> Provocateur </i> at the Opera : He Thrives on Friction in the Cultural Arena

Strange things are happening at the Lyric Opera. It used to be a good, reasonably conservative company that paid safe larynx-service to Verdi, Puccini and Wagner. On occasion, it still is.

The recent production of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” on Wacker Drive, however, didn’t fit any conventional mold. Upon entering the ornate foyer of the Civic Opera House, a visitor sensed something unusual, a certain aura of agitation. Call it excitement.

The masses milling amid the faded-Deco splendors were talking about opera, of all things. Some of the habitues actually seemed to be arguing about it.

The crowd clusters included a number of glamorous faces not normally encountered in the local world of shrieking sopranos, agonized Heldentenors and pathetic baritones who warble idealistic apostrophes to evening stars. The out-of-town press was paying attention too, in generous profusion.


Why the fuss? The cast list looked respectable, but hardly earth-shattering. The opera itself had not been performed here for a quarter of a century, but it hardly represents a national magnet.

The attraction here had to be extra-musical. The director of this “Tannhauser,” after all, was Peter Sellars.

Sellars didn’t just stage the opera. He revolutionized it. He threw away the hoary externals of the libretto but--a crucial but --retained respect for Wagner’s dramatic substance and musical contours. The titular minnesinger of the 13th Century, the charismatic knight torn between needs of the flesh and the spirit, was turned into an all-American, modern-day televangelist. In fact, he bore a striking resemblance to one Jimmy Swaggart. That was just the beginning.

Venus, the erstwhile goddess of love, was demoted to a poorly paid floozie lazing in her underwear around a cheap motel room. Her companions, picturesquely and unabashedly naked, became beach bunnies. The great Hall of Song took the form of a crazed distortion of the Rev. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. After his public disgrace, Tannhauser sought salvation in Rome (never mind the minor religious contradiction) and flew home courtesy of American Airlines.


The denouement was enacted in a poetic stylization of Los Angeles International Airport. Good old Preacher Wolfram sang his stellar ode through the waiting-room window. Eventually, the errant hero assaulted a blowzy stewardess who just happened to look just like the senior hooker back at the motel.

Sellars wanted to be sure his audience missed none of the action.

“Good evening and welcome,” he wrote in a rather defensive, characteristically cheeky program insert. “Now that you’re here, do stay for the whole evening.”

Nearly everyone did stay. At the end, nearly everyone cheered. Wagner triumphed, against the odds. So did Sellars.

At 31, he is very much in theatrical demand--everywhere--and very much publicized. He makes good copy.

Writers love to describe his diminutive stature, his pixie grin, his Amadeus laugh, his whimsical-punk dress code, his natural porcupine coiffure. They also like to describe his blazingly unorthodox productions, in tones that express either heedless adulation or abject disdain.

Sellars is, depending on whom one cares to believe, a pious pilgrim or an brutal iconoclast, a Wunderkind or an enfant terrible , a genius or a dunce, an inspired champion of the lyric muse or an artistic terrorist who shouldn’t even be allowed near an elderly masterpiece.

While the world debates his achievements and transgressions, Sellars chafes a little but, in general, savors the controversy. He also keeps himself very busy.


He lives at airports and thinks of his suitcase as a permanent appendage. With mercurial abandon, he stages plays as well as operas. He runs theaters and plans global surveys spanning music and dance and theater and movies. He writes a little and, possibly more impressive, reads a lot.

At the moment, he is thinking about making a film--a silent film. Much of his life is dominated, however, by the daunting prospect of controlling the impending sprawl of international culture known as the Los Angeles Festival.

An emphatically genial Sellars turns up for a chat in an old Chicago hotel at the stroke of 2. He believes in punctuality.

His day had begun with a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, continued with an emergency rehearsal for a replacement tenor in “Tannhauser” and paused for a professional visit with Studs Terkel. An interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer was yet to come. This would be followed by a lighting session in the opera house, some last-minute additions and subtractions involving supertitle projections, the actual four-hour performance of “Tannhauser,” and finally, with luck, a midnight meal that would combine breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The schedule doesn’t seem to faze him at all. He is calm, relaxed, expansive. He claims to thrive on pressure.

It isn’t difficult to get him to talk. It is sometimes difficult to keep him on one subject.

