Inside Peter Sellars

Victoria Looseleaf on April 16, 2019
Peter Sellars

Legendary theater director, librettist, and cultural globetrotter Peter Sellars — known for his ubiquitous, gravity-defying hairdo and colorful, bead-enhanced ensembles — is first and foremost a groundbreaking and transformative interpreter of artistic masterpieces. Having staged operas for, among others, San Francisco Opera, Opéra National de Paris, and Lyric Opera of Chicago — and once setting Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro in the then-new Trump Tower in 1988 — Sellars is also celebrated for his many collaborative projects with a range of creative artists, including composer John Adams.

Indeed, their three-decade partnership has resulted in such operas as Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and Doctor Atomic (2005). The pair’s latest production, Girls of the Golden West, first mounted in 2017 in San Francisco to mixed reviews, was revised and performed in Amsterdam last month by the Dutch National Opera, with Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed writing that the work is “the most powerful opera of the moment.”

Peter Sellars and John Adams | Credit: Jacklyn Meduga

And while the 61-year-old Sellars juggles a schedule of rock-star proportions, he does call Los Angeles home. A Distinguished Professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, he recently returned from Hamburg and London, where his production of Bach’s St. John Passion was hailed by The Guardian as “magnificently realized.”

In addition to teaching his spring class, Sellars is mounting Stravinsky’s Perséphone. With a text by André Gide, the production is included in a series dubbed “Salonen’s Stravinsky” and will be performed April 18–20 at Walt Disney Concert Hall on a bill with Orpheus and led by conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Originally commissioned as a dance piece by Ida Rubenstein, Perséphone premiered in Paris in 1934. It tells the legend of the Greek corn goddess Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, with Gide recasting the story after having derived it from the Homeric Hymns. A parable of the changing seasons, the work has Persephone opting to visit the underworld because of her compassion for those doomed to dwell there. Sellars originally conceived the production for Madrid’s Teatro Real in 2012, after which it was seen at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2015 and in Lyon, France, the following year. I spoke with the director by phone about Perséphone, his fascination with Stravinsky, and the role of an artist in today’s turbulent times.

What initially attracted you to this work?

I’ve lived with it for many years. When I graduated from college [in 1980] and went straight to New York, I started going to New York City Ballet four nights a week. It was the last 2 ½ years of [George] Balanchine’s life and there were the Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky Festivals. That’s how I made all my resolutions in life about how to stage music. I want to see the counterpoint at work in peoples’ bodies. Balanchine was the most sublime example of staging Stravinsky and I grew up being Stravinsky-obsessed.

George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky in 1957 | Credit: Martha Swope/New York Public Library

One bizarre thing for me was that by then Balanchine had cataracts that were quite severe and the one piece I don’t think he really saw was Perséphone. It’s such a strange form of a piece. Boulez hated it and said it was the “unloved Stravinsky.” I think it’s never really been defended and I began to realize that the secret to the piece was something that Stravinsky really [did] keep secret. Everybody was looking for the next Rite and he wrote this tender, perfumed, delicate, dream-like piece that has nothing to do with the big rhythmic Stravinsky that everybody had in mind.

I think the deal is that Stravinsky was in Paris, but he never wanted to be an immigrant, a refugee. He always wanted to be cosmopolitan. He didn’t want to say, “I’m from some small [town] in Russia,” but presented himself as a dandy, and the story of being a refugee is one he didn’t care to tell. But in his strange Diaghilev/Oedipus Rex way, it’s the story of a refugee, the story of somebody who can’t stay where they were born and has to leave.

What was the relationship like between Gide and Stravinsky?

The two of them couldn’t stand each other. It was not a match made in heaven. Stravinsky was the ultimate white Russian and Gide was the great apologist, communist literary figure defending the Stalin regime. It was 1933–1934 and something happened that brought both of these men together, which they did not refer to in any interview. The whole sensation of their self-importance definitely started the collaboration, but what was going on then? The world was beginning to learn of gulags that Stalin was putting in place. Entire villages were emptied of inhabitants; they were either murdered or sent to hard labor. It silenced Gide for months. He wrote a tiny book, Return From the USSR, in which he acknowledged that on his trip not one thing that he said when meeting with workers was actually translated.

André Gide and Igor Stravinsky in 1933 | Credit: Fondation Catherine Gide

[Meanwhile] Stravinsky is writing a strange, delicate requiem for a Russia that is gone and being exterminated, saying, ‘Something’s wrong on the other side of the world and I have to look. You can’t just leave those people there. I’m going to have to go back.’ What that meant for Stravinsky, who was enjoying all the fruits of Paris, including income, was that this piece has these tender, aching textures of a Russia that is lost and [it’s] a kind of mourning ceremony. This is actually the backstory of this piece, which, of course, Balanchine never mentioned  — nobody ever acknowledged that. The piece is so tender and so sad. We just don’t normally associate sadness and tenderness as the prevailing Stravinsky temperatures.

Indeed, the score, which has a lot of variety, color, and even some alluring tunes, is decidedly antithetical to the Stravinsky people knew.

