A Landscape for a Saint
By Robert Marx
["A Landscape for a Saint"
was originally published in a French translation by F. Maurin
under the title "Paysage pour un saint": Maurin, Frédéric
(ed.). Peter Sellars. Paris: CNRS Éditions, coll.
Arts du spectacle/ Les voies de la création théâtrale,
vol. 22, 2003, pp. 62-7. (Link: <http:www.cnrseditions.fr>
and <http:www.artsduspectacle.cnrs.fr>) This original English
language version of the essay appears here by permission of the
Throughout most of the 1990s, Peter Sellars was a leading
stage director at the Salzburg Festival. That plain statement
of fact is remarkable from an American perspective. In the USA,
Sellars is still known mostly for his early work, especially an
unorthodox cycle of Mozart and Handel operas. How did Sellars
jump from Americanized Mozart to central Europe's conservative
Salzburg Festival? And how did he come to begin work there with
Olivier Messiaen's Saint Francois d'Assise -- a supremely
difficult, monumental, and obscure twentieth century opera of
faith that had been left unstaged since its world premiere in
1983? The answer lies in events surrounding Salzburg's greatest
artistic upheaval since World War II--the seismic change of power
there that followed the death of conductor Herbert von Karajan.
No modern artist personified Austria's tradition of authoritarian
cultural rule as did von Karajan. His simultaneous leadership
of European orchestras and opera companies created an omnipotent
mid-century Vienna-Berlin axis in classical music, one that reached
at times to London and Paris, as well. Karajan's business empire
was so pervasive that he had an even greater impact on international
recording and broadcast media than on live performance.
The Berlin Philharmonic was Karajan's main artistic and economic
base, but his most important annex was the Salzburg Festival.
This legendary Austrian summer festival (founded in the 1920's
by stage director Max Reinhardt, poet Hugo Von Hofmannsthal and
composer Richard Strauss), was a mid-career acquisition in Karajan's
international portfolio. He controlled it for over three decades
as an absolute personal fiefdom and conservative bastion. In the
process, Karajan restored the Festival as one of post-war Austria's
most prominent national cultural institutions. Under Karajan,
Salzburg became, to an unprecedented degree, starry, chic, classical,
international, expensive, often brilliant, and a total reflection
of one man's taste. Karajan, who was born in Salzburg, ruled.
But even in conservative Salzburg there can be shifting winds
in art and politics. Native son von Karajan died in the summer
of 1989. Once gone, his cultural empire broke apart and for the
first time in decades the opportunity arose to create a new approach
for the institutions previously under his total control. In Salzburg,
a long-whispered need to open the Festival to a wider roster of
artists and repertory could be acted upon at last. A delicate
post-Karajan era began, despite the reluctance of Salzburg's influential
tourist industry (and its corporate patrons in multi-national
media and recording companies) to admit that the Great Man was
no longer among them.
To lead Salzburg across this rainbow bridge, the Festival's governing
board turned to a newsworthy foreigner with no previous connection
to Austria -- the Flemish producer Gerard Mortier, who was then
director of Brussels' Theatre Royal de Monnaie. This was an unexpected
left turn on the part of the Salzburg Festival's board, a decision
taken in such contrast to Karajan's legacy that in hindsight it
seems almost defiant.
During the 1980's, Mortier transformed the Monnaie into one of
Europe's most progressive opera houses. He was as devoted to new
visual interpretations of opera, and the dominance of stage directors,
as Karajan was towards German cultural tradition and the dominance
of star conductors. Mortier was also interested in American artists
and wanted to give them major production opportunities in Europe.
His greatest coup in this regard came in 1988. With grand self-confidence,
Mortier ended the Monnaie residency of the venerated Belgian choreographer
Maurice Bejart's Ballet Of The 20th Century, replacing
it with the then little-known modern dance troupe of American
choreographer Mark Morris.
Morris' controversial appointment in Belgium became Mortier's
calling card. Bejart was a Belgian institution unto himself, and
his dismissal from the Monnaie was denounced by local press and
audiences. But for Mortier this was a newsworthy and provocative
move that defined his taste, his production preferences, and the
kind of risk-taking talent he felt should lead an opera house
in the late 20th century. The Mark Morris Dance Group's residency
in Brussels created an international sensation for the Monnaie
and its management. Some initial outrage over Morris' (and Mortier's)
personal styles soon faded as a series of exceptional new dance
works (many still performed) were created by the young man who
would soon be acclaimed as the finest modern dance choreographer
of his generation. Seemingly overnight, Brussels' royal opera
house ascended to the list of important international theatres.
