AN interesting thing happened to opera about a dozen years ago. It started to become relevant - not only for buffs, but for a broad and diversified audience, including young people who had previously found it all too easy to ignore. Credit for this change goes to a number of artists, but one of the most important is Peter Sellars, whose stagings of works by Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte have been milestones in the development of postmodern opera production.
This season, the Pepsico Summerfare festival revived Sellars's productions of all three Mozart-da Ponte works, presenting them as a trilogy for the first time and allowing Mr. Sellars to finetune his original stagings with adjustments and innovations. The event made news partly because it helped conclude the final season of Summerfare, which is folding its tent after 10 successful years. And these were the last live performances of the productions before Sellars and company head for Europe to videotape them (under Sellars's own direction) for television and posterity. This will allow an even wider audience to see them, and that's happy news indeed.
Mr. Sellars isn't the only artist to charge the opera scene with new life during the past decade or so. Another stage director, Robert Wilson, has also done much to change opera's image by injecting new kinds of imagery and movement, often based on dreamlike ideas influenced by pop culture - beginning with ``Einstein on the Beach,'' his hugely influential collaboration with composer Philip Glass and choreographer Lucinda Childs.
That work did a lot to explode the ingrained pattern of opera as a museumlike institution, dedicated to repeating established classics in staunchly conservative productions. Before long, the efforts of Mr. Wilson and others helped encourage a new generation of American artists to take the operatic stage seriously, and the results are still reverberating through the music-theater scene.
Major examples range from Anthony Davis's political ``X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X'' to John Adams's historical ``Nixon in China,'' as well as many works by Mr. Glass in collaboration with such visionary directors as Richard Foreman and Jerome Sirlin.
Sellars occupies an important place in this revolution. Although his career has been closely involved with large institutions, from New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music to Washington's Kennedy Center, he has maintained a spunky and eccentric view of what theater and music are all about. When presenting classic works, such as the Mozart-da Ponte operas, his fidelity to the composer's intention has won praise from tradition-minded critics. Yet in his productions the images are as important as the music, and here he lets his creativity run where it will - transforming old stories and situations into expressions of his own highly modernist sensibility.
This doesn't please traditionalists. Some critics have expressed keen displeasure with his notions - such as setting ``Cosi Fan Tutte'' in a 1950s-style diner, turning ``Don Giovanni'' into a study of addiction in the South Bronx, and unfolding ``The Marriage of Figaro'' in a Manhattan skyscraper. Yet few of Sellars's decisions are arbitrary. For one thing, these operas all have political subtexts, and their new settings make them as pungent for contemporary audiences as they must have been for Mozart's own listeners.
The class conflicts of ``Figaro,'' for instance, take on new resonance when Act I begins in an apartment-house laundry room that Count Almaviva is condescendingly allowing Figaro to live in. Sellars isn't the first to underline the class angle in this opera, of course; for just one example, I have vivid memories of a Sarah Caldwell production that divided the characters along racial lines. Sellars's evocations of class conflict are more subtle than this, but similarly thought-provoking. And his Trump Tower sets provide opportunities for wonderful comedy, as well.
Equally strong are his visions of sexual politics in ``Cosi'' and his view of ``Don Giovanni'' as an essay in the psychology of addiction, with a protagonist and several other characters who are addicted to sex, drugs, or both. Sellars has been criticized for bringing out the dark side of Mozart and Da Ponte too strongly, but the effect of his staging is to find new layers of meaning in scores and librettos, and to do this without sacrificing any of their traditional beauties - except, at times, some of the easy charm that's often taken as all they have to offer.
Sellars is capable of excesses and repetitions, and he'll sometimes fall back on a tried-and-true metaphor when he might have strained for a new idea. Some of his particular fascinations - with dark settings, white lights, and characters who throw things (from eggs to beer bottles) in fits of emotion - recur too often when one sees three of his major productions in a single weekend.
Any artist is entitled to trademarks, though, and Sellars uses even his most often-tried ideas with renewed vigor each time. He's a master at choreographing movement and lighting. Treating the stage as a long, low canvas - he's a CinemaScope director, you might say - he makes empty space his most valuable resource, eloquently molding it by the way he places and frames each piece of action. When his characters twist themselves into odd postures and positions, as they do particularly in ``Don Giovanni,'' they seem to be straining against the confines of physical reality itself. And so does Sellars, venturing toward a sharp-edged expressiveness that adds up to far more than the sum of its stagebound parts.
When operagoers complain about Sellars's unconventional maneuvers, they often target his outbursts of rowdy action - the tantrums and food fights in some productions, for instance. Sellars has very extroverted moments, to be sure, and they can easily be considered excessive. Yet he seems to me a profoundly introverted director at heart. In his hands, ``Don Giovanni'' is a journey into the heart of literal darkness, and each of the other works in his Mozart trilogy is a long day's journey into night. On a frequently darkened stage, he highlights only the details we need in order to sense the deepest layers of meaning in a scene, suppressing all that's not absolutely necessary. This reduces distraction and brings us near the core of each moment's significance, canceling out any show-off exuberance that may seem to exist on the surface.
Even if one questions Sellars's most outlandish ideas - making Shirley MacLaine a character in ``Cosi,'' or splashing the ``Don Giovanni'' stage with pornographic slide projections - it's hard to quibble with his sensitive approach to music, and his way of expressing the nuances of Mozart's scores with the hand gestures and body language of his performers. Musical excellence was also boosted at Summerfare by many first-rate singers: Susan Larson, Sanford Sylvan, and James Maddalena, to mention only three of the best - plus Eugene and Herbert Perry, gifted identical twins whose presence (as the title character and Leperello) lent yet another unexpected dimension to ``Don Giovanni.''
The conductor was Craig Smith, a frequent Sellars collaborator whose attention to musical detail is impeccable. Opera scuttlebutt has it that Sellars and Mr. Smith may join in running a new Boston opera company in the next decade, a fascinating prospect that Sellars would neither confirm nor deny when I asked him about it during a Summerfare intermission. Whatever his future holds, my guess is it will be as exciting as it is controversial. And relevant.