Bill Moyers
March 18, 1990
Exploring the Avant-Garde Theater World with Peter Sellars (Part One)

PETER SELLARS: Three-quarters of my work is just to get people to say, you know, not-- don't applaud politely because you were taught to applaud politely. If you hate it, say so. If you like it, say so

VO: In this half hour, a conversation with the director Peter Sellars. I am Bill Moyers.

Funding credits

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Director Peter Sellars says it's okay with him if people hate his work, and many have taken him up on the offer. He's been called bullheaded, sophomoric and weird. He's also been called a genius, brilliant, exciting and innovative.

The John Adams opera Nixon in China, was his idea. So was setting a Mozart opera in New York's Trump Tower, and Shakespeare in a swimming pool. But there's method in all this madness. Theater should be hard, he says. It should shake you up and speak truth to power. Love it or hate it, says Peter Sellars, at least it means you're thinking.

I caught up with him in California, where he's directing the Los Angeles Festival.

[interviewing] When did music first speak to you?

PETER SELLARS: One of my big ambitions when I was, like, five years old was to be a conductor. My father built me a little podium, and after school I would come home and conduct the Beethoven symphonies, the Toscanini recordings. And then, of course, that faded, and I became, you know, the Beatles took over my life, of course, and pop music was my world. And then gradually, through theater, I returned to more of a classical music world, just because what interested me was exactly that music is the most specific language that exists. Its ability to say things that no other language has found words for, its ability to put its finger on moments of human feeling that go largely unacknowledged, in particularly a verbally dominated culture like our own, where for most people the only reality is a verbal reality, because if you can't write an essay about it, if it can't be quantified, then it can't be sold, and therefore, it doesn't exist.

And most people's lives are again and again reduced to what they can talk about. And that's a very narrow band of the world. Music enters this realm that you can't talk about. And the time you spend with music is time spent in that realm.

MOYERS: But this doesn't happen to most of us, when we go to the traditional opera. I mean, I - I go to the opera. But this epiphany that you're describing does not occur very often. Even though I have an untutored appreciation for the capacity and talent of the singers, that music does not move me and I think I'm Everyman, in this sense.

SELLARS: Right. I would say, in general, the reason most Americans are not as moved by cultural experiences as they maybe even want to be is, first of all, most of what they see isn't good enough, most of the cultural establishment is dominated by a very cynical machine which is able to put out cut-rate goods at top prices. And nobody's around to blow the whistle. And therefore the person who pays for it is the average American, who goes perfectly filled with hope that this will be a nice night, and doesn't know enough to call anyone on what wasn't good enough, and therefore again internalizes it and says, "Well, maybe it's just me, I'm not having the full reaction that perhaps I thought I might have with it."

In fact, opera was intended, by its most inspired creators, to be a very bright epiphany, to be-- to cut through the sort of tangled web of politics and the large movements of nations, connecting those movements to the specific internal movements of an individual human heart, and then catapulting the whole thing into a kind of metaphysical, metaphorical plane.

MOYERS: And it had a populist intent, too, didn't it -- much of it, much of the opera?

SELLARS: Absolutely. Mozart and Verdi were sung in the streets. You know, I mean, it was -- it was for a mass audience. Opera was a mass audience when the Greeks invented it. You know, it was -- the point about opera is that the one thing that does connect all human beings is song. You know, and words again and again divide us. Song, again and again, brings us together.

MOYERS: But if classic music has that ability to open the soul, to make us -- to transport us, why do you bring it into a wholly different world from which it was written? I mean, you put Don Giovanni in Harlem, and the protagonist is -- has a switchblade and eats Big Macs, you put Lear in a Lincoln Continental on stage. I mean, aren't you wreaking havoc with tradition?

SELLARS: In fact, what I'm doing is entering tradition, what I'm doing is finally respecting the tradition. The tradition is all religious painting up through Rembrandt, when they present the Crucifixion, there are Dutch burghers on the hillside, contemporary Dutch burghers, because the point is not this happened once 2,000 years ago and we'll tell you about it sometime, but this was true then, it is true now, it is ever-present, it is constantly finding itself again in your life because it's true. And if it's true, it's enduring.

MOYERS: So the Madonna is very often a Florentine lass.

SELLARS: Which was not done smugly, or tongue-in-cheek. It was done as the most serious way of honoring truth because the reason I have to put these things in an ordinary context, these great masterpieces, is one has to say that there is something pure and divine that informs every moment of ordinary life, that we're never separated from the great ideas, we're never separated from the great moments in history. The great moments in history live with us every day, and they're ours to summon up at any moment.