MORTIER AND SELLARS
The idea of bringing Mark Morris to the Monnaie originated with
Peter Sellars. Mortier was among the first to present this American
director's work in Europe, including productions of Sophocles'
Ajax in 1987, Handel's Giulio Cesare in 1988 and
the 1991 world premiere of John Adams' opera, The Death of
Klinghoffer. He bonded with Sellars, appreciated the young
director's ideas, and greatly valued his advice. Once Mortier
accepted the offer from Salzburg and prepared to leave Brussels,
Sellars was among the most essential artists he hoped to bring
along. In a move typical of both men's boldness, the defining
work they scheduled for Mortier's first Salzburg season (1992)
was a new production of what was probably the previous decade's
most challenging musical composition: Olivier Messiaen's only
opera, Saint Francois d'Assise.
An audacious contemporary choice, Saint Francois was
put forward as the symbolic centerpiece of Mortier's artistic
program --a work meant to push the Salzburg Festival beyond its
core, central-European focus on Mozart and Richard Strauss. A
profoundly spiritual and Catholic opera by a then-living French
composer, it would be staged by this much-debated American director
in the Festival's most indigenous venue--the Felsenreitschule,
a former Salzburg royal riding academy carved out of a rocky mountainside.
This was a typically provocative Mortier move, and the risks
were considerable for his new administration. The city of Salzburg
is an historic Catholic seat not known through the centuries for
its ecumenical outreach. A radical Saint Francois (which
might be expected from the director who set Handel's Giulio
Cesare in the Cairo Hilton) had the potential to challenge
conservative associations in the realm of religion, as well as
stage art. Even more concerned was Salzburg's politically influential
tourist industry, which did not look upon Sellars or Messiaen
as a major draw for its expensive hotels, shops and restaurants.
Nearby businesses were further outraged when Mortier actually
lowered the Festival's ticket prices a bit from their astronomically
high levels under Karajan, setting off the fear of a domino effect
that could reduce local profits.
Aside from the social and economic issues surrounding Mortier's
choice of Saint Francois, the planned production also
threatened one of the Festival's most profound, practical, and
familiar traditions: Salzburg's resident orchestra, the august
Vienna Philharmonic (Austria's potent international symbol of
musical superiority) would not be in the pit for Saint Francois
d'Assise. Appearing instead would be the upstart Los Angeles
Philharmonic. This American orchestra would play concerts as well
as Messiaen's opera as part of an unprecedented month-long Salzburg
engagement. The L.A. Philharmonic's music director, Finnish conductor
Esa-Pekka Salonen, would conduct.
Guest orchestras from Europe and abroad had long been part of
Salzburg's summer schedule, but as brief visitors only. Never
before had an orchestra from the USA or anywhere challenged the
Vienna Philharmonic's home-team supremacy by playing a combined
opera and concert season at the Salzburg Festival. The results
backstage were predictable. Amid an increasingly suspicious, highly
charged and typically Viennese political atmosphere, Saint
Francois d'Assise became the top symbolic and public offense
against Karajan's Festival Legacy. Before the opera even went
into rehearsal, elected officials, local hoteliers, and Vienna
Philharmonic musicians were opposed. This political breach grew
only worse over the decade of Mortier's aggressive artistic leadership.
For Peter Sellars, this rare opportunity for an American director
upon one of Europe's most famous stages brought him easy controversy,
but instant status. Now he was an unexpected star in the rarefied
world of international opera. Until then, Sellars was known primarily
for directing classic plays and only a few operas in the United
States -- in Boston and Washington, at regional theatres, but
especially at the Pepsico SummerFare Festival in Purchase, New
York. His "radical" versions of the three Mozart-Da
Ponte operas, presented in repertory at Pepsico and revived over
many summers, became his best-known productions.
