Peter Sellars discusses his job at the Los Angeles Festival
BROADCAST: Feb. 16, 1990 | DURATION: 00:52:11
Actor Peter Sellars takes on a different role as director of the Los Angeles Festival. The sixteen day event will happen in parks, streets, churches and community centers all over Los Angeles, says Sellers. With all the diverse groups living in Los Angeles, there's so much culture to share with one another & Sellers wanted people to get out and see things that they never experienced before.
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Studs Terkel I guess at least for me, the most imaginative, the most--certainly the most daring and the most provocative and the most outrageous--
Studs Terkel Now theater people as Peter Sellars. Peter Sellars you recall, Chicagoans do, uh, uh, for two--two moments and they were rather indelible moments in operatic history. One is his interpretation of "The Mikado" and in which it was contemporary. There they were. Northwest [ori?]-Airlines.
Peter Sellars [laughter]
Studs Terkel Gentlemen Japan wore three piece suits had some Seiko, um, uh, cameras that had Sony cassettes. And you know what? It worked. And the other time was his "Tannhauser". Which just about the time of the televangelist scandals too. And "Tannhauser", sort of a Jimmy Swaggart. And there is Venus and it's not Venusberg, it's just a cheap hotel room but just about right too. And I'm thinking about Peter Sellars and his new project always new and so seeing you again.
Peter Sellars Studs, it's great to see you again. [laughter]. It's great to see.
Studs Terkel There's all, all sorts of challenges.
Peter Sellars There's lots happening. There's a lot happening. Now I'm in Los Angeles, I've been there for about two years now and, uh, it is one of the most exciting places on the face of the earth to be, because you go there and it's Deadsville. It's nothing. You can't find any other city in the world you walk into town and you make three--oh--three calls from your hotel room and you can find out what's going on that night. Not Los Angeles. You have no idea what's going on. The only way you learn about it is four days later they say, "Oh did you see this last night?" and you say, "No what about it?" So, "Well it's over with now and it was great." And Los Angeles is impossible to penetrate. Most people say, "Oh there's no culture there." And that's the first thing that makes you interested. That's the first thing you say, "Well now wait a minute, there's got to be something there. What's really going on?" And I took a job there two years ago to run something called the Los Angeles Festival which started out as the Olympic Arts Festival which remained the biggest arts festival ever held in the country really to this point, 1984, for the big Olympics there. Then they did a little festival in 1987 and now we're following up three years later with the 1990 Los Angeles Festival which will be September, first two weeks of September.
Studs Terkel See it's natural that Peter Sellars thinks of Los Angeles as the most fascinating city because the, the ritualistic approach to tradition is L.A., we equate it with Hollywood, dullest, softest custard son,
Peter Sellars [Laughter]
Studs Terkel Forgetting that is Hispanic city. It is an Asiatic city.
Peter Sellars What's interesting--
Studs Terkel It's an African city.
Peter Sellars What's interesting there is the patterns of immigration. I mean in the same way New York and in fact even Chicago established their cultural hegemony by really being, uh, uh, home to Italians, to Germans, to Polish people, to, to, to, to Russians and now of course big, the big culture in America you know is the Metropolitan Opera the Lyric Opera playing Verdi and the orchestra playing Mahler the same way here the next generation's immigrants for the next 150 years are coming from Asia or coming from Latin America and the place where those to--
Peter Sellars Oh, and well, and Africa although again we have tremendous population of African-Americans here now and the, uh, what's exciting is the place where these all of these points are meeting is Los Angeles where the immigration is coming from, from all directions now.
Studs Terkel So you, do you do you spot something, there's something prescient about Peter Sellars. He sees something in me and something--we think of Europe, America and the European culture and New York and the Jewish tradition and culture and the Italian at one and all that is there--European--and has in a sense been that way.
Peter Sellars Absolutely.
Studs Terkel But now you're saying it's shifting and another kind of culture which involves another kind of participation and un-participation.
Peter Sellars Exactly. I think the next, the next hundred years in this country, the next century, not only is Los Angeles going to be the sort of New York of the next century as it were, the sort of economic capital and so on. I mean that's already happening already there's more trade that goes out of the Port of Los Angeles than goes out of any point on the East Coast. The question now is, is there a cultural basis for this new Pacific Rim we keep hearing about?
Peter Sellars Pacific Rim. Is that an economic and political term? Or is that really cultural? What exists? What ties that together? This new area of the world which has this kind of hegemony. And we spent the last two years researching. It's been one of the most interesting things I've ever embarked on in my life. And you're right that the numbers alone are stunning. You have the largest population of Koreans outside of Korea in Los Angeles, the largest population of Cambodians outside Cambodia in Los Angeles, the largest population of Iranians outside of Iran, in Los Angeles. The largest population Filipinos outside of the Philippines. The largest population of Burmese outside of Burma. The largest population of Japanese outside of Japan. The lar--the second largest population of Jewish people outside of Israel. The second largest population of Afro-Americans outside of Washington D.C. the largest population of Native Americans in any urban setting in America.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Peter Sellars You can go on with the list. The astounding thing is who is there right now.
Studs Terkel Yeah. What interests me also about what you're saying is that there is a slight difference here to your sense in how this other world new--the new world is funny. New world. The old, old world--now the new world!
Peter Sellars Right.
Studs Terkel Because the world is round after all.
Peter Sellars Well, that's what's interesting and what, what, what I think the point of this festival is going to be. When I first got to town I announced that there would be no European and no east coast culture in this festival. And everyone gasped. In fact there was a member of the board who said, "But Peter, we're concerned about quality." Which is just shocking.[laughter.]
Studs Terkel What revealing. That tells you everything about the question.
Studs Terkel The person who asked it.
Peter Sellars And, and, and, and you know, and now, and now this is the point, is to say, you know not only is, it's not that there's no culture in Los Angeles, there's different culture. It's another cultural model.
