Art According to Sellars

Eclectic director says that the arts are a means to illuminate justice

SEATED in a hotel room here, Peter Sellars is laughing with a kind of crisp, joyous ebullience that cuts through walls. If an afternoon sleeper is in the next room, he is awake by now and grumbling about the cackle piercing the masonry.

This is symbolic of director Peter Sellars, wall-piercer extraordinaire, a man who has skillfully fooled the world into believing that he is only an artist. His startlingly original productions of Mozart operas here and abroad, his productions of acclaimed new operas such as "Nixon in China," and "The Death of Klinghoffer," his many Shakespeare productions in contemporary settings, and other productions including directing a rock video for Herbie Hancock, have elicited worldwide interest in him and his a rtistry.

But deeper and more resonant are the reasons Sellars does what he does. To him art is not an end, but an emancipating, apolitical means to illumine justice. "What I care most deeply about is public space," he says, seated before a window filled with the sweep of Toronto, "this sense that you are living together with others, there is no such thing as personal salvation. There are only the questions, Where is your brother? Where is your sister? One's own situation is not important; more important is that w e are social beings; the creation of a just society is a responsibility that we all have. That is the only road to any kind of salvation."

Among the many art, film, and theater projects underway for the energetic Sellars is his role as artistic director of the Los Angeles Festival. This huge "civic experiment," as Sellars describes it, encompasses hundreds of presentations from the multicultural spectrum of Los Angeles. "With 350 people curating the festival," he says, "it's not me who says what we are going to do. I'm one person at the table."

Tonight, Sellars will be the keynote speaker at "Breaking Free," the Northeast Regional Youth Meeting on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. The meeting is sponsored by northeast Christian Scientists in partnership with the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Sellars.

We've all been taught that artists are special, different than most people.

Yes, it's quite odd. I don't think they are, and as soon as they think they are, then there's usually a problem. Some people are fantastic stars, and when you meet them there is a beautiful glow and clarity that is moving. Artists do give us courage to dream, to rally us. Look how much power folk, rock, and blues singers have had in giving people hope, in raising money for causes....

The main thing we are all searching for is our talent, and how to improve it so it is more than we have been given. We can extend it, magnify it so that it's capable of making a difference in this world where people feel they can't make a difference.... Art is about doing, rolling up your sleeves and doing something in an atmosphere of generosity and moral acuity. Most people look at things as they are, and are stymied. An artist never looks at something for what it is, but what it might become.

You've come under heavy criticism at times. One critic said you were a madman running through a museum slashing Old Master canvases. How do you handle such criticism?

You don't do this because you want people to like you. It doesn't bother me that some people hate my shows. It's actually rather wonderful when two people in the lobby get in this huge argument. Something has become worth arguing about, something that really does allow democracy - a space where a divergence of viewpoints is permitted. I want to do something that provokes an examination of who we are and what we are doing. So, when the New York Times foams at the mouth about one of my shows, that's fine with me. I don't need someone to love it, I need someone to respond. One of the most important productions I saw in my life - "Tales of Hoffman" in Paris when I was 18 - I hated it at first.

Later I realized how beautiful it was. That's why when someone asks me what I thought of something as we are coming out of a theater, I don't say. What happens is that you wake up the next morning remembering only what you said instead of the show.

Most shows have to settle, to live with you for years and years; that's why quirky, confusing shows eat at you. They give people something to really work at.

You move easily between different kinds of music, opera and rap, for instance. What does rap represent to you?

The rap phenomenon is one of the most exciting in history. Rap artists have a tremendous conscience, and they are not going to temper their message to be what you want them to be. They have a lot in common with Isaiah and Jeremiah; it's not pretty what they are saying, but they mean it.

When Bill Clinton attacked Sister Souljah, he missed the point. It was like attacking Verdi because he has a political assassination in every single opera. There's lots of people killed in the history of opera. What Sister Souljah is doing is not unique; Verdi and Beethoven were there long before.

What she is doing is responding to a very deep tradition, expressing something that otherwise would go officially unexpressed. Doing it in a song is much more valuable than killing someone.... This is what freedom of speech is about, the need to express something unpopular, and in fact, downright difficult to deal with. And unless you deal with it in words and feelings, you will have to deal with it in terms of your house burning down.

Our society keeps putting artists to the margins rather than understanding they are crucial as barometers and thermometers as well as thermostats. Sister Souljah is one of the most literate and intelligent thinkers of our period.... She has not been invited into many rooms in this country where she should have been, into the Washington think tanks with those men in dark suits. They would learn something from her, and she would learn something from them, and the lyrics in her next album would reflect that .

Rap is giving us a view of life in America that appears in no major newspaper and is taking us literally into another world.... I often think of the early Muslim saints who were frequently gang leaders who terrorized communities, and then were struck by divine revelation and became saints.

And the larger implication for you?

I think we are all being prepared for a destiny that is beyond what anyone around us would suspect. What is beautiful is that you can never just write somebody off and think you know who they are. We are all on these long trajectories, and it is unfair to judge or limit. We have to allow things to blossom, take their time, and frequently they move in exactly the opposite direction someone had in mind.... So much of the history of culture, from Homer's Odyssey on down, is about exile and return; to find y ourself you had to go somewhere else. One of the deepest themes is this exile theme. I don't view it as negative or depressing, but here at the end of our century, it looms so large. The question is, what kind of a return can we be preparing for the next century? How will we come home, and what kind of home will we make for ourselves?

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