Hallelujah Sellars

Hallelujah Junction is:

1) A place.
When John Adams went there –so he said recently—he

to buy, click to go to Amazon

figured that it would make a great title for…
2) A musical composition. And so it came to pass, a composition for two pianos. And I wasn’t surprised to discover it’s also the title to
3) A book, as I discovered quite by accident with the help of google.

A book?  Yes, Hallelujah Junction is a book by John Adams that came out in 2008.  I immediately reserved the book from the library (the awesome EJB Library who obtained it in 2008). And it came in this week. I brought it home but only started reading today. How? I looked at chapters. (do you always read books from beginning to end? I do sometimes, especially when I don’t open the book voraciously. But obviously this time is different, considering the book is a bit like a box of chocolates, and my mouth is watering.)

The first is “Winnipesaukee Gardens”. Hmm so is this more biography than theoretical treatise? I really had no idea. I will come back to that one i think.

Ah, Chapter 13 is “A SWIRL OF ATOMS” which suggests Dr Atomic. And I noticed a familiar phrase: “THE PEOPLE ARE THE HEROES NOW.” NB chapter titles are in upper case.

Where had I heard that before? Oh yes, Nixon in China, how could I forget? I must go there immediately…!

I open to page 125, where Chapter 7 begins, and I’m thinking that this is indeed serendipity. Earlier this morning I read a piece by Robert Harris –a writer I especially enjoyed in his previous incarnation with CBC—concerning Hercules and Peter Sellars. I heard Sellars speak in a curious interview with Richard Ouzounian after seeing the dress rehearsal of his Tristan und Isolde production last February, more monologue than interview (did Ouzounian ask perhaps two or three questions in ninety minutes?) .

While I had admired that production –more for Ben Heppner and the COC Orchestra than the direction—Sellars had made much more of an impression on me in the Met production of Nixon in China that I’d been fortunate to see exactly at the time that the COC also produced John Adams’ opera.

And so oh my gosh here he is –Sellars—decades ago, as Adams describes a 1983 encounter. And while I love reading this, the whole time I’m reading I can’t help wondering how Sellars remembers this same moment, how he might recount this encounter.

Sellars was in residence at the [Monadnock Music Festival], directing the staging of an obscure Haydn opera, Armida…. I arrived first that day and sat in the cafeteria carefully examining all the people as they entered, one by one, for their lunch, wondering which of them might be Peter Sellars. When the genuine article entered he came at me con moto with a knowing and open expression that made it seem as if we had known each other for years.
It was typical of his special way with everyone—warm and focused and completely at ease. His small body and extraordinarily large head crowned by a shock of coarse hair that in later years he would wear in an absurd Bart Simpson crew cut made him appear as if he were hard-wired to an electrical outlet. His expressive face and intelligent eyes zeroed in on whomever he was talking to with a wide, appreciative smile. I realized that I was in the presence of very rare spirit. Peter possessed a maturity and interpersonal confidence far in advance of his years. I would later learn that his outré appearance and theatrically extravagant mannerisms were just a diversion, an entertainment even, concealing a man sensitive and empathetic to the extreme, one whose balance of masculine and feminine energies was keenly individuated. Already he was becoming famous for what some misinterpreted as “fast-food” productions of Mozart and Handel operas. What those who dismissed his work were missing, of course, was that hiding behind the pop playfulness of his productions was an intensely serious and sophisticated artist with the moral zeal of an abolitionist. (Adams 125-6)

Now I am not pretending I’ve read Adams’ whole book. I’ve read two pages so far. But I am already recommending it without reservation, as a valuable and important document.  I may have been guilty of the same assumptions Adams cites, under-estimating Sellars.  I am being pushed to re-think, which is something i appreciate very much.  Adams is at the very least an articulate witness.

Director Peter Sellars (click for another interview)

And how unexpected, how fascinating that Adams should be witnessing Sellars, as though Richard Wagner were merely watching Liszt produce Wagner’s opera, when we usually think of Wagner (or Adams) as the real star..? Someone else taking the stage, while he observes? Curious! But this phenomenon—especially Sellars’ role— becomes clear a few pages later. Clear? Like a bomb exploding really.

On that summer day of our first meeting in 1983 Peter already knew several of my early pieces, and he wasted little time in proposing that we collaborate on making an opera. He even knew what to call it: Nixon in China, a wry and mischievous title, like a pop-art mangling of Iphigenia in Tauris. He told me he had been watching Chinese Communist political ballets, the products of Madame Mao’s fevered agit-prop culture campaigns, and these, together wiyh a reading of Henry Kissinger’s pompous, self-congratulatory account of his White House years, had suggested an opera that might be a delicious “East meets West” study in modern Realpolitik. How he could have imagined me, who had never written a note for solo voice, as the ideal composer for such a project beggars understanding. (Adams 127)

Holy crap. And here I had mis-read Sellars as the guy with funny hair and verbose speech patterns, vicariously riding Adams’ coat-tails.


When will i learn? you can’t believe everything (anything?) you read.

I will re-think, probably in the shower or while stuck in traffic jams. I will notice insights, as I ponder this new version of Sellars, a much taller figure in my imagination. It will change my experience next week, that’s for sure.

Yes it’s a jam-packed weekend, with Tapestry Friday, Toronto Consort’s Giasone Sunday, and something else I was considering (Gaudeamus: Deconstructed and Reconstructed at the Music Gallery) that i’d hoped to see Thursday, the latter now a bridge too far. While Essential Opera’s New Works also premiere on Saturday, I regret that I have to give them a pass (sorry!) because Sellars’ Hercules opens Saturday.

Sellars’ Hercules? I’m curious even if –on this occasion at least– he didn’t tell the composer what to write.  I wonder what Handel would say?

Oh… and i do need to read the rest of Adams’ book.  I’ve barely begun.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Opera, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Hallelujah Sellars

  1. Have you seen Sellars’ production of Theodora? It’s one of many reasons I’m so excited to see Hercules. Even some of the same cast; Daniels/Croft but not, alas, Lorraine Hunt.

  2. Pingback: Late night reading | barczablog

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