MOYERS: But do you think that this music would inform, or harshly judge our society today? Is Mozart condemning us by the sheer beauty of his art in a crassly commercial world?

SELLARS: Well, I have to say, clearly, I also put our society up next to Mozart to test it, to say: "How do we measure up next to these great masterpieces?" Are we good enough? Are we thinking big enough? Are we ambitious enough? Are we generous enough of spirit?" At the same time, what most people don't realize is Mozart has been so co-opted by the commercial establishment. Mozart is now used to sell chocolates.


SELLARS: You know, in fact, when Mozart wrote Don Giovanni, it was not cute and it was not charming. That was, if you put yourself back with the first audience that heard that piece in the 1780s, music of comparable violence, as the opening notes of Don Giovanni had never been heard in the history of the world. That was shattering music for that audience. And we now think of Mozart as rest for the soul, and something lovely. In fact, for his first audience, it was tough, it was shocking, people said; "This is too intellectual," people said, "This is too forceful, it's too brutal, can't it be a little nicer?" And part of my juxtaposing aggressively a modern context is to say: "Excuse me, this stuff does have edges. This stuff isn't smooth and wasn't intended to go down easy."

At the same time, Mozart himself was deeply committed on a wide range of social issues, which he viewed -- you know, you don't write in Don Giovanni, you know, you don't have all of the cast members come to the front of the stage at the end of the first act and sing at the top of their lungs in a C-major military march, "Viva la liberta!" two years before the French revolution, 13 times, which is how often they sing it, you know, if you don't actually intend to push your public. And those operas tie inextricably, Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, the progress of world revolution to how one person treats another person. So that it's not a giant abstract political discourse, but it's the fact that the political reality of our lives is how husbands and wives interact, is about how children are treated. That's how you know what the political reality is --­

MOYERS: In what sense?

SELLARS: -- in the sense that the count's refusal to pay attention to his wife, in The Marriage of Figaro, where he's married to a perfectly beautiful woman, a wonderful one who we come to love, because Mozart gives her the most beautiful music in the world. And we say -- her husband is meanwhile philandering with anything that moves. And you want to say, "Does this guy have eyes?" You know, what is he not getting, that, okay, you know, if he would just cultivate his own garden, he wouldn't have to go and make all of these independent conquests. He wouldn't have to go to the servants and rape them.

Now, that wouldn't sound like any large nation in its treatment of South America, would it? I hope not. This idea of, could we just occupy ourselves with our own problems? Perhaps not. The only way we can solve the drug problem is to defoliate Peru! Because that's clearly where the drug problem originates!

MOYERS: That's a large leap.

SELLARS: And Mozart makes it. The point is, you tell yourself, if you can have these people in subjection, you'll feel better about who you are. You'll feel more important. And your own personal failures won't weigh on you.

MOYERS: You had President Bush invading Panama six months before he did it, in your opera.

SELLARS: Yes [laughing].

MOYERS: How did you foresee that?

SELLARS: It's given to artists [laughing]. I must say, my last show in Washington, Ajax, was about -- of course, Ajax the Greek general, who went mad and military zeal and responsibility run amok. All of this happened while Iran-Contra was going on, but six months before it broke. And again and again, if you look at the important performers, the important writers, their work is exactly anticipating very important political developments. And that's why I feel that art is political, and art and politics are inextricably linked -- you can't separate them. Because artists are so sensitive to those precise vibrations.

MOYERS: But art is not speaking to power very forcefully in America today.

SELLARS: Well --

MOYERS: I mean, Shakespeare and Moliere wrote for the court theater.

SELLARS: -- yeah.

MOYERS: They infiltrated messages into the­--

SELLARS: They sure did.

MOYERS: -- into the monarchy. We don't have a Shakespeare or a Moliere today.

SELLARS: No, we don't. The other thing, though, that's happening in America that I find even more interesting and more powerful is the art that's being created within small communities, in many cases -- immigrant communities, that is art that is not decorative, and not commercially exploitable, but a necessity, a social necessity. And the result is an art that's happening right now not in any of the official cultural centers, not in any of the Lincoln Centers or the Kennedy Centers or -- but in small community centers, in neighborhoods, in garages. It's an art of and by the people, and it's an art that puts forward alternative histories, for example. Because the official history that is on the network news is not an adequate representation of the lives these people have led.