He is eager to explain himself. “People worry about my productions,” he says. “They respond to all the hoo-hah. They think my ideas must be wild. They’re not wild. They are very serious. They are, I hope, musically profound. Believe it or not, I care most about the music.”

He stresses most .


“I don’t care if people don’t like what I do. I don’t care if they boo. But I do want them to watch and to listen. I want them to concentrate. I want them to think.

“That is why I put the note in the program about staying to the end. A major New York critic once left my ‘Cosi fan Tutte’ at the intermission and then wrote the review as if he had seen the whole thing. It was ridiculous.

“The production reverses itself in the second half. He didn’t know it. I often set up a concept so I can knock it down later. Ideas can be redressed during the course of the evening. Continuity is everything.”

Levels of Continuity

The continuity according to Sellars sometimes evolves on various levels. In “Tannhauser” he has adopted three sets of supertitles in three coded colors, each strand carefully integrated into the action. The varying texts reveal an approximation of Wagner’s own verses, their implicit and sometimes explicit sexual images, and the lofty poetry of the great German romantics who inspired the composer.

“Actually, I hate using titles,” Sellars admits. “I never want to use them. I’d rather leave the lights on and let the audience read if it wants to.

“Supertitles force us to concentrate on one thing at the expense of another. I want to treat the audience like adults, not lead them around by the nose.”

He doesn’t regard singing translations as much of a solution either.

“Since Lorenz Hart isn’t around to do an English ‘Cosi,’ I still think it is best to do the opera in Italian. I’ll just provide lots of program notes.

“But if titles must be used, and they are customary here, I want them to give the audience something beyond a few verbal crutches. At least let’s make them interesting. There is so much going on here. Opera is the ultimate layered art form.”

Sellars doesn’t mind certain obvious contradictions in matters of plot.

“Of course, everyone knows that a Protestant minister doesn’t go to Rome for salvation. We don’t care. I don’t deal in ultimate realism. This isn’t docudrama. I go for content, not for style. . . .

“The important thing is the inner life of the character. The important thing is the moral dilemma. The emotional appeal is more important than the historical detail. I want opera to be of compelling importance to modern audiences, not some quaintly amusing relic.

“Even Wagner wasn’t a stickler for historic verity, and he certainly had little credibility as a catholic theologian. Look at his own life. Please. Who are we kidding?”

In his quest for verbal illumination, Sellars and his literary collaborator, John E. Woods, tried to illustrate the tone of the original text and suggest the impact it had on contemporary audiences.

“We wanted a Joycean fabric. We wanted to deal in multiple elusions, quotations, fragments. We recognized different levels of banality and treated them as artifacts.

“Perhaps we know too much today. Perhaps we don’t know enough. We had to deal with Wagner’s strange sexual puns. Venus says things like: ‘Put your head on my pillow, big boy, down where the roses cling.’ That can’t be too ambiguous. The audience must respond.”

The audience in Chicago did respond.

Sellars and his production team did a lot of research for “Tannhauser.” They watched hours and hours of religious telecasts. They borrowed official soul-saving films. They absorbed all the Ted Koppel late-night specials. They even studied the girlie magazine in which Jimmy Swaggart’s hired Venus re-created some of her presumably inflammatory poses.

Despite the heavy expenditure of verbal and physical energy, despite the resounding success, Sellars sees his work on “Tannhauser” as “a real cul de sac .”

“Wagner,” he admits, “is too inflated for me, too generalized. Basically, I prefer intimacy and exactitude.

“I did this as a favor to Ardis (Krainik, the general director of Lyric Opera). She was very good to me at a time when I was dejected. I had been fired from a Broadway show (“My One and Only”), and I needed the boost. That is when she asked me to do ‘Mikado.’

“When she called to suggest ‘Tannhauser,’ I was happy with the challenge, and the timing was right. So, I think, was the television evangelist parallel.

“Still, I’m really not interested in solving these kinds of problems. This is the last old, romantic opera I will do. From now on, I want to concentrate on other things.

“People will go to ‘La Traviata’ no matter who is staging it--or not staging it, as the case may be. They might not go to Roger Sessions’ ‘Montezuma’ unless someone like me happens to be staging it. The difference is important, and the choice is easy.”

One hopes he protests too much.

In any case, one major exception does loom. “I want to complete my Mozart opera cycle,” he says.

