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On Silence, the Sacred, and a Lot of Bones Rattling: Peter Sellars in conversation with The Straddler

Peter Sellars, Lincoln Center, 2014           Photoby : Ben Grad

Peter Sellars is an internationally renowned theater and opera director. In collaboration with the composer John Adams, he has brought many groundbreaking works of contemporary opera to the stage, including Nixon in ChinaThe Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic.

Throughout Sellars’ career, his radical restagings of works from the classical repertoire have earned him a reputation as a controversial iconoclast. While still a student at Harvard in 1980, he mounted a production of King Lear that, according to the Harvard Crimson, was “set in a tempest of technology” and featured the “blinking headlights of a sleek Lincoln Continental, and the disturbing whine of steel cellos.”[1] Of his 1994 staging of The Merchant of Venice in post-Rodney King riots Los Angeles, The New York Times wrote “this cool, splintered view…may have no more to do with traditional Shakespeare than a hand-lettered scroll has to do with E-mail, but it does say something disturbing about American malaise in the 1990’s.”[2] He has set The Marriage of Figaro in the Trump Tower, Cosi fan tutte in a Cape Cod diner, and Handel’s Orlando at Cape Canaveral. His staging of Aeschylus’ The Persians in 1993 focused on the recently completed first Gulf War, and his 2003 staging of Euripides’ The Children of Herakles foregrounded contemporary issues around immigration and asylum by, among other things, casting local refugee children in the title role.

What runs throughout Sellars’ work is a preoccupation with addressing what’s happening right now. The day before our interview with Sellars, the actor Robin Williams had taken his own life, and the news out of Ferguson, Missouri, detailed a second day of escalating unrest related to the death of Michael Brown. When we greeted him in a cafe, Sellars was genial before noting with a troubled, almost horrified look on his face that there were “a lot of things in the news today.” When we began the interview by asking about the relationship between silence and noise in a production of Waiting for Godot that he had talked about a number of years earlier, he paused for a moment before saying, “That’s an intense place to start on the morning after Robin Williams commits suicide. Now even his loudest performances will have silence as part of them—because you can’t see some of these movies, and all of the dazzling improvisations, without thinking that there’s a suicide at the end. It gets really, really close to Beckett.”

Sellars’ visit to New York City was busy and eventful. In late September, he introduced a screening of his silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. His acclaimed staging of St. Matthew Passion played at the Park Avenue Armory in early October. In late October, the Metropolitan Opera mounted a production of The Death of Klinghoffer that was met by large protests led by several Jewish groups who claimed that the 1991 opera, which is based on the events of the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front, was anti-Semitic.[3] Simultaneously, Sellars was working with Reggie “Reggie Roc” Gray on a new project called “FLEXN,” a performance of Flex dance featuring 18 performers from Brooklyn that will debut at the Armory in March of 2015.

The Straddler met with Peter Sellars on the morning of August 12, 2014, at Lincoln Center.

Peter Sellars, August 12, 2014
There is a manic energy in America, and you can taste the desperation behind it. It’s extreme, and this need for constant entertainment is bizarre. Years ago, as you mention, I had an idea for a production of Waiting for Godot where Didi and Gogo would be played by Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. Every time the script called for silence, the theme from “The Tonight Show” would play. The sadness that you associate with Beckett’s silence would be replaced by the desperation and sadness and isolation behind this canned TV theme.

Silence would be a relief in American culture. If you really think about moments in your life that give you incredible amounts of pleasure—a lot of them are silent. There’s something beautiful about that. Silence can be an opportunity to enjoy life. When we’re trying to convince ourselves of something, or sell ourselves or someone else something, there’s always that little extra effort. What’s so great about silence is that it takes the effort part out and lets something be what it is rather than what you have to claim it is. In journalism and in theater and so on, we assume that everyone’s talking all the time—but actually, more than eighty percent of your life you’re silent. You talk for a very small portion of your life. We’re all carrying a lot with us, and some of it you can only hear in silence.

We’re very fortunate that we’re coming out of the nightmare of broadcasting, which is communication going in only one direction—as opposed to actual communication, which is always going in two directions, at a minimum. That’s the promise of the Internet. We’re finally freeing ourselves from this nightmare where everybody has to listen to the same damn thing. Of course, a lot of people are still getting their information from the last of the networks—and broadcast network space continues to be power space, money space, and space that has been purchased by some big corporation to sell you something. It creates dumb spectators. You’re getting all this stuff coming at you and you have no agency yourself. It creates real cynicism, and real bitterness. It makes possible a situation where we create a prison system that imposes the maximize sentence for doing something like stealing somebody’s golf clubs. We’re willing to spend $80,000 a year to incarcerate some old man but we’re not willing to spend $3,000 dollars a year to educate someone, or provide them with healthcare, or food. It creates a situation where you have white America panicking that the voting majority will be Chicano by 2050, and therefore gerrymandering like crazy to make sure these people can’t vote, and deporting anybody who shows signs of putting down roots. People who have been here for decades are being deported—people who’ve always lived in a neighborhood. This is a bizarre and scary type of social and economic control in a part of America that was always Mexico. And now suddenly it’s going to be cleansed of Spanish-speaking people? What?!