These idiosyncratic and remarkably accomplished stagings of Cosi
fan Tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni,
performed by a cast of young Americans who could act as well as
they sang, were a revelation for what might be achieved in the
USA by producing opera outside the working conditions of its opera
houses. A considerable theatrical event in a small setting, these
energetic, deeply American productions were rehearsed over many
weeks, revived and revised each summer at Pepsico with few cast
changes, and honed to an extremely high level of ensemble. They
would have been impossible to create within the limited time allotted
to rehearsals at any conventional opera house in the USA.
work was unsettling to some critics and many musicians, primarily
(and simplistically) for his transposition of Mozart's operas
to American locales. (Cosi fan Tutte's stage set was
a remarkably realistic New England roadside diner designed by
one of Sellars' longtime collaborators, Adrianne Lobel, who also
created a high-rise luxury apartment setting for Le Nozze
di Figaro. George Tsypin designed a New York slum environment
for Don Giovanni.) While Sellars' stage images
were far from literal interpretations of the operas' libretti,
the contemporary characters and expansive emotions in these performances
were exceptionally true to the music and made for a compelling
Along with predictable criticism, Sellars also had articulate
champions, most notably The New Yorker's prominent music
critic, Andrew Porter, whose influential reviews hailed Sellars
as a major new artist and potentially one of the most important
opera directors of his time. Porter's enthusiasm, coming as it
did from America's leading music critic, gave Sellars a serious
reputation relatively early in his professional life.
Because the Mozart productions were performed by mostly Boston-based
singers who were not yet in the grip of international careers,
it was possible to tour Sellars' Mozart repertory as a unit. When
first seen on stage in Europe (including Vienna in 1989) and later
on television, these US stagings abroad established Sellars as
an unusual American talent whose work could resonate on the international
scene. Here was a director with perhaps some idiosyncratic ideas,
but obvious technique, musical sensitivity, vision, intelligence
The attention given Saint Francois d'Assise when it
opened the 1992 Salzburg Festival (where it was reviewed by 280
critics) brought Sellars even more opportunities in Europe, and
soon the general momentum of his career reversed. By the mid-1990's,
he was better-known for work created outside the United States,
and almost nothing of his originated in America -- a situation
not unlike that of Robert Wilson in the 1970's and early 1980's.
Sellars' "exile" in Europe became a great loss for American
opera. The artistic promise and sophisticated production process
of his Mozart trilogy have yet to be repeated or fulfilled at
theatres in the USA.
MESSIAEN AND SAINT FRANCOIS D'ASSISE
Olivier Messiaen, along with Mortier and Sellars, hoped that
the new Salzburg staging of Saint Francois would give
his opera a second chance. The only previous stage production
had been its unsuccessful world premiere at the Paris Opéra
on November 28, 1983. On that occasion, the composer's stage directions
and somewhat naive visual conception were followed exactly. The
opera was given as a sequence of literal bible illustrations from
the life of Saint Francis, with set and costume designs derived
from paintings by Fra Angelico and Matthias Grunewald. The production
was created by Italian director Sandro Sequi, with set and costume
designs by Giuseppe Criolin-Malatesta. The conductor was Seiji
Ozawa, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the
outstanding Belgian bass-baritone, Jose van Dam, created the marathon
role of St. Francois. In general, Messiaen's opera was poorly
received. It seemed too theatrically passive, too introspective,
too uncomfortably religious for all but a specialist audience,
and in certain key sequences the opera's music composed for an
oversized orchestra and chorus was extraordinarily difficult.
Despite the Paris premiere's failure, Ozawa remained loyal to
the work, and in 1986 he performed excerpts from Saint Francois
d'Assise in concert with the Boston Symphony. Three of the
opera's eight scenes were given: #3 ("The Kissing of the
Leper"), #7 ("The Stigmata"), and #8 ("Death
and the New Life"). Peter Sellars attended one of these performances,
which, as in Paris, included the indispensable Jose van Dam as
St. Francois. From these concert performances came Sellars' desire
to stage the full opera.