There’s none of that snappy rhythmic thrust that you come to expect from Stravinsky, but, in fact, for most of the piece the whole orchestra is quiet and there will just be a bassoon solo for half a page, and then an oboe and then a harp and a piano. The orchestra just sits quiet for so much of the piece. The whole section of winter is reduced to a string quartet. We recognize that strategy from Shostakovich’s last symphony. In order to say what can’t be said, there’s this image of a huge orchestra sitting there and not being able to speak of the unspeakable.

The piece was commissioned for $7,500 by Ida Rubenstein, who had performed during the Ballets Russes era and had also commissioned Ravel’s Bolero. But the Paris premiere, which featured choreography by Kurt Jooss, was not well-received, and disappeared for quite some time after only three performances.

Ida Rubinstein in 1922

Stravinsky always needed money and she was a perfect patroness because she liked to do everything. Was there talent or money or both? We still have no idea. And of course, the other bizarre thing, once Stravinsky started writing the piece, he and Gide were no longer on speaking terms. Gide was so offended that Stravinsky wasn’t setting the French prosody correctly that he withdrew and would not even attend the premiere. It was deeply disliked and had none of the flash and sensation that people were looking for and that Stravinsky himself was selling at that moment.

Like [his 1927] Oedipus Rex, the masterpieces he was writing were felt to be complete duds at their premieres. Stravinsky couldn’t reveal how emotionally bereft he was. His image was always having to present himself as a success. When he wrote the music that came from the deepest part of himself, people were saying, ‘Where does that come from? Are you sad?’ He went out of his way never to mention Russia and never to acknowledge what was going on there. So finally, in 1933, when the whole world had begun to acknowledge what was going on in Russia, you have this deeply, deeply sad piece.

Numerous choreographers have since tackled the hybrid that is Perséphone. The LA Phil first performed it in 1963 with Zubin Mehta conducting and with narration by Vera Zorina, a dancer who had been Balanchine’s wife from 1938–1946.

The piece owed its life in America to her. It was performed in Santa Fe, New York, and L.A., because her star power was what made sure that the piece was in front of people. It was recorded several times because her husband [Goddard Lieberson] was head of Columbia Records. This piece was both quite present and at the same time, under cover, because the back stories were not ever what was printed.

What prompted you to make use of Cambodian dancers in Perséphone?

The piece is about genocide. It’s about a tragedy of immense proportions; the emptying of villages. I also have to say it’s not horror music — oh my God, it’s a genocide and it’s screaming at you in horrific terms. It’s the opposite, like Cambodian dance itself. We’re treating unbelievably bad subject matter, but are treating it with grace, poise, integrity, and not one ounce of self-pity. The sense of spiritual centeredness at a moment when the world goes mad is, of course, what we look to Cambodian dance for. This art form was associated with the Royal Court and was one of the first things Pol Pot destroyed.

The four dancers [from Amrita Performing Arts, Cambodia] are extremely interesting people. The principal, Sam Sathya, is from that first generation after the war. She is, in Cambodia, a beloved figure, so it’s like having [ballerina Alicia] Markova or somebody like that. When you see her move, you really gasp. The level of profound grace is astonishing. You see a mastery that is rare in any world. And Cambodian traditional dance is never done to Western music, so this is something very radical, and that already is, itself, interesting.

Was Salonen as taken with Perséphone as you initially were?

This is a kind of ironic thing. Esa-Pekka is very funny about it. He’d performed it before and said he got everything completely wrong. It’s a lifetime that brought him to the point where he could recognize the actual nature of this piece, which he didn’t see when he was younger. The new Esa-Pekka has gone back to it and we talked about it a lot in London. He said, “Let’s do it in L.A.” He really loves this piece and wants to make it a real priority and not treat it as a minor work of Stravinsky but recognize that it’s absolutely one of the masterpieces.

For Stravinsky, Perséphone did represent a return to the theme of sacrifice, albeit here it’s a voluntary act born of compassion and love. Why does this theme continue to resonate with audiences?

Again, I think Stravinsky and his generation were deliberately trying to go back to the very origins of human civilization, which, when you’re facing a genocide is a serious question. How do you renew something that has been destroyed? What are the rituals and ceremonies of renewal. He’d made a Rite of Spring that was fairly cynical, but suddenly, with civilization that close to the brink, you say, “Wait a minute, what are the origins of human beings coming together and creating a ceremony, planting a seed that will die and be reborn as a stalk of corn?” Even though we’re surrounded by death, it’s also life itself that we’re honoring and a ritual that makes us realize the path of life to death and back again went with the Eleusinian Mysteries — trying to create the ceremonies of renewal.

Would you say that you’ve mellowed with age or have you, in fact, become even more socially aware?

The world is moving in a direction that does require intervention and does require comment and does require a shift in direction. That’s the job description for artists. We’re the people who suggest a bunch of that stuff. Nobody needs to vote for an artist. You’ve got nothing to lose, you just put it out there. This is a very important time to be an artist.

Peter Sellars