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Mangling the Classics

The Peter Sellars question: Why is this guy working and how does he get those great reviews?



Peter Sellars, now in town directing The Merchant of Venice at the Goodman Theatre, is "daring," "innovative," "a genius," and "brilliant," according to critics from around the United States and Europe, who've hailed him as the most exciting thing to come down the artistic pike since Andy Warhol. He's been the subject of an astounding number of newspaper and magazine articles, most of them unstinting in their admiration of his work, including a pair of recent puffs by the Tribune's Sid Smith. Sellars's official bio declares him to be "one of the foremost and most sought-after stage directors in the world today."

It is primarily in opera that Sellars has made his mark, though he has always dabbled in other dramatic forms. He's a graduate of Harvard, where he became known as an enfant terrible for staging an opera in a campus swimming pool and putting a character in a space suit. At an age when most college graduates are still working in entry-level jobs, he was named artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company. At 26 he became director of the Kennedy Center's American National Theatre. He didn't last long in either post--he has, in Bill Moyers's memorable phrase, "been fired from more jobs than George Bush has held"--having had problems with such prosaic matters as budgets and administrative duties, but he did gain a reputation for unusual and flashy stagings of traditional works. Now 36, he's director of the failing Los Angeles Festival, a triennial arts celebration that has suffered during his tenure because of the economic recession but also, according to a source at the Los Angeles Times, because of poor planning and management.

Most of Sellars's fame has come from his willingness to force contemporary settings on classic works--his Don Giovanni becomes a statement about drugs, his Tannhauser a statement about television evangelists--something a large portion of the arts world seems to find daring and original. But as anyone who follows opera knows, anachronistic settings of classic operas have been commonplace in Europe, especially Germany, for decades. Wagner's Ring cycle is a favorite of updaters, who regularly put the Valkyries, the gods, and the Nibelungen in Nazi jackboots, though the same works have also been interpreted as Marxist fantasies, with robber barons in suits pitted against proletarians in overalls (e.g. Patrice Chereau's Ring, the idea for which came straight from George Bernard Shaw).

The problem with anachronistic productions is that the internal logic of the work usually falls apart. Great works of art contain universal truths aplenty, but they're tied to their own eras as well. Most operas are set in specific times, places, and cultures, and the behaviors and situations of the characters are consistent with those parameters. Move them to a different era and nation and they make little or no sense; as hard as it may be for some people to believe, not everyone in every culture in every era has thought and behaved like a fin de siecle American. Thrusting Don Giovanni--whose focus is at least as much on the class system as it existed in 18th-century Europe as on vengeance, obsessive sexuality, and self-indulgence--into the grimy world of the modern drug addict only demonstrates a general cluelessness as to what Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte were getting at. The peasant girl Zerlina, whom Giovanni nearly succeeds in raping right under her bridegroom's nose, trusts the well-dressed, well-spoken cavaliere because of his class standing; how can Zerlina's lines possibly explain her street-smart modern equivalent going off with a scummy-looking drug lord?

A concept that might at first appear to work frequently unravels as the show progresses. For his production of Le nozze di Figaro Sellars substituted a Trump Tower penthouse for Beaumarchais' Spanish castle, which might seem plausible until we're confronted with Count Almaviva decked out in hunting drag--what's he supposed to be stalking in Manhattan? Why should the modern pageboy Cherubino care when the Count threatens to send him off to the army given today's all-volunteer military? Why couldn't the contemporary Susanna simply threaten her lecherous boss with a sexual harassment suit? Even the most devoted admirers of the Sellars Tannhauser admitted that the spectacle of a Protestant fundamentalist stumbling off to seek a pardon from the pope--at the urging of fellow evangelists yet--strained credibility.

Sellars's basic formula for staging an opera or play seems to be quite simple: read the newspapers or, better, watch the evening news. When Sellars was called upon to stage Wagner's Tannhauser for the Lyric Opera in 1988 (when the scheduled production proved unworkable), the fall of the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart was fodder for the newsies, so the knightly minnesinger became a polyester-clad televangelist, Venus became a motel harlot/flight attendant, and the chorus became a smugly pious congregation. While he was working on Le nozze di Figaro--seen on several stages and later on PBS with Sellars's name above Mozart's in the titles--Donald and Ivana Trump were headlines, so the Count and Countess Almaviva became analogues for them. Any of these ideas could work beautifully as a "Bad Opera" skit for Saturday Night Live.