By experience and instinct as much as personal taste, Sellars
had to take a far more metaphoric approach than that of the premiere
production team, and Messiaen had the self-awareness to know that
the Paris production's literal style should not be repeated at
Salzburg. He gave Sellars the authority to work more simply, with
abstraction, devising a bold and extremely theatrical intersection
of light, video and fragmented architecture, all to be placed
within the massive permanent structure of the Felsenreitschule's
tiered stone arcades and outer walls.
for the production moved forward, but the authenticity defined
by the composer's participation changed suddenly. Only a few months
before the first performance, in the spring of 1992, Messiaen
died. He had met with Sellars to prepare the staging, but was
gone before rehearsals began. Now the Salzburg production would
become more than an authorized new approach and second chance
for Messiaen's opera. It would be, unavoidably, an international
memorial to a great composer.
Saint Francois d'Assise was commissioned in 1976 by
composer/impresario Rolf Lieberman, then director of the Paris
Opéra. Messiaen was 67 years old, and revered as France's
greatest living composer and teacher of composition (Pierre Boulez
was his student). But he had never written for the theatre and
had not composed vocal music in over thirty years. Messiaen resisted
Lieberman's offer at first, believing that "there was no
way forward for opera after Berg's Wozzeck." But
Lieberman was persistent, and Messiaen, a deeply religious man,
came to see the commission as a potential new way to express his
bedrock Catholic faith in music.
Throughout his long life (which for decades included weekly service
as organist at the Church of the Trinity in Paris), Messiaen composed
music upon two fundamental themes: Catholicism and ornithology.
He notated and used thousands of bird songs from around the world.
For him, what more logical subject for an opera could there be
than Saint Francis? In his preface to Saint Francois,
Messiaen wrote, "I have always admired St. Francis. First,
because he is the saint who most resembles Christ, and also for
a more personal reason: he spoke to the birds, and I am an ornithologist."
Saint Francois is massive in all senses. It is scored
for an orchestra of 119, a chorus of 150, and contains over 4
hours of music. As inspiration and operatic precedent, Messiaen
may have been influenced by four related operas of historic importance
to French composers: the supremely epic Les Troyens of
Berlioz, Wagner's musically massive, sonically transparent, and
very Christian Parsifal, the inwardly passionate
Pelléas et Mélisande of Debussy, and Mussorgsky's
Boris Godunov, with its non-linear narrative.
Messiaen wrote his own libretto, basing it primarily upon scripture
and 14th century Franciscan accounts. The text's eight "Franciscan
Scenes," in three acts, suggest the "progress of grace"
within the Saint's life. It is a work of unquestioned spiritual
and historical acceptance, in which irony, psychological character,
and commonplace action are wholly absent. ("I included no
adultery or crimes in my opera.") Each scene portrays a pivotal
interior moment of personal faith and self-revelation. They are
separate offerings of transitional moments in St. Francis' growing
awareness and transformation into sainthood: his fearful cure
of a leper; his ecstatic sermon to the birds; his stigmata. Somewhat
fragmentary in structure, and without formal arias or conventional
operatic form, the work is closer to oratorio than opera. In a
review of Sellars' production, Paul Griffiths (Andrew Porter's
successor as music critic at The New Yorker) wrote that
Saint Francois "presents characters who are at the
service of the work, as priests and acolytes are at the service
of the drama they commemorate in a liturgy."
In the best sense, Saint Francois d'Assise is a "consecrational
festival play" (as Wagner called his Parsifal) that
is unsuited to repertory presentations, rushed rehearsals, or
quick consumption by an audience. Messiaen referred to it as his
"densest" composition -- a vast summary of his musical
style, personal belief, and joy in nature. The opera's long orchestral
passages convey a sense of sustained eternity through faith. Inherent
spirituality, physical scope, and complex technical difficulties
in Saint Francois (both on stage and in the music) made it a perfect
opera for Peter Sellars, whose spiritual interests and outlook
on his world in many ways resemble Messiaen's.
FINDING A NEW APPROACH TO SAINT FRANCOIS D'ASSISE
Sellars has referred to the life of St. Francis as a "benediction
and challenge," using words similar to those of the composer
to evoke ultimate joy in life through sacrifice. Both artists
approached their subject from similar vantages, avoiding any sense
of the tragic, rejoicing in the transformation of suffering into
hope, and reveling in the expression of their private beliefs
in public forms, despite the risk of rejection by audiences. Sellars
is himself religious, and especially in the years since he first
staged Saint Francois, many of his productions seem driven
by a quest for public communion, conjuring in modern terms an
ancient aura of performance as ritual. (In this regard, Sellars
is not unlike such modern predecessors as Peter Brook.)