America is actually the Americas. You can’t stop it—particularly since our rulers have now decided that the World Bank structural adjustment programs that we were imposing on Brazil in 1974 are perfectly good for the United States to impose on its own populations. So the model that we made for 1974 Brazil of slashing health and education and only having a military budget—we do that for ourselves now. And the results—well, you can see them. If you remove the arts and culture from the menu, guess what? You get a super violent society of really anxious, really angry, really freaked-out people. And you get the taste of people living with anger, and surrounded by anger. If culture is one thing, it’s not entertainment. It’s glue. It’s the thing that puts all the broken pieces together and makes a society. If you just decide to no longer have the connecting tissue, all you’ve got is a lot of bones rattling—and a lot of aggression and a lot of violence. The texture of life becomes harsh, and that harshness translates into every part of life, into every encounter between people. You get these extremes of anger with people not trusting each other, and the most basic common sense out the window—and you still think it was worth it to remove music production from the schools? The hour in school when people could make music together was a waste of time and money and we should have more math and science? Are you kidding? The only thing that holds people together is music, the only thing that creates any ability to agree with someone with whom you disagree about everything else is music.

So it’s a really hard situation right now because there’s no cultural continuity, and no sense of a shared culture. When it’s time to grieve, nobody knows how to grieve.  When it’s time to celebrate, the celebration is empty. The arts have gone missing for a generation and so people don’t know how to generate and sustain emotion among groups of people.

Over the last twenty years, I’ve been doing sacred material, but in secular places—not in places where you have to be a believer to enter. The Matthew Passion is one of the high points in the entirety of the history of Western culture, but I don’t use one image that has ever been used by the Christian church. Everybody has a really deep spiritual life, but the ways in which we’ve been encouraged to think about it in the West have usually come from organized religion and have often had to do with the Catholic Church—a giant banking concern, war-waging machine, and real estate company. So what I try to do is detox the iconography and ask, what are we talking about, and can we talk about it in a way that’s open rather than closed? I’ve always liked to think about religions when they were new—like before the Gospels were written, before there was a church. It was just some people having fish for breakfast by the beach. That’s beautiful. Let’s just be at that radical moment where it’s just a few friends. And also let’s deal with what happens out of the worst moments.

When the Matthew Passion begins, they’ve just buried Jesus. All these people whose lives were changed by this guy, who said, this guy is going to change the entire world—within eight days he’s been arrested, prosecuted on trumped up charges in a kangaroo-court, convicted, and crucified. This guy who was so loving, and amazing, and radiant, and who said “love one another,” and who healed people—now he’s this broken, disgusting, ruined flesh. This broken, damaged body. And you found a place to bury him, and you bury him and you just sit there and say, what happened in two weeks? What were these last two weeks about? And gradually one of these people says, well, I can remember when we were doing this, and he said that. And it’s just out of your total despair, and your total surrender, and the place where you don’t know how to go forward anymore—you just start talking with your friends and you put pieces together that have been sitting there waiting for someone to put them together. You start putting those pieces together and it becomes something powerful.

It’s really that simple. How do people build their own histories, but also their own futures, out of the place where everything was shut down? From the place where all your hope was destroyed completely, and you’re sitting on the ground just crying and you don’t know how to stop. What’s the next step from that and what is that lowest point in your life for? What comes out of the worst? What lies in front of people when they’re coming out of the worst?

And maybe this ties into this question of how creative can human beings become at every moment in history. We have to remember that we’re in a centuries-long situation of human ingenuity constantly defeating the machines of control and top-down authority. And it’s important to keep things in some perspective. We’re in a pretty cool period now if you compare this to, say, twelfth-century China. [laughs.] Basically things are a little relaxed. I mean, African Americans have been given such an incredible, shocking, aggressive roll-back of the clock with these attempts to make it as if the Civil Rights Act never existed. Things that we just took for granted that had been fought for over generations, and were achieved—the Supreme Court just wipes them out in a second. Nonetheless, their great grandparents were slaves. So, it’s always good to be relative.

But at the same time, we have more homeless people on earth now than at any time in human history—and more slaves, too—because the new economic order is so vicious all over the world. The Wall Street order is so damn desperate because in the long run, it’s not going to make it—and that’s why its moves are so aggressive. Huge populations are selling themselves and their children into slavery because they’re made so desperate by this Wall Street model—it’s really disgusting. And we’re at the top of that particular mountain. The idea of people in New York City moving into bigger apartments that are a million dollars a day, or whatever, based on profits they got from buying up bad Argentine debt so that an entire generation in Argentina won’t go to school—those things are so warped and so weird. What kind of world would that be if we continued on like that? Basing your life on a profit margin is the dumbest thing on earth. That’s not a way to live, it’s not a way to be human, and it’s not a way to be somebody who has any self-respect. Most things you love and care about don’t make money.

1] Frankel, David. “A Tragedy of Excess.” The Harvard Crimson. 29 February 1980.

[2] Richards, David. “Sellars’s Merchant of Venice Beach.“ The New York Times. 18 October 1994.

[3] Woolfe, Zachary. “An Opera Under Fire: ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ at the Metropolitan Opera.” The New York Times. 16 October 2014.


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