Studs Terkel You don't mind, very quick, to connect what you say, there was a folk fest--a folk song festival I emceed this first night as I did 30 years ago. Now a little group came called Roberto Clemente High School, and that's mostly Puerto Rican kids there. But 20 years ago it was a Jewish high school called [Tully?]. Now there was a European cut--out of it came a Nobel laureate and others and there was a culture, European, and brilliant and great and then the neighborhood changed! People are saying, 'Oh God what happened to the culture of the old?' They were playing these--Puerto Ricans are playing steel drums--steel drums that were found in the garbage cans or in the alleys and they made music with it and they got a standing ovation.
Peter Sellars Well, that comes from a notion--
Studs Terkel --So
Peter Sellars there was the culture, that's what you're talking about-- And so they went from a notion of culture, it comes from a notion of culture which is not primarily about artists being professionals distinct from the society and alienated from the society. But in fact every living soul in the society is an artist. Everybody makes their own costume. Everybody sings. Everybody joins in and is part of an event. I mean the, the, the way culture has developed in the Pacific of course is so different from the European model, is for one thing? It's, it's nice outside. So at night you don't have to like build a concert hall and go in and huddle together, but it's always part of an environmental interaction. You're always part of the landscape, part of nature. There's a very intense wanting to be together with the earth. And, and, and, and a, uh real connection to her.
Studs Terkel Now how would this work? You are a theater, and by a theater--this theater in the broadest sense.
Peter Sellars This is the largest show I was ever on, yes.
Studs Terkel Of course this could be street theater as well and free theater as well.
Peter Sellars That's the thing. We'll make 70 percent of the festival free of charge to the public and we'll have it happening all over Los Angeles.
Studs Terkel Like on streets as well?
Peter Sellars In streets, in parks, in churches, in community centers. For example, uh, most people living in Los Angeles don't know I've never been to the Thai temple in the valley. There, you're driving along the freeway and suddenly these, you know, astonishing tongues of flame are rising out of the mouths of golden serpents, uh, you know, vaunting towards the sky and you say what's that? Well, you get off the freeway and it turns out there's a Thai temple there between a gas station, too many malls, and the Thai communities built in the last three years and it is their place. And it is a sacred place. But it's also, you know, first of all the best food in Los Angeles on the weekends. Families take turns, it's, that'd, they signed up for months ahead. To have a booth there and sell food, and, you've just, you've never eaten like this in your life! [laughter] and it's a fantastic place where there's a full scale mural program the kids are always making all these new murals around that area. Uh, it's, it's just fascinating but again it's this beautiful notion of art as part of life. Art not as a separate category.
Studs Terkel And so the people who, who go there, that are the audience,
Peter Sellars Right.
Studs Terkel Are participants as well.
Peter Sellars Are participants. And it's part of, and, and culture means food. Culture means kids running around. Culture means, you know, a whole scene, not just, you know, an official program with two items on it.
Studs Terkel Have you heard of Joan Littlewood?
Peter Sellars Oh sure, of course.
Studs Terkel Well, you know Joan Littlewood had that dream that you are fulfilling. In, off the Thames, along it, she has something she had something she planned to call Vauxhall Gardens.
Peter Sellars Yes.
Studs Terkel You know about it?
Studs Terkel The very thing you're talking about.
Peter Sellars Well, you see, I think in L.A. we can do it. I mean, it begins, first of all the neighborhoods are in place. I mean what's shocking about Los Angeles is the most segregated city I've ever lived in in my life.
Studs Terkel How long you been in Chicago?
Peter Sellars [laughter] Now, but you know? In Chicago at least people have to, like, go through other sections of town on their way to somewhere. Thing about Los Angeles is these freeways. Is you never go through anything and most people living in Los Angeles, know, start from their, their point of departure and go to their destination and see nothing along the way. But this freeway, which has walls on either side, so you don't see anybody else's neighborhood. And the result is that most people in Los Angeles, their experience in the city actually not firsthand, it's what they see on TV. And so they see "Beverly Hills Cop," they see 24-hour gang war and they don't think anything in between. Meanwhile, there are all of these neighborhoods with real families living real lives with, you know, incredible, you know, real dignity and, and, and, and you know, it's a real place.
Studs Terkel So, how specific? I mean, I know, I realize that there's a broad frame you're, you're offering--
Peter Sellars No, it's specific.
Studs Terkel Now, specifically, this is a festival.
Peter Sellars It's a festival--
Studs Terkel It takes place in Los Angeles--
Studs Terkel A theater festival.
Peter Sellars Well, it's theater, it's dance--
Studs Terkel How, how will it work?
Peter Sellars It's music. It's, it's, it will go for sixteen days the first two weeks of September for three weekends, and it will be outdoors. Uh, most of it will have performers coming from all over the Pacific. We're bringing some of the most impressive cultural, uh, manifestations. I mean I must say, central Javanese court dance--a tradition that is so awesome and beautiful. It has not been seen before in the West--the bedoyo. You see nine women spending twenty minutes getting to stage center and every, every spiritual, uh, every, every spiritual implication of the number nine is conjugated before your very eyes.
Studs Terkel And done where? In a, in a--
Peter Sellars And, well, we're going to actually build a special pavilion out in the arboretum, you know, surrounded by peacocks and exotic birds.
Studs Terkel So are you thinking of the city topographically as well?
Peter Sellars Well, we're about--
Studs Terkel You're thinking that a certain place would be an arboretum.
Peter Sellars Exactly.
Studs Terkel A certain particular [unintelligible] will be near the lake or water.
Peter Sellars We're thinking of it as a, as a, as a cultural remapping of Los Angeles. We'll have stages on the beaches. We'll have stages--and you know, the interesting thing would be that the Latino show will not be in East L.A. but in Westwood. And, and, and meanwhile in East L.A., in the in the official Latino neighborhood, you know, we'll be showing the Balinese children.
Studs Terkel All the Latinos will be an area where there are no Latinos--
Peter Sellars And the Latinos will be by UCLA.
