Director Peter Sellars has established a reputation for staging classical plays and operas in contemporary settings, from Shakespeare’s "Othello" to Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro."
He's also directed all of the world premiere operas of composer John Adams, including "Nixon in China."
In May, the experimental director visited Kansas City for a talk at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. He spoke to KCUR’s Laura Spencer about the collaborative process and directing Nobel-Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison’s production, "Desdemona." The work will be performed July 19 - 20, 2012 as part of the World Shakespeare Festival at the Summer Olympics in London.
The Challenge: Take Another Look at "Othello"
"For me, (Shakespeare's) "Othello" was one of the worst plays ever written; it was way past its use-by date," laughs Sellars. "So I got into a big argument about that with Toni Morrison (in 2001). She said, 'It's a very great play and you have to re-read it. And in fact, I'm challenging you to do a production of it.'"
Sellars accepted the challenge. His four-hour production of "Othello" starred John Ortiz as Othello and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago. It was staged in 2009 in the first year of the Obama presidency.
"('Othello' is) a play written 400 years ago, about a black man rising to the highest position of any black man before or since," says Sellars. "Suddenly this incredibly irrelevant play turned out to be very to-the-point."
Ironically, Sellars' production of "Othello" received mostly negative reviews in the U.S. (Entertainment Weekly, New York Post, The New Yorker, The New York Times), but the process of creation led to the revelation that "Toni Morrison was right" about "Othello."
Talking Back to Shakespeare
As part of their conversation, Sellars recalls he also had a challenge for Toni Morrison: To find a way to talk back to Shakespeare.
In Shakespeare's "Othello," Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator, elopes with Othello. He believes Desdemona to be unfaithful and murders her in the last act. Morrison's take on the story, called "Desdemona," combines music and text and "allows the dead to speak."
"In Shakespeare, the women barely get to say anything. Nonetheless, for Toni Morrison, the ideal woman is not silent," says Sellars. "Actually the ideal woman has a lot to say and says it very well."
Sellars says Morrison has given Desdemona "time and space in which to learn."
Returning to "Nixon in China"
"Nixon in China," an opera in three acts, premiered at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. The work was inspired President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China.
"Thirty years ago, we (composer John Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, and Sellars) set out to make opera for our time and for our generation," says Sellars. "That's what 'Nixon' is."
In 2011, the opera received its Metropolitan Opera debut with a production staged by director Peter Sellars. (Note: in March 2012, Lyric Opera of Kansas City presented "Nixon in China" directed by Michael Cavanagh).
"History is in motion every single day. We know so much more about (Richard) Nixon now more than we did in the 1980s," Sellars says. "We have stuff we couldn't have even imagined in 1987. So of course I'm going to fold that into the batter now."
What's also changed since 1987 is the relationship between China and the United States.
"China is very much on our mind every minute," he says. "It's our banker. Every single thing you touch was made in China. Everything you're wearing is made in China. China is now so completely part of our lives that 'Nixon in China' is opera that is something that is absolutely part of the texture of our lives."
"Nixon in China" is now considered a contemporary classic. And Sellars describes Alice Goodman's libretto as "one of the greatest librettos" in the history of opera. It's "hilarious, weirdly touching, and philosophically profound and tender."
Music and poetry, like Goodman's libretto, says Sellars, can "unexpectedly take you to a deep place."