Sellars is rather fond of the trappings of television. In his 1982 Mikado he staged the "Braid the Raven Hair" chorus as a hairspray commercial. In the current Merchant of Venice large TV monitors dominate the otherwise almost bare stage, and the bit players Salerio and Solanio are never without a video camera and sometimes deliver their lines in the manner of a happy-talk news team, strictly for the camera. I made the mistake in the first scene of watching the actors, who had their backs turned to the audience and were playing the scene into one of the ubiquitous TV cameras; by not staying glued to the monitors I missed most of the action. But the TV work was amateurish and distracting, the angles ill-chosen and poorly lighted. And the "backdrop" footage, obviously shot with a hand-held camera, apparently by Sellars--scenes of Venice Beach and a backyard dominated by an azure swimming pool and a concrete Buddha--was literally nauseating as it skittered and jiggled around.

Sellars's directorial vocabulary is quite limited: he really likes rock-singer mannerisms, characters rolling around the stage, and choreographed numbers--ideas he often repeats during the course of a production. Don Giovanni opens with Leporello swiveling his shoulders and pretending to sing into a microphone. The Countess and Susanna sing part of their "Letter Duet" in Le nozze di Figaro while rolling on the stage, and the second-act finale features Don Bartolo, Don Basilio, and Marcellina doing an intricate Ikettes-style routine--never, alas, quite together. Funny dance routines are the kind of thing singers sometimes indulge in while the curtain is down and nobody but their peers and a disapproving stage manager can see--the triumphal scene of Aida lends itself particularly well to comic impersonations of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever--but it isn't fair to inflict them on a paying audience. Nor does Mozart's music work with late-20th-century popular dance forms. Sellars's attempts to force a fit--whether it's the menage a trois bump-and-grind routine in Le nozze di Figaro's wedding gala or Don Giovanni gyrating in slow motion to a courtly dance blasted from a boom box--are just goofy.

Sellars productions also consistently exhibit a sniggering adolescent fascination with sex, and it's generally imposed without a plausible rationale. In The Merchant of Venice Shylock's daughter, Jessica, is presented as a slut who has a quickie with her father's clownish clerk, Launcelot Gobbo--something completely unsupported by the text. And there's plenty of gratuitous nudity. Tannhauser featured nubile young women prancing about naked, including a couple who toted a clear plastic dragon all the way across the stage in the Wartburg scene, which Sellars staged in a church. This is not prudishness on my part; that same season Maria Ewing made a brief unclad appearance at the conclusion of the Dance of the Seven Veils in Strauss's Salome, which made inspired sense dramatically and artistically. The combination of context and lighting created the equivalent of a nude painted by a master artist, while Sellars's brightly lighted bimbos had more in common with a photo spread from Hustler.

Sellars has tried to justify some of his choices with a leftist-naive, good-guys-versus-bad-guys rhetoric that would have seemed simplistic back in the 1970s. This production of The Merchant of Venice, he solemnly informs us in the Goodman's subscriber newsletter, is designed to expose "the economic roots of racism." In a fawning interview conducted by his longtime friend and colleague Norman Frisch for the Goodman, Sellars intones, "This is the modern capitalist state. Shakespeare is present at the creation of the kind of hideous karma that we're living with: the Gulf War, Rwanda, Bosnia. All of these borderlines were drawn by colonial powers." The tribalism that has recently broken out is "karmic retribution" for the sins of capitalism. In his videotaped introduction to Le nozze di Figaro he tells us condescendingly, "The Count is way off balance. What can he do but, of course, begin to try and, of course, rape the servants. It's the way most big nations act toward most small nations that happen to be nearby." Sellars's anticapitalist, anti-American interpretations were brought to you courtesy of Martin Marietta, Texaco, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the federal government through the National Endowment for the Arts, but he still seems to view himself as some kind of revolutionary. In an interview with Bill Moyers he declared, "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."

