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OPERA : When Fire Doesn’t Melt Ice : Hot Peter Sellars and cool Esa-Pekka Salonen work together a lot. This time, they’re teaming for the U.S. premiere of Sellars’ ‘Pelleas et Melisande.’ How do they do it? Nobody’s boss.

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One giggles, the other doesn’t.

But the unlikely, fire-and-ice teaming of director Peter Sellars and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has helped make their production of Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” a high-profile event in the current Music Center Opera season.

The production receives its American premiere on Saturday in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with repeat performances Feb. 7, 10 and 12.

Both Salonen and Sellars gained their first experience with this opera working with other collaborators. Salonen, 36, the supremely self-possessed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, originally conducted “Pelleas” in Florence six years ago as the opening production of the Maggio Musicale--a production he describes as a “fairy-tale ‘Pelleas’ of the usual kind.”

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Sellars, 37, the chronically irrepressible artistic director of the Los Angeles Festival, first staged “Pelleas” in 1993 for the Netherlands Opera--a production conducted by Simon Rattle and featuring Elise Ross (Mrs. Rattle) as Melisande.

In Sellars’ staging, the events of the Debussy music-drama no longer took place in an enchanted forest and a vaguely archaic castle but in contemporary Malibu.

Moreover, instead of providing a number of sets that would be shifted during Debussy’s orchestral interludes, Sellars’ set designer, George Tsypin, created a cutaway mansion in which all the rooms were simultaneously visible--and often simultaneously in use. Thus, in a departure from tradition, the action of the opera continued during the interludes.

When Music Center Opera acquired this Netherlands “Pelleas,” the plan involved bringing Sellars and both the Rattles to Los Angeles. But, last May, Rattle and Ross announced they were giving up “all future joint operatic projects for family reasons,” citing the welfare of their two young sons.

As a result, Salonen elected to make his American operatic debut conducting this “Pelleas,” with the Philharmonic in the pit. Finnish mezzo-soprano Monica Groop assumed the role of Melisande.

Recently, during a rehearsal lunch break, Salonen and Sellars jointly discussed the circumstances and nature of their collaboration.

Following, an edited transcript of the interview:

Question: How did you to come to collaborate?

Sellars: Actually, Esa-Pekka and I are working together a lot. The first time was in the summer of ’92, when we did the Messiaen “St. Francois d’Assise” in Salzburg with the Philharmonic.

In the future, we are going to do Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler” next November at Covent Garden, and the following year “The Rake’s Progress” of Stravinsky in Paris. And the year after that “Le Grand Macabre” of Ligeti in Salzburg.

When Simon (Rattle) and Ellie (Ross) canceled all their operatic engagements for the next two years, we turned to the music director of the Philharmonic, who moved heaven and earth to be here now. So it happened that our second collaboration took place sooner than we expected.

Salonen: We had plans to do several productions here but for some reason all of them have died away. “The Rake” was supposed to be done here--a co-production with a number of houses around the world. It’s very complicated but basically because of scheduling problems it ended up happening in Paris without any definite plans about doing it anywhere else.

So when I heard about Simon’s cancellation, we had lots of meetings and looked into all kinds of possibilities because I was really contracted (elsewhere) for many years. We realized that trying to reschedule my spring (contracts) would be the best solution.

To be completely honest, I was very happy to be able to conduct “Pelleas” again. That was the main reason why I actually started moving things around because “Pelleas” is the kind of piece that you always want to come back to. It doesn’t happen that often.

*

Q: Why set the opera in Malibu?

Sellars: I don’t think you look at the stage and say, “Oh, Malibu!” It’s a filter or a reference, I think, that hovers in the back of your mind.

For me this production came as a response to the uprising in the city a couple of years ago and the profound emotional texture of despair that people can’t put their finger on and have difficulty responding to quickly, if indeed at all.

It’s the fin de siecle sense that we have serious institutions, structures, systems that aren’t working. The sense of a kind of society that’s in a stalemate. The sense of a leadership structure that is not able to be responsive--or at any rate that is not responsive.