MOYERS: But the evening news reaches the masses. It is shaping the metaphor; it is deciding the images that seep into the general mentality.

SELLARS: Yeah, increasingly not. I mean, what's interesting is, the numbers are going to gradually change. Already, you know, attendance -- viewership is falling off for the major networks. We're moving into a phase in which -- I would like to think of it as the democratization of mass culture; in which increasingly the decisions about what is American culture will not be made on the 17th floor of buildings on 57th Street in New York City. While every TV show we see is a repeat of the same story, there are a whole bunch of Americans that have real stories to tell that are not the same old stories. And the grit of their real lives generates -- what can I say -- more human honor --

MOYERS: Spirituality?

SELLARS: -- yes, thank you.

MOYERS: Spirituality?

SELLARS: More genuine spiritual and moral force. And the result is, the words which these people use to describe their lives have honor. And they may lack technique, but my God, they've got the content. And that's what we find leading us to some search for another level of truth that we can depend on.

MOYERS: It is fascinating to me that in the 19th century, great American actors would roam the countryside in the small towns, the Marshall, Texas. They'd get off the railroad, and they would perform Shakespeare for millworkers, for saloons, in mining camps, and they were speaking to an untutored but appreciative audience.

SELLARS: I'm sorry, that is the point. First of all, Shakespeare was the great American playwright.

MOYERS: The great -- what do you mean?

SELLARS: He wrote all about America. All of his plays -- I mean, that's why the Royal Shakespeare Company can't do Shakespeare to save their lives. The only place to see Shakespeare is America. The only way to do Shakespeare is for miners. Shakespeare really exists here and now. He wrote about a country that was a world power, that was, you know, in charge of commerce, and that the grip was slipping. And he wrote these cautionary tales of how to go from being a big adolescent to being an adult. America is this adolescent that Elizabethan England was, and the question is, will we live to adulthood? And Shakespeare's plays, the story of Prince Hal becoming a king are about, is it possible to survive your teen years? And they're written and addressed to a nation to provoke the questions of how do you want to grow up now?

MOYERS: But Shakespeare has no audience today to speak of, he really doesn't.

SELLARS: Well, I didn't say -­-

MOYERS: And no great American --

SELLARS: -- an audience has been taught that Shakespeare is not theirs. Our audience has been taught that Shakespeare belongs to the British and to the Royal Shakespeare Company. A series of actors have been taught that Shakespeare belongs to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Shakespeare -- I mean, what is maddening in America is, most people have been separated from their culture. They've been told there's a special privileged class of artists, they have a special insight. A normal person doesn't have this insight and is not on the inside track of this work. That is a monstrous lie, and it is hideous because it is taught to us early on, as we grow up in this system. We are taught we're not artists. Every single day we're reminded. And the special students are isolated in the class, and they say, "You're special, you go on, the rest of you please become middle-class and boring." And that, of course, is a hideous betrayal, because every living soul is an artist, every living human being was invested with a view of the world that is their own. In fact, three-quarters of my work is just to get people to say, you know, not-- don't applaud politely because you were taught to applaud politely. If you hate it, say so. If you like it, say so. I don't mind -- I love-

MOYERS: We do. We've been very critical of your work.

SELLARS: -- I mean, the relief is that my work is controversial. It's such a relief, because at least it flushes people out of the bush. At least people can't say, "Oh, well, that was a nice evening." They have to say, "That was horrible." Or they have to say, "This annoyed me." [crosstalk]

MOYERS: Some of it is boring.

SELLARS: ''This is deadly boring.''

MOYERS: You do bore me sometimes.

SELLARS: Well, I go out of my way to bore people. The whole idea that you could just experience something, not know what you're experiencing, not complete a true-and-false, compare and-contrast essay question at the end, not complete a multiple choice exam on your way out of the theater, but have been genuinely mystified, have a whole series of things that you can't solve that, two years later, you think, "What was that?"

MOYERS: Some of your critics just dismiss this as -- all of this as sophomoric horseplay.

SELLARS: The New York Times, for example [laughing].

MOYERS: Yes. "The Andy Warhol of art," they say, "wanting us to look at sleazy banality and praise it as the new profundity.''

SELLARS: You know, I love it. I mean, you put something out there, and people come up with all kinds of loony things. Of course that's useful. Mostly, though, what must be said -- I'm not crazy, I'm not goofy, we're not doing this to do some weird oddball thing.