hindsight, one can see Sellars' staging of Saint Francois
d'Assise (at Salzburg in the summer of 1992, then revived
in Paris at the Opéra de la Bastille in December 1992,
and again at Salzburg in 1998), as the first work in a quintet
of related Sellars opera productions about faith, self-sacrifice
and rebirth. These include a double bill of Stravinsky's Oedipus
Rex and Symphony of Psalms (Salzburg, 1994), Handel's
Theodora (Glyndebourne, 1996), a mixed program entitled Stravinsky
Biblical Pieces ("The Flood" and "Abraham
and Isaac," among other short pieces; Netherlands Opera,
1999) and John Adams' El Niño (based upon nativity
themes; Opéra, Paris, 2000).
Sellars described the libretto's scenes as "objects of contemplation,"
but theatre requires ongoing stage action -- or at least an audience's
perception of thematic forward movement. How can a stage director
bring life to an already static and visually minimal narrative
of four hour's duration? How can interior faith become explicit
to an audience without falling back upon the cliched biblical
"tableaux vivantes" approach of Saint Francois d'Assise's
failed world premiere?
The solution grew from the contrast of a spacious, extravagant,
and very modernist stage setting with the unadorned and humble
acts of faith played upon it. The costumes (by Dunya Ramicova)
for Saint Francis and the Franciscan brothers were plain to the
point of being drab. They wore simple, brown hooded robes. The
Singing Angel was not an imposing Renaissance winged being (as
in the original Paris production), but was costumed as a modest
and modern religious supplicant with a backpack -- perhaps a sacrificial
hospice attendant who would be lost in a crowd if not for a crystalline
singing voice. (The program suggested a connection to Dorothy
Day and her Catholic Workers Movement in the United States, which,
through social service and publications, addressed issues of poverty
and destitution.) The human imagery of these characters was utterly
modest. But they were surrounded by a stage setting of rare magnificence;
summits of natural, constructed and technological worlds that
were literally open to the night sky (the theatre's roof is retractable)
and framed by the massive rock arcades of the Felsenreitschule.
George Tsypin's towering set consisted of two immense structures
that filled the theatre's entire 130' stage width, but were divided
by a vast, vertical grid of fluorescent lights. On stage left
loomed a beautiful multi-story edifice that looked like the outline
of an unfinished cathedral. The chorus was most often seen on
high platforms inside this transparent symbol of human worship,
one whose bleached wooden design was divided into ledges and stairways
reminiscent of a Max Escher painting. Extending from the cathedral
towards stage right was a wide platform that grew in parabolic
form into a steep rake. (Tsypin described his set as built of
"...simple materials; organic, like flesh; real, naked, pure.")
the ramp, which served as the main playing area, was the massive
square light grid with over 600 colored fluorescent glass tubes
placed in vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines. Messiaen said
that there were relationships between his music and color; that
he imagined different colors while he composed. The light grid,
which made its ever-changing electric shades and shapes insistently
visible, gave tangible form to the music's emotions and rhythms.
James F. Ingalls' lighting design was inventively sensitive to
the ebb and flow of the score, literally illuminating and emotionally
supporting the most dominant element of Messiaen's opera: his
Threading across and above the stage, hanging in the air and
moved around the acting areas in different configurations before
each scene, was another singular design element: forty video monitors,
each 35" across. During the opera, these showed continuous
video clips of natural vistas, flowers, a monk in pilgrimage,
and (of course) birds. The video used during the production, shot
by Sellars, became the production's most questionable, and criticized,
As integrated by this superbly unified stage design, the production
seemed like a theatrical "landscape" inspired by a very
different opera of faith: Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's
Four Saints in Three Acts. Written in 1927-28, this opera's
mix of Stein's distinctive verse with Thomson's faux-naive melodies
has more wit than formal religion in it, and has long been an
iconic work for America's theatrical avant-garde. The continuing
fascination of Four Saints has much to do with its historic
production on Broadway in 1934, with an African-American cast
directed by John Houseman, choreographed by Frederick Ashton,
and sets by painter Florine Stettheimer that were made of cellophane.