Studs Terkel Westwood I take it is upper middle class.
Peter Sellars Right, uh, very. [laughter] And, and, and it will be, you know, uh, we, we--we'll mix it up. We'll tour work through the city. So it moves past the burroughs and we'll have a huge bus program where, we're, we're making these art buses with RTD that have, uh, their own sound systems inside with--and we'll be broadcasting tapes, uh, by artists, and the buses will be decorated inside by artists so that riding the bus is an art experience.
Studs Terkel I guess when you say 'total theater,' this is what you're talking about.
Peter Sellars It's pretty total. And it means that we'll get people to parts of the city they never visited before. Get people out there, get people seeing what the neighborhoods are, getting people--because most people don't, can't walk into a neighborhood two neighborhoods over. They really don't know--
Studs Terkel You know what's so funny, as you're saying that, funny and great is that, you're talking about the non-European theaters, plural, so many. As against the European--European theater for the tradition. Who knows better than you? The idea that as an audience that watches, and sees.
Peter Sellars There's--
Studs Terkel Their act is partici--you're talking now about an audience that participates.
Peter Sellars That is part of the event, and feels free to be part of the event. And you know the main thing is it's very important to, you know, get to know the Koreans before there's Korean mayor. You know.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Peter Sellars It's cheaper to get to know them now. It's cheaper to like, you know, get to be friends and just deal with it. And how can you make a deal with the Korean businessman until you know who they are and when they came from?
Studs Terkel You know we have to talk more about the Los Angeles Festival but also about Peter Sellars too and the different, uh, what the different bows in your quiver.
Studs Terkel There are a good number of them. Is that right? A quiver is in a bow.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel I never got that right. How much [unintelligible] [father? farther?]
Peter Sellars No, no, bows, bows in a
Studs Terkel quiver. No, no, you're on the case-- Bows in a quiver, I guess. Peter Sell--we'll hear more of Peter Sellars as we go along. There are several chapters, infinite number to his life in, in the theater. [pause]. And so to resume with Peter Sellars, you are here by the way, visiting Chicago because you'll be, as I take it, offering some master classes at Northwestern University.
Peter Sellars Yes, I had a very kind invitation and I'm going to go. I mean it's so important for me to rub shoulders with students. Uh, I spend a lot of my time teaching. I had very great teachers. My life was really changed by teachers, and you feel you have to pay it back.
Studs Terkel From the very beginning you were six, puppet theater at ten and then at Harvard you were twenty. When would you do Lear? When'd you do Lear?
Peter Sellars That was the last thing I did at Harvard. Yes [laughter].
Studs Terkel Lear? So you were about twenty-one or so? Nineteen?
Peter Sellars It
Studs Terkel was a little while. Right. Funny thing, I'm reading about your Lear. Uh, there he is, in a Lincoln convertible, escaping.
Peter Sellars Yes.
Studs Terkel And it breaks down and somehow Lear's asleep, and breaks down, and Lear he goes to sleep in the cold under the car. The funny thing, I'm thinking how your mind works theatrically way back. The French director Jean-Louis Barrault was telling me about Louis Jouvet, the great actor-director.
Peter Sellars Louis Jouvet-- Jouvet, Jouvet, yeah.
Studs Terkel Jouvet. Of his Oedipus and I thought of well, you. Because what Oedipus, in his Oedipus, as soon as he discovers that Jocasta, his queen, is his mother, the bed--the marriage bed on the stage-- explodes.
Peter Sellars Yeah.
Studs Terkel And that's what you're talking about, using the car that way.
Peter Sellars You know, and yeah. And then we blew up, we blew up the car. You know of course it's--the main thing is you want to just offer images of great classics to an American public that feel, Oh we know this. This isn't so strange. We really know this. We really live here.
Studs Terkel But--
Peter Sellars You wanted to allow people to live in the classics. I mean what's so great about a classic is, it is a classic it means that it still means something. It means that it's still powerful and, you know, it belongs to us. You know, it's not on the shelf belonging to someone else. It really does belong to us. We have inherited it and it's our job to take it out and retool it from time to time. You know that's our job, we have to keep it well oiled. And we have to live there.
Studs Terkel So when you did ""Tannhauser" here for the Lyric, your "Tannhauser"...I mean, uh, Wagner's Sellar's "Tannhauser".
Peter Sellars [laughter]
Studs Terkel Somewhat different than just a Wagner "Tannhauser".
Peter Sellars Well, you know--
Studs Terkel Well, you did! No it wasn't. It wasn't done to shock or that--it was done because you figured, There's something contemporary here.
Peter Sellars Well, I mean it's done just to be normal. You know, I mean, I mean, I prefer normalcy. Most people think, for example, this Los Angeles Festival is a giant utopian, you know, idea. In fact, no, it's a reality check. It's just saying, "S'cuse me ladies and gentlemen, these are the facts. This is actually what's happening." You know, this is not a daydream, it's not fantasy time. I'm not particularly interested in fantasy. I'm not particularly interested in daydreaming because it's very bad when a country gets in the habit of daydreaming and, and reality is so much more interesting, has so much more juice, and gets you so much farther.
Studs Terkel Now the reality you're talking about is it also a theatrical reality?
Peter Sellars Yeah.
Studs Terkel That of the theater--in having the, uh, Javanese group or the Cambodian group you were talking about.
Peter Sellars Well, I have to say--
Studs Terkel I suddenly discover, "Hey, wait a minute, this is part of this-- people whom we see every day in this community."
Peter Sellars Exactly. I mean, I'm bringing, I'm bringing a company six-thousand miles from Bangkok and putting them in the Thai temple. So people visit the Thai temple and then say, "Oh my gosh this is here every day." You know. I mean, and, and the other thing is--uh, this is a festival about stories. I mean--
Peter Sellars Stories.
Studs Terkel Ah.
