Transcript of an interview with Peter
Sellars at Glyndebourne on the occasion of the transmission of his television
direction and production of Theodora on 15 June 1996.
Mark Steyn: Welcome to Glyndebourne, on a beautiful day, to the first of this summer’s visits on Channel 4. The crowd look friendly enough, but back in 1990 Peter Sellars’s production of The Magic Flute roused them to Glyndebourne’s first ever sustained bout of booing. Well, this year opera’s most reliable controversialist is back—and they love him. This time it’s Handel’s Theodora, an obscure oratorio reborn in a dramatic new setting and relocated in contemporary America.
Well, as always, Michael Berkeley is with me. Michael, back in 1750 when we’d seen Theodora we would have seen it without sets, without costume, without anything.
Michael Berkeley: Yes, this came at a time when Handel, having written lots of wonderful and successful operas, actually found there was no longer a market. What you’ve got to remember is in his day, rather like Andrew Lloyd Webber and his musicals, is that Handel had to take the theatre, pay for the costumes, the scenery, and all the rest of it. And suddenly he was out of fashion—that kind of opera was out of fashion—so he did it in his mind, really. He wrote oratorios when he could get away with no scenery, no costumes.
Steyn: Well, at this stage he was actually losing his eyesight. There’s a sense, in a way, that there—that the man—is retreating into himself, into his music.
Berkeley: I suppose you could say that, in one sense, except the music is so innately dramatic and, in a way, he took the whole idea forward; for example, prior to that choruses would have been much more staid and they would not have had to memorize so much work. Here he gives wonderful florid fugues to the chorus, so that in fact the writing is much more adventurous, and when you do see it in the theatre now one is struck by the sheer magic and beauty of the score, which is very powerful.
Steyn: We should mention that Theodora’s source material actually is a book by Robert Boyle, and if you’re a thermodynamic student you’ll remember that he promulgated Boyle’s Law, which states that the volume of gas varies inversely to the pressure. Curiously enough, I actually think that’s the First Law of Opera Production, too!
Well, the director here today is Peter Sellars. Peter, what was it about this work that attracted you?
Peter Sellars: Well, I think—this oratorio idea—the idea of how can you take public discourse in a democracy and raise the level, you know, because right now everything’s lowered to this, you know, media trash, and can you discuss something that’s important, how you treat prisoners in the last war, or killing your mother, or something, you know, not just as some cheap tabloid event, but something that has a deeper human consequence?
Steyn: Well, is that why you have relocated it from fourth-century Antioch to something that’s actually quite precisely American? You’ve got the Stars and Stripes on the suits.
Sellars: Well, ‘precise’ is a big word. I mean, you know, opera is metaphor; if you want to do, like, a realistic thing pick another form. What is so fabulous about opera is it lives in your imagination: it’s simultaneously very realistic and at the same time utterly metaphysical, utterly taking place in this dream world where things that could be suddenly are, and things that ‘are’ could be transformed.
Berkeley: Do you think this opera—I mean, when you first looked at it—do you think there was any difference between the previous ones that were designed as operas as opposed to oratorios?
Sellars: Well, no. I think, as you said, the theatre of Handel’s period was one of the most brittle periods in the history of theatre; theatre’s not interesting at all for fifty years in England. And so, I think you have to see that Handel finally says ‘Forget it! I am going to be totally ambitious and make a Theatre of the Mind that is more exciting than anything I could put on the stage.’ And, of course, what is marvellous, two hundred years later we can put on the stage the kind of dramatic intensity that Handel has in mind.
Steyn: Anyone who has been watching you for the last couple of minutes will know that you are very vivid with your hands, and that is also your directorial trade mark: you do this a lot in your shows. The critics seem to like it in this one. What is it with the kind of hand choreography?
Sellars: Well, I mean, the idea is that, of course, these sentiments expressed in the opera that are so moving and that make you cry aren’t just ‘nice’ ideas that you admire: but we devote our lives to them. Can you put your life on the line for something you believe in? Can you physically, physically, commit? And so, of course, the act of singing takes the whole body, and opera singers are out there, taking every risk on earth. It’s so daring to be able to try and sing this music. And so, what does it mean to take your whole body and commit physically to what you’re doing and not just have beautiful ideas in life but live according to your beautiful ideas?