Sellars apparently recognizes that his concepts often create disjunctions. In his opera productions he seems to be trying to cover over the problem by playing with the text. These operas are sung in the original language, while surtitles or subtitles offer words that match the action onstage but have little to do with the libretto. But indicating that a character is saying "I'm dead meat" clearly has next to nothing to do with the original concept of the ever elegant da Ponte. "What a bad scene," moans the 1990s Cherubino, which may be opera's first double anachronism. "Light my fire," says Leporello, Don Giovanni's seducer-wannabe servant. "We're wild and crazy guys," declare Cosi fan tutte's Ferrando and Guglielmo, while imitating the SNL Czechoslovakian brothers' distinctive style of locomotion, turning theater into sitcom. Don Giovanni's aria "Fin ch'han dal vino" becomes "We're going to party until our brains are fried."

In a spectacularly silly attempt to push the concept of surtitles as far as it would go, Sellars projected three different sets (color coded red, white, and blue) on the proscenium for Tannhauser. One purported to be a translation of what was actually being sung in Wagner's original German libretto, though this was clearly a stretch: "Come on down to the beach!" sang the sirens. "The action is hot!" One was a set of out-of-context maunderings--odd lines from poems and essays--that had nothing to do with Wagner or his libretto. And the third supposedly represented Tannhauser's real thoughts--including, all in capital letters, THINK SLUT, CUNNILINGA, FELLATIO, GLANS, NOOKY, and LICK IT, which caused much murmuring among the audience members.

The obvious question is, why is this guy working and how does he get those great reviews? There are several probable reasons, most of which have more to do with economic realities and fashion than artistic values. And while these reasons may be self-evident within the small world of the stage, they're seldom acknowledged publicly.

Theater is a very expensive business, and opera is like theater cubed. But a Sellars production is relatively cheap. Buying modern suits and dresses off the rack is considerably less costly than making period costumes, even simple ones--the great appeal of contemporary settings for people who have to deal with the bottom line. Opera bean counters probably also appreciate the fact that Sellars usually works with his own budget singers and conductor, performers notable primarily for their willingness to do anything he demands: singing into walls, taking off their clothes, groping and being groped, singing while spinning on the floor, pretending to shoot up, and executing those spiffy choreographed numbers. But their capacity for frenetic stage action has a price. Although a couple of his regular baritones have decent voices, the singing is frequently painful to hear--complaints about vocal shortcomings appear even in otherwise flattering articles about Sellars productions. Typical of these not-ready-for-prime-time singers is soprano Susan Larson, who's reliably shrill of tone and uncertain of pitch--her voice would peel paint. But of course she's willing to belt Cherubino's aria "Non so piu," about the strange, mysterious new feelings of adolescence, while executing a series of decidedly unambivalent pelvic thrusts, or to play Fiordiligi clad in her underwear. It would be unthinkable to listen to a Sellars production with one's eyes closed; the antics and the settings are the message. But what is opera without superior vocalism?

Critics may like Sellars because they're bored with the Same Old Thing. Few performable operas are being written these days, and even fewer survive past a first run: their value is all in their novelty. And most opera companies, dependent on satisfied customers, tend to program the classic operas most people want to hear--an endless round of Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Carmen, Rigoletto, etc that leaves the eyes of critics glazed. (Germany has the opposite problem: a lot of opera companies and, historically at least, a surfeit of government funding, along with a corresponding lack of need to satisfy anyone but the apparatchiks.) Sellars offers a different take, a pinch of novelty, along with a great line of hype.

Opera companies, symphony orchestras, and theaters have also been trying to find audiences beyond their traditional constituencies, and they understand the value of free publicity. And Peter Sellars, with his hairstyle reminiscent of Dick Tracy's Junior, trails free publicity. He makes outrageous, frequently contradictory statements on cue and will pose in any manner a photographer suggests. He makes wonderful copy, a trait appreciated by editors and impresarios alike.

Lastly, it takes a modicum of work on the audience's part to fully appreciate a properly sung and staged work. Yet lots of people expect to walk into the theater and have a fabulous, enriching experience when they haven't even read the libretto or play. Most of them know you can't really enjoy a baseball or football game without knowing the rules or the players, but they don't want to make much of an effort when it comes to culture. And Sellars obliges them with stagings that go for easy laughs, with sentiments as deep as those on a greeting card or political placard.