Peter Sellars I mean, right now, for example, that Cambodians living in Long Beach right now. When they came, they, they escaped the Pol Pot regime, they were destitute, they came. Most of them with family members missing with no money just barely surviving. When they got to California, the first thing they did before they built the housing complex is they formed a dance academy.
Studs Terkel Hm.
Peter Sellars Because that was the one thing that could never be taken away from them. That was the one thing that you could move as a Cambodian. And the way you held your body, the way you moved, defined your culture identity and who you were.
Studs Terkel So that helped them survive?
Peter Sellars Absolutely. And it was their--to them, it was the first step of any survival process. Now one of the things, of course, that will be very moving in the festival is we've, uh, we all thought that the Royal Cambodian dance academy in Phnom Penh had been destroyed. It was the first thing that Pol Pot went for because it's always been under the protectorship of the Prince. And as an image of kind of royal patronage. So, Pol Pot literally killed all the dancers, destroyed all the costumes, all the sets. Amazingly, we learned eleven months ago that the company is now being rebuilt. They found one seventy-five-year old woman who remembers how to make the costumes.
Studs Terkel So, not only survival, it's the resilience.
Peter Sellars It's the resilience--
Peter Sellars Through art. And, and suddenly, you know, two younger, two women in their twenties are beginning to make the costumes.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Peter Sellars There is a new generation of dancers. One of the old ballet masters is still surviving. And, and when I asked them if they could bring a full program, you know, one of the astonishing evening-length Cambodian ballets. They can't. They don't have the costumes yet. They don't have the cast yet. They'll bring excerpts. But what we can do is create a situation where those, if not a joint recital, there's a kind of final gathering of some of the master musicians here playing with the company from Phnom Penh and, a meaning.
Studs Terkel You see, also, you're talking here about art being as necessary as bread and wine. Or I guess, would be helpful, would be bread and milk which you said. But I think that, that's part of it. Harrison Salisbury writes during the nine hundred day siege of Leningrad during World War Two, what kept them going is the voice of this woman named Olga on the public address system. Reading poetry.
Peter Sellars Absolutely. And you know and the fact is one thing that America got a little wrong from time to time is, it's assumed that that if you deal with economic and political issues first, culture religion will take care of themselves. It's actually not true. What happens is the pecking order should be reversed. Culture and spiritual life have to come first and then an economic and political will follow. And until people are culturally equal they'll never be politically equal.
Studs Terkel So when that mem--board member said to you and you said, "Oh no more European stuff for now if you don't mind because it's altering. What have the, uh, Asian, African, and the Hispanic." He said, "What about the quality?"
Studs Terkel We've come to that again.
Peter Sellars It's astounding. I mean it's astounding and again that sort of building racism is, is, is still the number one problem in America. Let's face it. Let's deal with it now. You know, it's really time to come out from these armed fortresses. It is now time. I mean, frankly, Los Angeles right now can either be the ultimate Tower of Babel which collapses in on itself or it has the chance to be the first new society. And this is the choice then what's interesting is this choice has been given to this generation. It's not that it's going to happen later and it's clear that it didn't happen earlier. And so it has to happen now.
Studs Terkel You know the old Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.
Studs Terkel And it's been visited upon us and you're saying, it could be a blessing perhaps or a curse.
Peter Sellars Well, let's put it this way. It's our choice. It's our choice of whether we decide to enter. Whether we will stand off and stand apart and retreat and create a society of alienation and isolation or whether we enter and engage.
Studs Terkel And you are saying something, connection with this, or you mentioned the word storytelling. I guess one of things that is missing today is the story teller what with sound bites, and, uh,
Peter Sellars See and these Cambodians--
Peter Sellars These Cambodian refugees have real stories to tell. I mean what's interesting is on TV every night it's the same buddy cop story. And in fact there's a whole new group of people living here now who have real stories who have just escaped with their lives and are living as refugees. And we have a problem is that, is that when in the thirties and forties the cream of European intellectuals came to America as refugees, artists, musicians, writers. Sol Hurok saw to it that Yehudi Menuhin could play his violin in Carnegie Hall. Right now we have a who's who of third world master artists living in America washing dishes, waiting on tables, and working as maids. And it's because they have no way to enter the large cultural system. We now have to really insist that the cultural distribution system begin to match the lives of the people for whom it's designed to serve.
Studs Terkel The whole thing in storytell--People have stories to tell. You spoke of a class of very bright, white, middle-class kids, European background asked to define heroes and difficult--
Peter Sellars I know, it was with my UCLA class.
Studs Terkel We know then the civil rights struggle. We know they were the, uh escaped Cambo--others who survived--but stories to tell. Suppose we hear something. This is a folk song festival. Newport Oh God, sixty, thirty years ago. And Pete Seeger, young Pete Seeger then, in a tent behind the, uh, stage I'm asking about something happening. He says, "Something is missing." I went to the story--Why don't we hear his voice for a moment, it'll set you off, Peter.
Pete Seeger Sorry to say I don't know much about telling stories. Uh, gradually now in my forty-one years I've just barely learned how to, just a little bit, tell a story but it's taken me all this time to learn. Uh, a child learns how to talk and they talk the whole time. A man buys an automobile and he rides and forgets how to use his legs. And the fact is, let's face it: Printing was invented and people, a lot of people forgot how to tell stories. You don't need to tell stories to your children at night, you buy them a twenty-five cent book at the local drugstore or, or, buy them a phonograph record, or switch on the radio or TV. You don't have to use your brains anymore. Uh, you don't have to make music obviously. You don't have to be an athlete anymore. You turn on the TV and watch the best athletes in the world. Watch them use their muscles and you sit back and grow a pot belly. Uh, you don't need to be witty anymore. You turn on the TV and watch an expert be witty. You don't need to be witty any more. And of course the crowning shame of it all is for a man and wife to sit back and watch the expert lover and make pretend to make love on the little screen man.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Peter Sellars Wow. My gosh. I mean, and again, this is the issue of, is this going to be the world's most important passive society? Or can we return to a level of activism which actually is the one thing that actually turns out to make life worth living. I mean, it looks hard at first and then you do it and then it's such a relief. You look at it and say like, "Oh my gosh. You know this wasn't so hard at all." You know, it's just entering in right now. Obviously there are a bunch of things that aren't going to go away. And, you know, our question is just the quality, the quality of our engagement.