In Los Angeles?

“That would be very nice.” He grins enigmatically.

He also points out that the PepsiCo summer festival in New York, which has sponsored his updated Mozart productions until now, will cease operations in 1989. His first Los Angeles festival will follow, conveniently, in the summer of ’90.

“We’ll see.”

‘Only New Operas’

He makes strict rules for himself--rules that, once suspects, could be broken under the right circumstances. “From now on,” he insists, “I will do only new operas, apart from Mozart, and I will work only with my kind of singers.”

Although he says he was happy with the adaptability, enthusiasm and flexibility of the “Tannhauser” cast, he doesn’t particularly like the idea of working with jet-propelled superstars.

“I’m not interested in Pavarotti and Caballe, and they’re not interested in me.”

In Boston he has cultivated an ensemble of ‘his own kind of singers.’ They are resourceful actors who dare take chances. They are musicians who also happen to specialize in the rarefied, diversified challenges of Bach and new music. They are artists who command intellectual curiosity as well as vocal prowess.

“In the final analysis,” he says, “there can be no other way for me.”

Plans for L.A. Festival

Sellars keeps one eye on opera, the other on the Los Angeles Festival. He wishes, no doubt, that he had more eyes.

“I don’t want to be tied down to real estate,” he states. “I took the Los Angeles job to do something with the art form. I want to present a very high concentration of fine work for one month, every two years.

“I want no padding. The main thrust will be ethnic. The first 200 years of culture in this country was Europe coming to New York. That shaped our perspectives. That built Carnegie Hall and gave us Isaac Stern.

“I think it is over now. Los Angeles will overtake New York during this decade, or the next. Hispanics and Asians will assume leading power positions. The cultural discourse of the country will change accordingly, along with the scale of values.”

There may be no padding, and the stress may be ethnic. Still, the ever optimistic Sellars thinks eclectic.

“Of course, conventional stuff will be there too. It has to be. But the emphasis will be on environmental work. We want to go to neighborhood sites. We want to transform the landscape. The last festival looked like it had been air-lifted to the city. We saw lots of French dance companies, not all of them wonderful. What does this have to do with L.A.?”

Sellars also thinks big and thinks democratic.

“I want to make most events free, and I want them to take place out of doors. I want to show off Pacific culture, re-create a night in a Burmese village, show what kind of things happen in the Andes. . . .”

Does this mean farewell to symphony, to classical drama, to grand opera?

“Not at all. We are still assembling our plans. We are thinking of some high-level projects involving local institutions. The Music Center Opera will stage ‘Nixon in China.’ The Philharmonic really wants to work with us, and we have some exciting ideas. MOCA will be involved, and so will the Center Theatre Group.”

So much for generalities. The first detailed announcements should come in November.

In other years, existing local institutions earned criticism for merely slapping a convenient festival label on events that had been planned long before anyone dreamed of a festival. Sellars says that is all in the past.

“We are dealing with projects,” he swears, “that wouldn’t otherwise happen. We will bring at least two major western dance companies and, unlike last time, music will not be neglected.”

A Career in the U.S.

Unlike many a colleague who looks overseas for the ultimate seal of approval, Sellars is determined to keep his career domestic.

“Everyone who went to Europe to work,” he says, “didn’t come back whole. I want to stay here and work here. I get very tempting offers from Europe every time the phone rings. Never mind. I want to prove that we have an audience here, a responsive, inquisitive audience.

“Our audiences have been so mistreated. They have been desensitized. They have been fed a sanitized concept of culture. Everything, we are told, has to be the smoothest, the silkiest, the creamiest. . . . I value art that is hard to look at. Events can shift in time and dimension. Deep emotional colors are crucial. I don’t want people to just come and sit and clap.

“I want to return genuine friction to the cultural arena.”

He may do just that, again, with his next opera. Together with his “Nixon” collaborators, John Adams and Alice Goodman, he is working on a very specific examination of the Middle East crisis. It concerns the Achille Lauro hijacking and bears the working title, “The Death of Klinghofer.”

Although the production will be American, the premiere is set for Brussels in 1991. If all goes as is hoped, America will get its first look at the work in 1992.


Peter Sellars pauses and flashes a valedictory Mona-Lisa smile. Sotto voce , he answers the question with a question:

“How about Los Angeles?”