The Relevance of Opera: a chat with director Peter Sellars
After the curtain falls on Lyric Opera's season, orchestra members pursue other activities - some musical, some not. I spend my summers performing with the Santa Fe Opera where this season included Dr. Atomic, an opera by American composer John Adams with direction and libretto by Peter Sellars. The Santa Fe stage is the perfect spot to perform this piece about the days leading up to testing the first atomic bomb. The lights of Los Alamos, where the bomb was created, twinkle among mountains behind the stage.
photo by Paul Horpedahl
Lyric mounted a production of Dr. Atomic in 2007, two years after it was written. It is as powerful and disturbing now as it was then. Peter has directed at Lyric frequently, often finding current themes in older works as he did when he staged Handel’s Hercules with the hero returning home after the Gulf War. I spoke with Peter a few weeks ago about the relevance of opera. Here is a small part of what he said:
“As human beings, what separates us from animals is the way we create meaning in everything we touch. That gesture and that action not only enriches our lives but also creates a moral center around which certain life questions can be answered. So for me opera is about justice, almost every opera is a question of justice. What questions can be answered? What will it take to get justice? It’s right in the heart of just about every opera ever written.
"Dr. Atomic addresses what it means to live in the nuclear age, which we are barely acknowledging. Words can express things very, very well but they can’t go where music goes. So the thrill of having a discussion in music, which is a whole other set of languages and possible ways of understanding and ways of feeling, is something very rare and beautiful and a treasure on earth. I tell people here that Dr. Atomic is an evening about the nuclear age but it’s not a position paper for your congressman. It’s an opera and it operates totally differently on all these levels, unconscious and conscious just like you.
"Opera takes the second viola and the third curtain puller, it takes all these people working together to make something happen. It’s not a single genius artist, it’s about how a community can come together and sustain excellence and set its own level for what excellence means, excellence not just in terms of technical accomplishments, but in terms of meaning. How do we know that this is about something? How does this speak to the meanings that we’re missing, over and over again?”