Berkeley: I think that’s something that actually, that probably, works particularly well with this chorus, because you can get to work with them in such depth. I mean, to me that was an amazing achievement, to remember all that difficult music and all those, that, hand choreography...
Sellars [interrupting]: The reason to work at Glyndebourne, you know, is, on a nice day, it’s really beautiful, but also the chorus here is the most exciting chorus in the world; they’re all just out of music school, this is their first job, their idealism, their hope, the sense of vocal beauty and freshness, the idea that their whole lives are in front of them, is so moving and it’s such a privilege to work with these young artists. When I walked into the room the first time and met this chorus I remembered [why] I wanted to devote my life to this.
Steyn: Well, that’s fired me up. I think that this hand choreography is initially very happy, and it works here because you’ve got the kind of American president—it’s very Ronald Reaganesque, in a way, as well.
Sellars: Well, I mean, again, it also comes from Kabuki, it also comes from eighteenth-century elocution. You know, there are all of these books that tell you how to do all of this stuff, because the idea is all we want to communicate. Right now, we have the Age of Information but not much communication.
Berkeley: How do you ... just explain to some people: there’s a scene where you’ve got a very drunken president and court, as it were, and it’s very funny, but some people might say that it’s going against the grain of the music; and I wonder when you listen to a piece of music like that ... because Handel was a great humourist, he could write very comical music if he wanted to.
Sellars: Handel! You’ve got to be really careful: he’s quite sly! And just when you think you know what he’s saying, look a little further. You know, the fact is it’s not just one tone, it’s not official. Handel is brilliant and mercurial: from moment to moment the musical tone shifts and changes as the most stunning kind of external dazzler is followed by some incredible internal moment, where suddenly the music turns and the phrase goes inward, and the most private thought that no one would ever dream of saying aloud is kind of sung so privately and beautifully. And the next minute: public behaviour, you know, and so on. That’s the genius of Handel. And for me, he’s the greatest dramatic composer who ever lived, because of that ability to just realise that your mind is working that quickly, that everything we’re doing in life doesn’t change ‘like that’, that one moment you’re serious, the next moment you’ve got to be joking!
Steyn: Handel was sixty-five when he wrote this. He started it a few weeks after the Fireworks Music, and, as music director William Christie explains, these works have a character all of their own.
William Christie [VCR]: This is the Handel that appealed to ... someone like Beethoven, someone like Haydn, and indeed one realises that this profound end of a life, where he was writing very profound music, this was the repertory that was to have such an extraordinary impact on later composers. Beethoven couldn’t have written the Missa Solemnis without knowing this kind of late Handel repertory.
[summary of the plot]
We begin the Roman music with a great trumpet fanfare, which sets the tone of a martial, military and aggressive group of people [musical example]; and the Christians, they’re given to fugues and learned things [music example]. This sets up a wonderful contrast which the audience feels very, very [indistinct word] to that they’ve two opposing camps.
[more plot summary]
One of the bleakest moments in the drama is the moment where Theodora is contemplating suicide as the only way out, and Handel, in a very typical fashion, gives her this wonderful, very simple English folksong [musical example]. He uses simplicity for the great touching moments. Handel is an unabashed sentimentalist; he loves sentimentality. He loves creating harmonies that are going to tug at our heartstrings.
[more plot summary]
Steyn [to camera]: For Handel in 1750, this piece died equally swiftly [reference to the speedy execution of Theodora and Didymus]. Its new staging is part of his own dramatic revival.
Christie [VCR]: I think that Handel is gaining a new kind of reputation: he’s certainly, er, his image has gotten sort of much enhanced, and he’s far sleeker than he was. He’s no longer fat and wobbly; we’ve trimmed him down a bit; he’s much younger today than he was fifty years ago.
Steyn [to camera]: Handel told the librettist Tom Morrall [sic], ‘Forget the Halleujah Chorus! My real masterpiece is the second Act finale to Theodora.'
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