So many live, perishable experiences hang on the decision to leave the house, the decision to take the trouble to go to the venue before the event no longer exists.

I remember weighing the $20 cab fare it would cost me to make it to Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago in time to see Peter Sellars give a talk, on a cold night with freezing rain in January 2008. So glad I did.

To my mind, Sellars understands, as well as any living theater artist, the nature and purpose of live performance. He directly correlates the current function and potential of live theater with its function throughout history–its artistic, political, and societal functions.

He was in Chicago staging Doctor Atomic, the opera he wrote with composer John Adams, at the Lyric Opera. (A DVD of the production is available for sale and through Netflix, as is Wonders Are Many, a behind-the-scenes documentary about its first rehearsals and premiere at the San Francisco Opera.)

Sellars spoke off-the-cuff.  I began taking notes in my journal as quickly as possible, wanting to remember for my own good what he was saying.  What follows here are those fragmented notes.

* * *
“What will be the record on Earth of what people now were thinking?”

“culture of distraction”

Accomplishment through “concentration and neural focus”

“preventing you from finishing even a sentence”

“and that you can’t follow one idea for three seconds”

“a culture of focus – redoing people’s breathing”

“music is about shifting your breathing – breathe deeply, and you experience the world differently”

“breathing and singing a miraculously long phrase”

“What does it mean to breathe deeply three times before replying to someone you’re angry at?”

[re: theater] “and go to a place where no one can tell you what to feel or what choice to make”

“that benediction of music, that act of kindness, that act of un[illegible] mercy, that act of grace, that invitation for us to stop lying, stop thinking, just get still, open your pores, open your mind, open your heart, live with your regrets, make some space in your mind for hope. Feed that. Open that to the air. Open that [plant?].”

Meditation, breathing. Parallels with spiritual practice. Step one is recognizing that everything is something else.

“Everything is made out of everything it is not. Everything contains everything it is not.”

“Everything you don’t agree with has to be onstage.”

The Theater of Causes (versus the theater of effects): how do you not just see the symptom but the cause?

Theater, lectures: the “time inside of time”.

Sellars had the audience concentrate for about 15 seconds on their mother: think of her, picture her. He then talked about that 15 seconds being more dense and important than the time around it, how it lingered.

“One instant – 15 seconds – that instant is still alive now, and in this instant you see more now than what you saw then. And that image isn’t only continuing in time but has accumulated depth and resonance.”

Theater is the “calling back of something”. Some deep image, some meaning.

“We are participants in infinity.”

“The struggles humans have to connect with the infinity in themselves.”

“We are here to do what our ancestors couldn’t. To take the next step.”

“Think of how many animals died for you so that you could be here for another 24 hours. Beings offered their lives so you could be here. Once you have that gratitude, you live your life differently.”

Singers who have sacrificed 25 years to their craft.

“What does it mean to make sacrifice a part of our daily lives?”

Culture of “get everything you can while you can” – “you can get this without sacrifice – it’s available”

To prepare people for sacrifice, for the coming depression.

Things that are not sustainable as government policy.

“How do we take care of each other? How do we imagine moving forward?”

WPA: “using the weakest part of our country as our strength to rebuild the infrastructure and pride of America with everything that was most frail.”

led to U.S. strength in WWII: “vision, power, confidence, shoring each other up, positive empowerment of WPA – and arts too revived the country from a place of complete despair.”

“We are at the cusp of one of those defining moments.”

”Insane wealth and the poverty next to it.”

”What would our response be to a Depression?”

“So much of the arts have nothing to do with the renewal of the human being.”
Justice = legal, healing = medicinal
E.T. = “any four-year old knows more than NASA”

Reagan created “intellectual” as an epithet. Intellectuals outside of national debate since then. Now we have no vocabulary because the university is no longer part of public life.

Critical studies = on the margins, the sidelines; critics, not actors. “so public debate has [?] and consequences”

Drug war: can we deal with the issue by looking at it chemically, psychologically,
Anthropologically (as a profound social function), how culture can’t exist without intoxication; literature. [To find its causes, not effects.] Not just [?] perspective, but profound, deep perspective; instead of billions of dollars destroying people’s lives. “Tripled the flow of drugs into the U.S., and it’s a success – what?”

“I wish it was a joke. It’s sickening. Everyone’s intimidated. What does it take to break through this? Where is a free discussion in a free country? We are so far from it. Can you tell what the work of an artist is?”

“Not just make it devastating and not just to make you helpless. I got that part.”

Bangladesh (Dakkar): 200 companies, two theaters. Each company presents on their night or two each year. Theater as a discussion of “what kind of country do we want to have?”

The Greeks created theater, and it was as much a unit of democracy as the senate was. Amphitheater was the architecture of deep listening: one person speaks and 5,000 can hear.