Sellars considered reviving Four Saints for American
television in the early 1980's. Although this was never produced,
Four Saints had a continuing interest for him. In a Salzburg
program note, he mentioned "the spiritually transcendent
dramas of Gertrude Stein" as a predecessor to Saint Francois.
Stein intended that all the elements of movement suggested in
her Four Saints libretto be perceived simultaneously
-- like a cubist painting. The physical and musical were to be
one: "telling what happened, without telling stories,"
as she explained in an essay about writing for the stage. And
like a Stein libretto that explores relationships, not situations,
Sellars' staging of Saint Francois, unable to rely upon
conventional narrative, reveled in a Steinian "complete,
actual present" of simultaneous images and sounds of faith
spread across the cathedral, ramp, video monitors and light grid.
Perhaps also influenced by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's
The Seven Deadly Sins, whose lead is played by both a singer
and a dancer (or again Four Saints, where the central
part of Saint Teresa is split between two singers), Sellars' divided
Messiaen's Angel into two contrasting roles: a Singing Angel (Dawn
Upshaw) and a Dancing Angel (Sara Rudner). Rudner, once a principal
dancer in Twyla Tharp's company, was costumed in the bright red
robes and cut-out wings of a Sunday school pageant -- a notable
exception and contrast to the subdued clothes of all the other
characters. Her oversized wings would have been at home in the
innocent fantasy of Four Saints. The divided character
of The Seven Deadly Sins must have been on Sellars' mind
during his preparation of Saint Francois. Only months
after the Salzburg premiere, in early 1993, Sellars created a
television version of the Brecht-Weill opera/ballet with Teresa
Stratas in the singing lead.
Sellars wrote in his Salzburg program note that "The lives
of the saints never go out of date. Their lives remain as touchstones
for every generation. Saints live again in our thoughts and our
hearts, but most importantly in our actions." This mingling
of interior faith with external action became Sellars' directorial
proof that Messiaen's religious vision was neither maudlin in
a public context, nor incompatible with inventive theatricality.
Sellars' controlled use of his cast and design team was the fulfillment
of all his stage experience, knowing when to be bold, when to
revel in mass effects, and when to sustain intimacy. His refined
stage vocabulary of hand and arm gestures was used to great effect.
At no point did these characters of the Catholic Church conventionally
cross themselves or genuflect. Instead, their choreographed hand
movements revealed impulses of the heart and mind--most movingly
when the Singing Angel suddenly appeared before a seemingly hopeless
Leper and with simple outstretched arms suggested the peace and
salvation of an unquestioned and inevitable world to come.
Sellars may have underused Tyspin's soaring cathedral in relation
to its overall scale and visual dominance, particularly a long
downstage staircase upon which no one set foot throughout the
opera. Why was it there? Perhaps this visual imbalance was the
result of limited stage rehearsal time with Vienna's Arnold Schoenberg
Choir, which remained mostly stationary in the transparent cathedral
structure, but sang the choral parts throughout with remarkable
dynamic shading and vitality.
George Tsypin takes a different view. He sees the unused staircase
as an artistic asset -- an example of Sellars' directorial discipline
and mystery. ("In Saint Francois... I had a complex
structure of an unbuilt cathedral and stairs shooting through
the whole thing and going into the sky. The stair was so prominent
you could not avoid thinking that somebody would come walking
down or up at some point. But Peter just ignored the stair and
made it so beautiful.... Having somebody on the stair would have
just made it be part of the usual scenery.") Tsypin makes
an eloquent defense, but when an audience wonders about the use
of unused space or scenery on stage, it loses focus on the work
being performed. The design takes on an aspect of extraneous beauty
for its own sake.
Before his sudden death, Messiaen hoped to be in Salzburg to
"prevent wrong notes in the music, but also .... in the lighting."
Given the massive variations in color and geometrical patterns
made possible by the fluorescent grid, its use was remarkably
consistent and restrained, often displaying just a few white or
red beams merely to outline a cross of light or emphasize with
massed color a particular sound coming from the pit. Only in the
opera's immense finale for full chorus and orchestra, marking
St. Francis' transcendence after death, did the entire light grid
show all its combinations in simultaneous grandeur. Messiaen had
noted that Christ's Resurrection should be "like an atom
bomb exploding"--an image the fully lit grid certainly matched
for Saint Francois. During his transfiguration in the opera's
final moments, every possible pattern of light and color came
into view on the grid as a fireworks display of pure light, matching
the orchestra's repeated sunbursts of sound.