Studs Terkel You--you're saying a passive society or active. We come to--we come to those two.
Peter Sellars Yeah and you know, and frankly, action is so much more interesting. You know let's face it.
Studs Terkel For your return to Los Angles a minute, when asked what other of your, God knows adventures theatrically. So they're--the audience that people--the audience being of course people live in Los Angeles. Everybody.
Peter Sellars Really is. And it's, and it's, a way of, of, of just announcing publicly--and again, please, I have nothing as European culture I mean I spend my life staging Mozart and Wagner. I mean you know, please, it's my bread and butter certainly. And where I live and what and what I grew up with. But I have to say it, it encourages me to want to look at non-Western culture as even a way of rethinking Western culture and maybe some, some, some ideas we have about that that have turned out not to be too useful. At the same time the point is anyone's interested in culture at all, why interest in cultures? Because you want to meet people, you want to meet other people, you want to know other people, you want to know you're not alone, you want to know that someone else has thought these things, you're not the only person who's thought this. The whole idea of theater is, you know, for three hours you're in the other guy's shoes. And that's really the key here, is you know to start trying on some different shoes and, and just see how interesting it is because that starts to move the big picture.
Studs Terkel It's funny, as you say this--'cause I'm thinking--I'm--I know the different portraits of you in some way you, you were speaking of James Baldwin. I remember you saying, you just said a moment ago that you're in someone else's shoes. What--try out the other shoes. "Nobody Knows My Name" his essay as he says, you know, we know more about you. We know all about you. And you know about us because people talk in front of the woman who is serving.
Peter Sellars Right.
Studs Terkel Unless you weren't there.
Peter Sellars Right.
Studs Terkel And because she knows, and they know nothing about her.
Peter Sellars Right.
Studs Terkel And so you're saying here is a question of finding out--
Peter Sellars How many people know the names of the janitors who come clean their offices everyday? [laughter]. You know, that's a, that's a real question. At the same time, you know, there is this sense that there is so much now to be said and learned because right now in America we've learned that we're not the leading country in the world anymore. It's not that simple. That, everybody's an independent right now and it really is, we don't have a choice. We have to be thinking globally because a tiny country in the corner of the world can suddenly create a crisis upon which we're all depending. So the issue is, you know, now that page 2, 3, and 4 the newspaper everyday has an article on Bolivia or Colombia. What else do we know about Colombia? Nothing. Who lives there? What does it feel like? What's going on? I wanted to create this festival as a way of answering what people are thinking about in Colombia. We need information now. We need to see other images of these countries besides the drug war. We need to know really what's going on in a deep, in a cultural way in a way that people offer themselves through art. And the other thing of course that's really tremendously important to me is this question of really examining what is out there in the Pacific. What is lurking? Is there another cultural model, a societal model, that we can begin to help us out of some of the corners we get painted into here. One thing that the intense spirituality in art that moves around the Pacific is extremely interesting. And we'll have, for example, a program with with an Aboriginal family from from Mornington Island in the north of Australia, and, on the same bill as say an Inupiat Eskimo family from King Island, Alaska.
Studs Terkel Hm.
Peter Sellars And suddenly people will be able to look at this dancing and singing from these opposite ends of the Pacific and make their own connections.
Studs Terkel And just say that, the idea is, the global aspect of knowing and making their own connections. I'd like to use the idea of the time we live now, the time you are in as a theater person, like more than a stage, it's the world itself--
Studs Terkel It is that, this may be a period, and the one analogous moment to me is the end of the 16th century when Galileo discovers that Copernicus is right and the world is not flat but round and that the earth is not the center of the universe. The earth!
Peter Sellars It's astounding.
Studs Terkel But it's part of a respectable--where is in now we're discovering there is no one country. There is no American century, or a Russian century, or a Chinese century but all part of this global, the center being the sun, and for what should be humanity and that you're talking about.
Peter Sellars Exactly. And once you realize that, you realize that what you thought was the margin is of course the center. And what you thought was the center is probably the margin. And suddenly you have to rethink it all. And that's why I'm interested in really redefining now the term 'mainstream' in America. And mainstream culture. Because the mainstream is a new river from a lot of different sources.
Studs Terkel Yeah, we gotta hit that some more. we're talking to Peter Sellars and he's here through the good offices of Northwestern where at this moment there's some master classes he's teaching but obviously his major interest at this moment is the Los Angeles--what's it called? The Los Angeles?
Peter Sellars The Los Angeles Festival.
Studs Terkel Festival. Which he's the overall director. Nineteen-ni--Ninety?
Peter Sellars First two Weeks of September 1990 and be there. It's really, 180 events happening in 16 days.
Studs Terkel And so we got to pick up on that. As we pick up with Peter Sellars, you were speaking of the global aspects of it and here we come again.
Peter Sellars Right. And just--
Studs Terkel What is mainstream? You know, what is mainstream?
Peter Sellars And where is that going? And, you know, and I, and I love the fact that frankly, for my generation, and for the generation behind mine, mainstream is a completely different thing than you know than it was for our parents. You know, we have it's ,it's not unusual to go and have Thai food. You know it's just, it's, it's normal. It's no big deal. And so you know, what, what else might that imply about our life choices? You know what--
Studs Terkel There's a place in Los Angeles and this was told by the former Commission of Immigration, name was Leonel Castillo, under Jimmy Carter. [Wouldn't be?] under Reagan. And he said, "There's a place in Los Angeles that sells kosher burritos. It is run by a Korean and its patrons are Black."
Peter Sellars [laughter] And that is really true.