For above all, Sellars stands outside his material and smirks at it like David Letterman. He clearly doesn't believe in the music or the stories he stages. When his surtitles mocked Tannhauser he completely undercut the point that Tannhauser was redeemed through the love of Elisabeth. Both Mozart and Wagner believed in the saving power of love, but love is not an emotion to be found in a Sellars production. Lust, but not love. And when his casts attempt to express gentler emotions, they usually fail. Rage is the most frequent emotion expressed, and his performers are most convincing when they're angry. In fact, his productions are marked by ugly, gratuitous brutality. In one scene in Le nozze di Figaro Count Almaviva knocks the Countess to the floor, grabs her by the hair a couple of times, and repeatedly holds a gun to her head. Don Giovanni contains more violence than the ten o'clock news.

Sellars purports not to care whether we love or loathe him and his works. "All I want from an audience is that they're open and roll with it, and that they feel free to have a good time--and they feel free to hate it," he told Chicago magazine in 1988. "The point is . . . it will really make them think." But what is he trying to make us think about? The work and what its creators intended? Or Peter Sellars and his self-consciously audacious stagings?

Sellars has promised that he's done with old works and will henceforth present only genuinely new shows. But his work on John Adams's Nixon in China elicited as many yawns as plaudits, and The Death of Klinghoffer was termed "a kind of four-ring circus" by the Economist and indignantly panned by Manuela Holterhoff of the Wall Street Journal for putting victims and terrorists on the same moral ground. And now here he is at the Goodman doing another old work, The Merchant of Venice.

But then slipperiness is a specialty for Sellars, who told Bill Moyers that "for most people the only reality is a verbal reality." Lewis Segal of the Los Angeles Times says, "Peter has his own verbal reality. He puts an interesting and very charismatic spin on what he talks about, but it doesn't always relate to other people's reality." A case in point: Sellars described to Bill Moyers a festival he attended in Townsville, Australia, as having been put on by aborigines, with no money in "a wild and remote place," as a protest against the Australian bicentennial. But Segal had attended the same festival and in a debunking article in the Times wrote, "In fact, Townsville is a popular tourist center near the Great Barrier Reef, the event is a pan-Pacific festival held every four years in a different country--and it involved performers from many cultures, not just aboriginals. Finally, the 1988 funding included private contributions, heavy subsidy by the 24 guest nations, plus a grant from the Australian government of $4.8 million Australian." When the thin-skinned Sellars telephoned to complain, he told Segal the resort town "seemed desolate to me."

The Merchant of Venice is stock Sellars. Rodney King and the LA riots must have been news when he started work on it, so this merchant has set up shop in Venice, California, with the parts of the Jews played by blacks, of Portia and her upper-class chums by Asians, and the rest by Latinos. But even if one can accept the overall concept, the assignments don't logically follow: LA's "merchant class" is Asian--those were largely Korean shopkeepers defending their stores against black and Latino rioters. The mostly inept cast, speaking in a variety of Bad Dude street accents, had to be miked even in the intimate confines of the Goodman. The only actor with any stage presence was Paul Butler, Shylock, who spoke of his "Jewish beard" while sporting only a mustache.

Why did the Goodman feel the need to load down Shakespeare with the Sellars sensibility given that there are plenty of new plays that might seem a more natural fit? The Goodman's spokesman says the company has been trying to hire Sellars since 1986 and this was the first time their schedules meshed--and they chose to do The Merchant of Venice because that's the show Sellars wanted to do.

Sellars may be well packaged and well promoted, but, as the saying goes, deep down he's shallow. Oddly enough, the commercial world seems to have caught on to him before the self-conscious intellectuals who've championed his stage work. His film-directing debut, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez (1991), was panned in Variety as "a pretentious silent feature that resembles a student film out of control"; it was never released, but finally turned up, not surprisingly, on PBS as part of its "Great Performances" series. In the 1980s a good line of patter, an eye for the trendy, and the boredom of the critics made Sellars a star. A century ago a talented con man could work the small towns indefinitely. In the global village word travels faster.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jim Flynn.

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