Those are the very familiar emotional territories that (playwright/librettist Maurice) Maeterlinck and Debussy were covering at the end of the last century as part of a profound, generalized sense of crisis that was focused in a very specific way.

That’s one of the purposes of classical culture: to be able to respond to things that we’re feeling very immediately but create a response that has a longer historical trajectory. That is to say we’re not the first people who ever felt this and these issues can be experienced across a span of human events.

*

Q: Do you think of the characters in the opera as contemporary people?

Sellars: Always. In every show I’ve ever done. I’ve never not thought of anyone as contemporary. And I’ve never done a show in historical costume, because in drama there’s only one time that exists: the time when we’re sitting here talking, the eternal present that theater takes place in.

For me, it makes it more direct to work with images that I know and understand from personal experience. I also set “The Merchant of Venice” (and “Die Zauberflote”) in Los Angeles. This city is on my mind. I live here, and I’m trying to respond to what it feels like to be here at this moment.

*

Q: As a conductor, what interests you most about the staging?

Salonen: There are certain operas which always seem to be about stereotypes--symbols and stereotypes flying about the stage rather than true feelings or true human beings. And somehow the myth about “Pelleas” is that it’s boring, it’s not dramatic, it’s not about anything in particular and also it raises a lot of questions and doesn’t answer any.

And so I’m very pleased to be in a production now where the pain is real and love is real and all of a sudden there is enough flesh on the bones to actually match Debussy’s score, which is not at all about mystical, unclear things but is conceived with a clarity that is almost unheard of.

Obviously, there is this veiled quality in the music most of the time that has to do with the fact that Debussy was reluctant to write arias or closed musical forms and he uses the dynamic range of the orchestra quite sparingly. The scale of things is quite miniature, most of the time, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t accurate or exact.

So when we perceive “Pelleas” as something vague and completely mysterious, we are confusing the richness of detail with lack of clarity--and I think it’s a mistake.

*

Q: Both of you are perhaps more celebrated for conceptual and analytical brilliance than the emotional values you bring to your work. Is this a fair impression and how does the issue relate to “Pelleas”?

Sellars: I don’t know what it would be like to do a cold piece of work. Because, in most of my shows, it hasn’t been a problem--most of the audience is weeping. I’ve never done a piece of cold work in my life. On the contrary, I do rather super-hot things, and, actually, this piece starts from two people wanting to commit suicide.

From the opening bars, the level of emotional despair is just overwhelming. The key for us has been insisting on an emotional thread and the emotional power of the piece rather than a set of Impressionist moments.

Salonen: What I haven’t mentioned, for the simple reason that everybody knows that it’s a fact, is that this score is filled with unbelievable beauty from the first bar to the last bar. And that’s obviously the best thing about the opera.

Historically speaking, I belong to a generation of conductors who have not a point to prove any more in terms of Debussy. Others before, mainly Pierre Boulez, showed us how one can have a completely different point of view and he did that and wonderfully well, of course, as he does most things.

And now, for my generation, it’s finding the balance again--the balance between enjoying the flowers but not losing the road.

Sellars: I think that one of the reasons one does opera is because of its emotional power and its ability to speak directly to people’s emotions. For me, a critical stance and an emotional engagement are not separate activities. The two things have to go hand in hand.

In opera and theater and movies, a lot of excessive false emotion actually creates an atmosphere of kitsch. That’s what one resists. And sometimes certain critics are surprised that one removes that --the kind of treacly, glommy, clammy, obnoxious, overheated, over-the-top, nonstop-pounding-on-your-face-with-the-intensity-of-a-Stallone-picture level of emotion.

Salonen: When I was a kid I always wanted to be perceived as a cold, European intellectual. Finally, something like 20 years later in Los Angeles, I’ve finally made it. It has never been the case in Europe, actually. Most of the time I have been labeled as a sentimentalist or whatever.

But, having said that, I have to admit that I still do get terribly moved by mainly intellectual feats. Like that summer of ’92 in Salzburg, I went to a concert of Pierre Boulez conducting his own piece “Repons,” and I was in tears. So we’re very deep in the realm of semantics here, with somebody perceived as an intellectual getting moved by another intellectual. It’s a vicious circle. End of that.