Studs Terkel So that's what you're talking about.
Peter Sellars And I have to say one of the most moving things about this whole Los Angeles Festival has been, we've invited a lot of people to be stage center who are normally kept in the wings. And, and the response of artists and communities has been so powerful. One of the most impressive things about the festival is for example, where the money's raised. A couple of, you know, leading high class foundations who really declined to fund this. And what impresses me greatly is for example, $100,000 is being raised through the black churches of South Central Los Angeles in small vestry meetings. And you know, they're going to do better than 100 in fact. And, when a community like that which has a list of agenda items of such urgent priorities decides, "No, we have to create a world where art is possible, where something beyond survival is possible." That becomes so important. You know most of these communities, one reason they're so isolated, one reason for the segregation, is so many of these communities are so hard put just to survive. That just for basic survival they're dependent on an infrastructure which they lean on and which, of course, functions miraculously and beautifully. It's one of the most moving things is, is you feel a real African-American community. You feel a real Cambodian community. But, of course, the price is also that they're isolated from participating in the larger life of the city.
Studs Terkel You know, it's something you said a moment ago about these black churches. Three-hundred thousand or more for something they know is not bread, literally. They know it's not milk, literally. You know, it's not--it is art. And that the recognition that, that song or dance is important as the other.
Peter Sellars And we, you know, and I, and I said to a couple of the leaders of that community, you know, that the '93 festival I hope will be on Africa and the Middle East and, you know, for '90, for the '90 festival it's really concentrated on the Pacific and there are fewer, you know, black performers there. They said, We don't care. We want to be counted. We want to be present. We want to be here. We're not just paying for our things. You know, we want to enter.
Studs Terkel And you said, what is main--what is mainstream? Or main line? When that board member said, "It doesn't have quality," uh, when he speaks of the non-European theater I mean he's not part of the mainstream, and I suppose, here I am. This is in the grasslands of inner Mongolia about nine years ago, ten years ago. Looking for a barefoot doctor way up on the [hill?]. Sleep in a yurt.
Studs Terkel And there is a gathering of herdsman there and it's a celebration of the guests--whomever they want--the guests there. And we call upon song, I have my little tape recorder there. And isn't this mainstream? I heard her start singing a song. It's a lot--first she sang a sad song of her a billion of peasants 200 years ago. Finishes that, and they're talking and they're laughing in Mongolian some talk Chinese and then, How about another? and then singing the sort of a love song, but it's a graceful one. Suppose we hear the singing. We just finished some meal, and it--the herdsmen of inner Mongolia, way, way, way up there.
Studs Terkel Now thinking, there was--who was mainstream? Who wasn't? I came from what obviously to them is an exotic and strange sight. They don't [have anything strange?] that we get to discover what it is to be mainstream outside our own.
Peter Sellars Yeah, I mean and I think, and I think really that's, that's really one of the keys. I mean, what's so--what's going to be so interesting about this festival is you know we don't get to see much foreign film in America. We see you know a couple of French films a year or maybe German film or a Japanese film squeaks through. But, you know, when was the last time you saw a film from Thailand? When was the last time you saw a film from Taiwan? Well it turns out that the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival this year was given to a Taiwanese director. Now, who knew that one of the world's great directors was living and working in Taiwan? We'll of course show a range of this man's films, Hou Hsiao-Hsien. I mean, it's really, it's an exciting period where it's not just the usual suspects. [laughter] Where, where right now, you know, maybe some type of cultural democracy might be in the offing.
Studs Terkel Now perhaps you--know--about Peter Sellars. We know now about this festival and it seems, obviously, it's a challenge. It's a great one too and very provocable but of course sad, but Sellars doing opera!
Peter Sellars [laughter.]
Studs Terkel Now, you've done theater, but opera has become pretty much one of your primary--because I thought the word opera means, what, 'big work,' doesn't it?
Peter Sellars Yes.
Studs Terkel Translation: big work.
Peter Sellars I, I love opera because it's, it is automatically profound. It's automatically metaphysical. It's automatically not just this sort of dumb kitchen sink realism. It automatically means a level of reality that is on the level of reality where, where you feel human beings project themselves through space, and, and, you know the act of opening up and throwing your voice out is, you know, the ultimate act of, you know, leaping outside yourself. That's, it's so moving.
Studs Terkel But, also you know for years here in United States, Italy [handled?] opera--we thought it was for the elite, something of an archaic form too. And along you come and say, "Wait a minute. It's very contemporary." So, when you make those changes it's not for shock reasons.
Peter Sellars Well no, it's actually quite the contrary. I would just like people to feel that opera can be normal, that opera isn't about strange people that lived, you know, long ago. It truly is, was intended by its composer as, you know, something that's directly accessible to the public. And, so I just try and create a set of images that allow an opera--allow, you know, people who haven't been reading up on their 13th century, you know, costume histories lately. You know, a chance to just walk into a theater one night and say, "Oh I get this. Oh sure. Right. I know who this is." You know? That's all. I just want people to relax. I want people to be able to just meet the characters and meet the music head on and not have to go through endless filters and, you know, try and, you know, sitting there thumbing through reference works in their minds to figure out what's going on.
Studs Terkel So when you do that with three Mozart operas--the three most celebrated--"Don Giovanni," "Marriage of Figaro," and "Cosi fan tutte." Now, each one of those three was a wholly different--
Peter Sellars Yes, And I'm happy to say we just taped them in Vienna and they will be released by Decca on video, video discs and, and home video next year and they'll be shown on PBS and so people can finally get to see them.
Studs Terkel Let's take them one at a time. "Don Giovanni" is where, now this is in Spain.
Peter Sellars It is sort of Spanish Harlem.