MOYERS: I'm struck that you don't let the criticism deter you. I mean, you've been fired from more jobs than George Bush has held. And you just keep going.

SELLARS: [laughing] Yeah, well --

MOYERS: You seem always to -- you don't fear unemployment, do you?

SELLARS: -- no. I mean, the one thing is, as soon as -- you have to -- in America, you have to hit and run. As soon as they figure out what you're doing, they take you out behind the barn and shoot you in the head. I mean, it's just known. And so you have to move any way you can, and you have to use any strategy you can.

I think what's so important is, to first of all, give audiences credit. When I was in high school, I had a theater for five summers in Denver, Colorado, where I did these shows for Denver housewives and their kids. I then took the same material to Harvard with me. Now, the Denver housewives had no problem, but the Harvard Crimson wrote articles about, "This is so avant-garde, this is so alarming, this is so difficult to follow, how can this be allowed?"

My problem is the Denver housewives entered that work directly. They just were there. And that's what art is about. It is about why do we live together -- is there any reason to live near, within any proximity, of another human being? If there is, there must be something that's shared. That thing is culture. And therefore, the question is, could we cultivate it, so that it could become cultured culture, or should we just let it grow wild and kind of ignore it and not bother watering it and treat it like, you know, the dandelion between the cracks of cement on sidewalk. You know-- and-- you know, run it over and say: "Gosh, it's hardy, it's still there. We can't get rid of it." You know, amazingly, no matter how we abuse it, there's still some weird little green sprig coming up through the cement. Or, would we make a garden, you know, and this becomes the question now in America. Could we now make a place for culture?

And of course, I'm so embarrassed at the whole Jesse Helms-National Endowment situation, which showed just how out of it artists have been, and how politically sort of naive they are. The whole reaction was so shrill and so exaggerated, and played exactly into Mr. Helms' terms, and allowed him to set the basis of the entire discussion so that now, in the spring, Congress is going to ask, "Should there be a National Endowment?" rather than asking, "Now that there's a National Endowment, will we get serious?"

MOYERS: One of your friends said, if you have a problem, "If Peter has a problem, it's that he's too serious."

SELLARS: I am serious. I have to say, it's too late in the lifetime of my generation not to get a bit serious. Right now --

MOYERS: You're 31?

SELLARS: Yeah, 32 now. I'm really over the hill.

MOVERS: Oh, my.

SELLARS: It's now official bourgeois middle age, and the fact is, you know, if certain things don't get fixed now, they won't ever get made right. The reason I'm here in Los Angeles is, of course, it was the first place in America, first large concentrated area, southern California, with a white minority. But the other point is, it's of course the center of new immigration, where you not only have the Latino influence coming very strongly from the south, but the Asian influence coming very strongly from the east. And the combination is what makes the heat, the friction is what -- is what generates the sparks.

Right now, America's refusal to deal with Latin America, America's refusal to deal particularly in this part of the world, you know, where English has now become the official language by law, but of course, Spanish is spoken first and tends to be spoken more widely [laughing]. I mean, you can't legislate this stuff. And that's what's so interesting. The real culture is -- cannot be stopped. At the same time, we now must ask for not only political equality, but a sense that let's look at what the real roots here are, let's look at what it comes from, because it's another image of another type of society that actually we might have some need of ourselves.

MOYERS: If you were writing a new opera about Los Angeles, how would you plot it? How would you cast it? And whose music would you use?

SELLARS: Oh, gosh. What's interesting right now is the story can't be written yet. What's fantastic about Los Angeles -- you know, everybody says: ''How can you be there? There's none of this, there's none of that." You know, and it's the usual thing of frontier living. You have to explain: "Well, we're out here [laughing] -- but there's something that keeps us here. We're here at a moment when something is about to become something. We're here at a moment that's maddening, because, you know, like any baby, you know, it's spilling things, and making a mess.

MOYERS: It's a tough place, this city.

SELLARS: But we're cultivating something. And we're having a chance to start again. We're having a chance to make a new image of what America might be. LA, obviously, is going to be the leader of this nation in the next century, probably in the next two centuries.

MOYERS: Los Angeles has gotten to you.

SELLARS: Yeah, I have to say what's exciting here is if we don't get it right soon, the whole thing will collapse. It's either the ultimate tower of Babel that will completely collapse in on itself, or it's the start of a new society.

MOYERS: [voice-over} We will continue this conversation with Peter Sellars next time on a World of ldeas. I'm Bill Moyers.

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