The names of Greek plays: woman, child, slave or foreigner speaking to every voter. [Someone in the audience asked about Oedipus, which Sellars addressed a few minutes later.]

Greeks took most painful issues they could find (parents/children killing each other), saying “Wait, we all need to talk about this.”

“To say that suicide and murder, how you treat prisoners, has to be discussed in front of everyone – through music, dance, and poetry, so that you can approach everything that is unapproachable in your life and that you can’t talk about at the dinner table with your family.”

Oedipus Rex: how does that fit? It’s about a foreigner who thinks he knows everything but doesn’t, and dies in exile and as a foreigner.

Special effects, distraction – Hollywood version of Oedipus would center on effect: “what does someone look like when they tear their own eyes out?” Versus a listening space to listen and imagine, versus causes.

“An uninformed voting public is worse than a tyranny.”

“Human beings have their better selves and their worse selves. The worst selves wish the worst for other people, and are somehow justified in doing so, when we know they are suffering, and our best selves know this is wrong.”

“You have to appeal to people’s better selves, to remind them of their better selves. How do you teach, renew, and give [scribble] to that? That is the task in the arts.”

Mozart wrote three operas around the French Revolution: Don Giovanni (before), The Marriage of Figaro (during), and Cosi Fan Tutte (consequences).

Shakespeare: the project at the end of his life was “how to write an honest happy ending.” Pericles, Cymbaline, and eventually The Tempest.

Mozart: brutal, angry, desperate, crazy music: after Don Giovanni, no one will hire him for a big gig again.

Two minutes, longing for spring (plum blossom; blossom in February as symbol of hope).

“’This evil will not continue – I have to announce that at the cost of my own life. Honor the appearance of people of courage. The winter will turn, and we will have spring.’ – announcing this at a terrible cost.”

[Below, I believe this is the story of Don Giovanni.]
I: Terrorists set fire to capitol.
II: president says: bring me the people who did this.
a) he forgives them
b) deals with their issues
c) invites them to join the government, because until they do no one is safe.

Mandela formed government with the people who tried to kill him.

Every Mozart opera ends with an act of forgiveness.

“What will our generation offer for those that have been sacrificed?”

New Crowned Hope [festival that Sellars curated in Vienna to note Mozart’s 250th anniversary]

Q: “Don’t we have an economic safety net since 1930?”
A: “A lot of work has been done to reverse those.”

“This is a shame on the history of this planet that these people still have a microphone.”

“We consume 85% of the world’s goods, and they should have fewer children?”

“The high end is higher than it’s ever been, and the other end is going down.”

“Sheer hard work and [joy].”

Actual safety net is culture and communication — or they have to get past a [x] in your ear to say “I am here.”

Arts has made torture possible, though art can’t be blamed: it’s just the mirror.

Substitution of irony for meaning: it’s a tool, but not a destination.

The art of irony is the art of disempowerment.

“Art has gone to a deliberately trivial place.”

Academia: during a genocide, people are debating the meaning of a word.

–Art is about equipping people to deal with what they are facing or about to face. Idealism, but not pulling punches about the reality of despair.

”It’s a strange imbalance when you look at how trivial the art world is and how serious the world is.”

We prefer blank walls to graffiti. “What a relief to have the graffiti gone. I’m [reminded] of all the issues of my life when I see that pristine blank concrete slab…No amount of money is too much to keep that wall grey.”

Theater: a place where every human being is equal, can see everyone as an individual and not as an ideal.

“To look at someone and damage them in the act of looking.” How we specialize in the “evil eye.” Looking as an act of love or an act of violence. [Darshun]: the art of transformation in both directions.

“One of the saddest parts of the 20th century was every field acting like it was a science – that at last it could be funded because it was quantifiable.”

“The academy in public life: not academy for the academy.”

“The nightmare is when ideas are betrayed in the public context, so we need to develop a language that can develop in public.”

“Our generation is asking for a more engaged discourse that can have a public life.”

Causes vs. (special) effects

–How many people do you watch being killed? And what happens to the bodies?

“If you’re just reacting to an effect, you’re ignoring the cause.” Result: punishment (spending money on the effects instead of the causes – re: crime, war on drugs)

If you spent per capita spending on neighborhoods instead of criminals, these places would be paradise.

“Post offices used to remind you of American values. And it’s not a surprise that violence happens in places affected by the architecture of violence.”

(on not using the Internet or e-mail, and not being easy to reach by phone): ”When I’m there I’m there. And when I’m 100% not there, I’m 100% somewhere else.”

Maintaining “the integrity of my own presence in actual space.”

Role of director:
“quietly instrumental” = there are societies in which giving of alms in public is forbidden
(Hebrew/Muslim cultures)

“That’s the nightmare of anti-poverty programs. Saying in public: you’re poor, you need help. As opposed to empowerment programs.”

“The libretto exists to inspire the work of the composer.”

  • April 6, 2010
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