Peter Sellars Could be the Bronx, could be, could be the Bronx, could be Queens. I just wanted a very intense urban setting where you were dealing drugs, violence. And, and a need, you know, a society that basically is escapist and prefers a drug. Prefers the fantasy to the real thing because the real thing is unbearable, they think. And that sense of pornography of, you know, of Don Giovanni for whom you know, each woman is there to be used for one night. You know, that, and that notion that, you know, the important thing is the number is that, you know, this is number 3,798. That sort of invention of pornography as a, as a way of covering up a horrible emptiness, as a way of compensating for a wasted life. Is to treat other people's objects. I wanted to get that, that setting that sense of wasted lives in, in the big cities where very, very important major lives are wasted. The one thing that makes this production a little controversial all is of course I really do deal with eternal damnation at the end.
Studs Terkel [laughter]
Peter Sellars You know, I mean it's something that you know doesn't come up that often, I suppose, but let's face it, you know, that's what Mozart's after.
Studs Terkel [speaking Italian?] What is that, there?
Peter Sellars Well, I mean, in, in this production it was a little shocking to people that Don Giovanni's last supper was from McDonald's. You know, and that it was a quick burger and a Coke. But I don't think it's more glamorous than that. It's not a function of glamor. It's a function of--
Studs Terkel Like you're showing me the idea that one night stands and I would think of today and nothing to do with--
Peter Sellars Everything is instantly disposable.
Peter Sellars Right.
Studs Terkel So, we come to "Marriage of Figaro."
Peter Sellars "Marriage of Figaro" was quite different, set in 67th--the 57th floor of Trump Tower, uh, in New York, and we saw how the other half lived. And, of course, the despair in that regard of the masters and servants being so completely interdependent that it goes beyond politics, and is just about human need. Is about people who are desperately, desperately needy and the various--
Studs Terkel Emotionally needy.
Peter Sellars Emotionally needy and the level of deception that they have to employ either to be recognized as human beings or to avoid being recognized as human beings.
Studs Terkel And so when they have the deception of the Count. Has this kind of take.
Peter Sellars Yes. And I must say, I mean we made it. Of course it's very funny and a perfect piece of clockwork and fabulous like Broadway show but it's also I hope a little scary. The last that takes place out on the ledge overlooking Fifth Avenue and is a little suicidal. And it's a Christmas, Christmas in New York--the most depressing time of year. [laughter] And it's cold and bright.
Studs Terkel But the commentary made, uh, various critics and people to see that musically it's on the button.
Studs Terkel It even highlights Mozart--
Peter Sellars Always we do the most complete version you've ever heard of these pieces. We do, we do material that's left out of most productions. I mean it is the most musical-ogically accurate version before the public today. And then of course for "Cosi fan tutte" we do everything that's--
Peter Sellars We made it a little diner by the sea.
Peter Sellars A little diner by the sea.
Peter Sellars Despina's Diner. And, and, she and Alfonso run the place and, and you know these two lovers, two sets of lovers are there and it starts a little game and it ends up not as a game because obviously when people play games it doesn't usually turn out that well and the games, everybody gets to know too much about everyone else.
Studs Terkel Obviously, in order to gather those, even who haven't seen as works but especially those that have, the excitement that the Peter Sellars generates. The excitement. I don't mean that I mean the ersatz excitement. I'm talking about the imaginative.
Peter Sellars I like to think people are really stirred inside and whether they like it or whether they hate it I don't care. You know it's just fine in fact it's just as good if they hate it because they're still stirred.
Studs Terkel They're stirred and they think about it.
Peter Sellars That's all they care about. That's all--
Studs Terkel That was no damn good. That rotten Peter Sellars production. But they're talking.
Peter Sellars And then, fine--
Studs Terkel But they're talking--
Peter Sellars The issue got driven home--
Studs Terkel Therefore they're [unintelligible]. The blood is coursing.
Peter Sellars Exactly. And and right now I'm about to go into rehearsal next month for, oh gosh, "Magic Flute."
Studs Terkel Oh, so "Magic Flute."
Peter Sellars It's incredible
Studs Terkel finalizing this. Now here is something, before our last lap enters. "Magic Flute." Now we talk with a certain kind of belief at a certain time. Freemasonry.
Peter Sellars Well, I have to say--
Studs Terkel So how are you going to deal with that?
Peter Sellars Well, I mean look at a dollar bill.
Studs Terkel Uh-huh.
Peter Sellars Take out a dollar bill.
Studs Terkel Uh-huh.
Peter Sellars Look at it and,um, it has a pyramid on it. An eye above the pyramid. Look at the imagery on that dollar bill. Basically this country was founded by Masons. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin. The ideas that governed this country and the phrase, "All men are created equal." These are Masonic ideas. These were--Mozart was a member of the same Masonic lodge in Paris as Benjamin Franklin. And the last year of Mozart's life, the year he wrote "Magic Flute," he wrote two pieces for the glass harmonica, the instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin. They must've known each other. And the whole idea of the magic flute is, you know, a European Prince wakes up in a strange land and the first person he sees is someone wearing feathers. It's about the discovery of America.
Studs Terkel Right. So that's going to be, hey--
Peter Sellars I'm actually not--
Studs Terkel That's gonna be pretty exciting.
Peter Sellars I'm not going to stage it this way this time. Exactly. I'm not going to do it too literally. In fact I'm sitting in Los Angeles.
Studs Terkel You can't escape Los Angeles.
Peter Sellars [laughter] I can't. I really can't. It's all over me. But, you know, the fact is it is about America. It is about the discovery of America. It's about beginning to understand the new society here and it's about the old society understanding that its job is to train the new leaders and then to let go. And then to just let go is to be willing to let go. And the beauty of Sarastro, the beauty of, you know, after all of the trials is that he then says to Tamino and Pamina, "Please. The kingdom is not yours."
Peter Sellars To really, to train, to help.
Studs Terkel For a big power--
Peter Sellars To allow the next generation in. To allow them to take. To allow them to be trained, to learn, to feel, and to absorb what has been done to this point. And, and really to insist that they are better than they are. To really say, "No, you have to even set a higher standard for yourself." But then finally to say, "And now it does belong to you."
