I watched a wonderful interview tonight at the Toronto Public Library, presented in co-operation between the Canadian Opera Company and the Toronto Star.
Richard Ouzounian of The Star interrogated opera director Peter Sellars, in anticipation of tomorrow’s opening night of the COC’s Tristan und Isolde. Sellars gave us a mix of intense statements about his beliefs as an artist and a modern man in a troubled world, as well as light anecdotes as illustration.
I was thrilled to hear Sellars more or less confirm what I’d seen on Friday in the dress rehearsal: that while eros is not absent, it’s a pathway to an investigation of spiritual matters.
It was a mixed blessing. Let me be clear. The dress rehearsal of Sellars’ Tristan Friday night that I experienced was a revelation. It’s thrilling to hear a director more or less confirm what you thought you saw. Sellars spoke of dying and dying well, placing Tristan in that context. While I’ve understood the Schopenhauer-Buddhist connection, Sellars put it so succinctly I am embarrassed that I’ve never thought of this before: that Tristan –like Tannhaüser and Parsifal—is a sacred opera. And recalling Bill Viola’s images in particular, I see that this is the extraordinary reading of Wagner’s opera that they’ve not only sought but truly achieved, a pathway to the sacred.
Sellars took an immense & elliptical pathway to answering Ouzounian’s first question, about the director’s path into the story. Sellars told us that as a young man he’d been drawn to the eroticism of the story & the its yearning music, but that he didn’t understand it until he was much older.
Along the way Sellars answered a question that would later be put by an audience member, the inevitable Regietheater question. Although it was never asked in this direct and blunt fashion, I’d paraphrase the question as “how do you reconcile the text with what you are doing, Mr Sellars?”
And so, in recounting how Sellars met Heppner, and an early experience with Wagner at the Lyric Opera of Chicago doing Tannhaüser, we heard of a modernized production, that putting it in a new time made it real. We heard of a production where the hero comes back via an airport, that Venus is dressed up as a stewardess.
And we heard of Wagner’s tendency to make the tenor roles examples of humanity “in extremis”, suffering the outrageous challenges of the composer.
In passing Sellars also said of Wagner “you gotta love him: for someone this disturbed,” a line that drew a chuckle.
And of his own role, the biggest laugh came when he said that “”directing is a service job.” He explained that he must always ask whether he’s being helpful, and otherwise must stay out of the way. Patience? Very important because singers such as Heppner are great artists, who don’t need a director to show them around, especially with works they know much better than him (and that’s true with most opera directors).
His humility seemed genuine, as he spoke of the real job of a director: not to tell them what to do, but to open pathways for the artist to discover their answers through his questions. The more interesting the question, the better the the answer. They have to have moment of discovery. If you create the conditions for them to discover it they will discover it every night. Sellars said his job is to “create trajectories of discovery”.
Sellars was incessantly positive about his process, with one negative caveat. “You can’t do it with actors who are vain and egocentric and self centred.”
And speaking of powerful quotes, if I got this one right it’s certainly eye-catching. The performing arts? The last gasp of the old fascist museum (did he say that? I wasn’t 100% certain although it sounded like that).
Next year? Sellars will return to the COC to direct Handel’s Hercules, in another production with a modernized setting. It’s a revival of a co-production already mounted in Chicago, incorporating war veterans returning to modern America.