A Breakfast in Beverly Hills With Peter Sellars

A BREAKFAST date with Peter Sellars at the start of a glorious fall day in Beverly Hills. What could be better? The legendary pint-sized wizard with the carrot top that stands straight from his head has already consumed his first orange juice and coffee by the time I (promptly) arrive.

Wearing a perfectly cut, deep-purple sport coat, his blue eyes are blazing, his mind clearly racing ahead like a Japanese express train. ``Did you see the show? Did you like it?'' he asks.

I start by explaining some of my problems with adaptor Ken Auletta's having mixed 20th-century imagery with that of ancient Greece.

The man who transposed Mozart operas to 20th-century Queens in New York tells me he doesn't understand my problem.

``The race of your ancestors from previous generations is speaking to us. All my plays take place in a parallax: Something is moving in two directions at the same time, that's being optically shifted ... I don't update things.''

I nod, not altogether persuaded, but slowly begin to feel myself being influenced. Mr. Sellars has been called both Puck and Peter Pan, but he may be closer to a mix of Prospero and Ariel. A ravenous distiller of essences, he is astoundingly open to life: to my opinions, our waiter's opinions, the breakfast crumbs on the table, the reflected light on the ceiling. The sheer intensity of his concentration and the breadth of his consciousness and erudition are, in a word, breathtaking.

His goals are ambitious. Since 1990, he has run a once-every-three-years Los Angeles Arts Festival, modeled after the one Robert Fitzpatrick produced for the Olympics in 1984, which was repeated in 1988. He takes no fee for this work, which occupies him six months a year. (He claims the operas he directs in Europe the other six months meet his economic needs.) For him, the arts are not a luxury but a necessity.

``Have you noticed ... the xenophobia and the racism? The same thing happened in Germany in the 1930s! `If we didn't have all these foreigners....' One hears it all the time now. We need plays that make us address what it means to be a human being!''

For five years, he has been teaching 150 University of California-Los Angeles students one day a week in the World and Arts program. In the first term, they study art and social responsibility; in the second, art as moral action. No lightweight agenda here.

He professes to love Los Angeles. ``Everything's in motion constantly, in the midst of transformation. What is being struggled with in this city is going on in the world: global interdependence. Did you know there are more than a hundred languages at Hollywood High School?'' Sellars says he thinks of the city as Bertolt Brecht did Benares, as ``the city of birth and death.'' He has become part missionary, part Paul Revere.

``The wealthiest nation in history is cut off from what's going on in the world today,'' he says. ``What kind of world is going to be created? That's the question we should be asking ourselves.''

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