Studs Terkel Peter Sellars is directing. There's one last lap. Very brief time that we've got to have some sort of thoughts as he hails farewell once more. Oh, he's a delightful hail and a reluctant farewell. But one more, one more round Delia--how does that song go? Delia, one more round. And for the last lap.
Peter Sellars [laughter]
Studs Terkel We've covered Los Angeles, partly. And Mozart, very early Lear, you first I read where you first. I remember, John Lahr did a piece about you. John Lahr, about your Handel's "Orlando," wasn't it?
Studs Terkel As we spoke of the, Bang! The explosiveness.
Peter Sellars Well, I'm actually, I'm actually in three days. I'm going to do Handel's "Julius Caesar." We have just done it in Paris and we're going now to do a television tape of it. So it again will be available in stores to people. And again it's the most complete version ever done. We did two arias Handel didn't even do in his life. It's four and a half hours long. And I do it as an American president visiting the Middle East, and getting involved in way over his head an all series of local [moments?]
Studs Terkel We forget "Nixon in China."
Peter Sellars "Nixon in China."
Studs Terkel I forgot that. Was that your idea?
Peter Sellars Yes, of course and that will be in the Los Angeles Festival.
Studs Terkel You got the composer John Adams to do it.
Peter Sellars Yes.
Studs Terkel How did that came about?
Peter Sellars Well, you know, I just said, "John, would you like to do an opera called 'Nixon in China?'" and he said, "No, you've got to be kidding." And a year later he said, "Yes, of course. You're right." And we did it and it was serious, I mean, we meant it. And, and the, the, the "Julius Caesar" we're taping in Berlin this, next week. We're taping in East Berlin and we're living in West Berlin and that's going to be pretty interesting. And then of course the next John Adams opera that we're working on right now is "The Death of Klinghoffer." It's about the hijacking of the "Achille Lauro" ocean liner four years back and the elderly Jewish man from New Jersey in a wheelchair who was killed and pushed overboard. The four Palestinian youth who hijacked the boat for those four days and which for those four days the whole world became like a small room. And, of course like most historic events in our lifetimes we don't even begin to understand what happened behind any of the headlines. All most people remember is the headline from that. Most people don't know where those people are today. You know, what the consequences were. And in fact historically what the background of it is. How it even happened. One of the problems with our form of instant history is that it also has no staying power. And it also has no depth charge. And so one of the reasons I feel absolutely obligated to resuscitate the genre of the historical operas like "Boris Godunov," like "Don Carlos" is to say, history's moving too fast in our lifetimes right now. We have to stop. We have to stop it and make it go in real time, musical time, operatic time. So we have a chance to look at it. So we have a chance to taste it. So we have a chance to feel it. So we can enter it and say, "Wait a minute. This is actually going on in our lifetimes." And we were just zipping by. Let's now please park the car, get out, and look.
Studs Terkel I think, you mentioned "Boris Godunov" in passing here. What a challenge that would be to you.
Studs Terkel A moment ago you spoke of letting go.
Peter Sellars What I wouldn't give to do that.
Studs Terkel Sarastro says to Tamino and Pamina, yours, letting go. "Boris," by God, that would be a sensational one for you.
Peter Sellars I must say, I've thought about it for years and years and years you know I have a production all worked out, ready to go.
Studs Terkel When do you have a production? In your head?
Peter Sellars Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sure, I mean you think of these things. I mean most of these operas you think about your whole lifetime you just every day, you know, you're hit by them. You just say, "Oh my God. Of course that's what that piece means." And, you know, and it strikes you. I mean, Verdi's "Don Carlos." I mean, it's so important to do right now. The whole idea of a larger country deciding the fate of a smaller country and people in a smaller country wanting to have their own elections and it not being allowed by the larger country. We know about this today.
Studs Terkel [laughter]
Peter Sellars I think we know what this is. I think, I think we've been there. And, and you know "Don Carlos" could hardly be more precise.
Studs Terkel Wow. Too "Don Carlos." You got your "Don Carlos"--
Peter Sellars Well, you know, my problem is--
Studs Terkel Before the next presidential election.
Peter Sellars I know. My problem is, what I have to do is these new operas. Right now, I mean, the shock is Mozart and [unintelligible] they only wrote three operas. Why? You know, there's the, commonly acknowledged to be the three greatest operas in the literature. And why were there only three of them? Because people in my position, people who could commission these visas didn't, said, "Oh well, we'll fuss with something else now." The point right now is we have the talent right here to create a generation of the most important works in the history of opera. The composers are alive today. The writers are alive today and in order to really honor the works of the past. The only way to do that is to employ the great talents of the present.
Studs Terkel So when, which leads to one more before we say goodbye. You have one opera called "Electrification of the Soviet Union." What is that?
Peter Sellars Well, that, that was an opera about the early life of Pasternak. Uh, and, and the life of a poet in the Russian Revolution and, and again as the Soviet state was being invented, you know, what was the mythology to go along with it and what kind of morality did that or did that not have? And how did that enter human relations? How does living in a certain state which provides a certain moral climate and in certain political climate where certain things go unacknowledged. How does that actually affect every moment of people's lives, the way people treat each other, the way a man treats the woman, and the way a woman treats a man? Because of course these large scale political and social issues are not divorced from how we're living. Just the basic most simple moments in our lives between two people.
Studs Terkel And so is Peter Sellars talking and as what Joe Louis used to say, "There's more where that came from." And so, he just, keep us for the moment, well-satisfied, indeed. More where that came from.
Peter Sellars Thanks, Studs, it's great to be back in Chicago. [laughter]
Studs Terkel I'm seeing you again so I thought Los Angeles is where I'll see you next.
Peter Sellars Oh, come please. Don't miss it--
Studs Terkel I'll be a member of the audience on the street somewhere watching--
Studs Terkel The Thai people, the Cambodians, and African dancers and suddenly realize the world is round after all.