*

Q: Please describe the collaborative process on this opera.

Sellars: It’s a basic give and take. Sometimes the tempo ends up relaxing to accommodate the way a scene is developing. Another time, by tightening the tempo, a scene gains a whole new character. We’re constantly experimenting, and that’s what’s exciting: to ask what would happen if it went this way now, how would the texture of this scene suddenly take on a different emotional life?

A lot of this happens in a way that doesn’t cause you to stop and take out a big pointer and call everyone’s attention to it. A lot of this is very informal, very relaxed and happens when everybody’s listening to everyone else and responding--frequently not in words. The language we are all using is music, and so the way the music moves is the way everybody starts to feel and it takes on its own life.

Salonen: “Pelleas” is not a typical opera by any means. The music is structurally based on language in a way that is unique in the history of opera, at least in every piece written before “Pelleas.”

When you study the work, there are lots of decisions you can only make on the spot, when you actually work with living people. There are certain things about tempi, phrasing, rubato, the entire musical phraseology that you cannot imagine in your chamber when you study the score, which to an extent is true in every piece of musical theater but in this piece extremely so.

Musically, overall, I’m pretty much doing what I always thought of doing with “Pelleas,” since I was a child, actually. But there’s a very intricate network of things to consider. If Arkel is a certain type of person, obviously he’s going to deliver a few lines in a certain way in order to emphasize his character, which means that I, in turn, in order to allow him portray his character in the proper way, must give him space here--and then I drive him in another place. It is much more of a dialogue than in many other pieces.

If you conducted “Fidelio” or “Ernani” or something like that, the music can go like a train, whatever the stage director is doing. At times you can completely ignore the stage, if you wish. Of course, if I ended up in a situation where I had to ignore the stage, I would probably walk out and never come back again to that particular place. But, true, in this piece, there is much more give and take than in almost in every other piece in the literature.

Sellars: What’s so marvelous about this piece is literally there is no decision that either he or I ever make. Both of us have to consult each other at every moment. There’s nothing that’s all his or all mine. Every musical decision is a question of speech, and every speech decision becomes a musical question.

Salonen: We are here trying to create something, if you will excuse the cliche, that is more than the sum of its parts, and therefore I don’t believe in territories: This is my domain, and vice versa. For me, the whole point in conducting opera is to be really involved in most aspects of it.

There is one thing we haven’t talked about at all and that is the cast. And that is very interesting. There’s a basic musical dilemma about this opera: What tessitura should Pelleas have and what tessitura should Melisande have?

I think Pelleas should be a baritone and Melisande should be a mezzo.

Not everybody thinks the same way. Pierre Boulez says that Pelleas is a tenor, period. And he said that 25 years ago. Obviously, by choosing the tessitura of the protagonists, you already make a dramatic decision, don’t you think?

When a baritone sings the top-A or top G-sharp, it really is an extreme situation, vocally and emotionally. When a tenor does the same, it’s rather comfortable. It’s an entirely different matter. That basic choice means a lot to the overall interpretation.

There are very few baritones who can sing the role because the register is so high. And, of course, Francois Le Roux (singing the role in the performances here) is the reigning Pelleas, the Pelleas baritone of today.

Sellars: This has been a total pleasure, working with people of this level. We have a room of very distinguished people who know what they’re doing, and their sense of nuance is very satisfying. They are also familiar enough with the score that they can begin to try different things.

They’re the ones who bring in questions, who ask what if it happens this way. That type of response is very exciting.

*

Q: Beyond exploring the interpretive possibilities, is there a specific theme or idea you’re trying to express or highlight in the staging?

Sellars: I don’t really have something in mind that I want people to feel because Debussy and Maeterlinck are both deeper than that.

You don’t come away with a take on this piece. This is the kind of piece that works on you in much deeper ways. What I hope we’ve touched here is something of the emotional temperature right now of this period at the end of the century in this city that’s at the end of the world.

* The Music Center Opera “Pelleas et Melisande” is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 7, Feb. 10 and Feb. 12--all at 8 p.m. Performances take place in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown. $21-$115. (213) 972-7211.


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