Unlike the subtle fluorescent light grid, Sellars' perpetual
motion machine of forty video monitors was a failed experiment.
Originally, he hoped to include an oversized, outdoor Sony Jumbotron
in the production, but when rental and installation costs proved
excessive, the design was changed to deploy many smaller video
units, most of which were suspended above the stage at various
Upon first sight, the hung monitors' artful, asymmetrical placement
over the vast Felsenreitschule stage was startling, and the projected
videotape added extra color to the overall design. But the multiple
images of flora and fauna soon became decorative and sometimes
irritating, with constant video flickering due to short takes
and busy editing. Only in Saint Francois' death scene did the
cross-cutting video stop. The overall effect undermined the rigorous
atmosphere of an otherwise disciplined production. Video and live
performers rarely mix on stage. However conceptually interesting,
the results here were distracting. Like an awkwardly positioned
supertitle system, the video installation pulled focus from the
live stage action and too often looked like home movies played
on a continuous loop.
Somewhat more successful and integral to the actual performance
of each tableau was the placement of a dozen or so movable video
monitors on the stage floor. Piled on top of each other, or threading
in a line across the wide stage, these monitors (reconfigured
before every scene by stagehands) became beds or walls, and defined
precise spaces, such as the window through which the Angel arrives.
Although they showed the same simultaneous video clips as the
monitors hung above the stage, the floor monitors seemed to be
involved with the action and became less distracting than those
floating on high.
In interviews, Sellars explained his reasons for using continuous
video in Saint Francois: That the monitors would evoke
traditional stained glass in contemporary form, functioning like
cathedral windows to provide narrative imagery above and behind
a performed "service"; also, that it would create a
generalized "hypnotic and intense" effect. Sellars had
managed to film all but four of the birds whose songs are cited
by Messiaen in the score, and through video brought them onstage
in convincing form, respecting Messiaen's ornithological passion.
But Sellars--despite his fascination with film and video--is not
a distinguished artist behind a camera. His powerful understanding
of theatre and his commanding stage technique have not yet translated
into a similar command of media. Up to now, Peter Sellars the
stage director and Peter Sellars the film director have been incompatible.
There was also a mechanical disadvantage to the video installation.
Long pauses were necessary between scenes while the stagehands
in street clothes unplugged, repositioned, and replugged the video
units placed on the stage floor. At both performances I saw during
the production's 1998 revival in Salzburg, many audience members
assumed that a technical problem caused the production to stop
in its tracks while the cables and monitors were reset. Only when
the electrical crew reappeared after each scene did it become
clear that this was intentional. Given the break in emotional
momentum and mood caused by those awkward, lengthy pauses, the
video design's mechanical challenge became an emotional liability.
The one exception came in Messiaen's 45-minute tableau of St.
Francis' sermon to the birds. Here the video installation truly
enhanced the opera as Saint Francis wandered among monitors scattered
about the steep ramp like rocky outcroppings in a lush field.
The quickly alternating video images, on stage and above, were
timed perfectly to the score, handsomely and sweetly showing the
birds to whom St. Francois preached. At last, the video fulfilled
Sellars' artistic goal. Through media, he created an electronic
aviary to bring Messiaen's rich colony of birds onstage. Sellars
tends to be at his best when directing an opera's most challenging
scenes. (This was certainly true in his production of Le Nozze
di Figaro, where the opera's fourth act, a theatrically difficult
sequence of five arias with no intervening ensembles before the
finale, was compelling and far better staged than some of that
opera's more conventional passages.) Saint Francois' static, but
impassioned and very long sermon to the birds contains the opera's
most complex and extended music. It seemed unplayable at the Paris
world premiere. At Salzburg, it was a musical and dramatic highpoint.
"The Sermon to the Birds" (number six of Messiaen's
eight tableaux) the production moved to its purest and most emotional
sequence, and also one of its simplest: the stigmata scene, where
Sellars' minimal staging again gave life to the raw power, ecstasy
and conviction of Messiaen's score. Stretched prostrate upon the
ramp's highest point, Saint Francis was "pierced" by
five light beams projected not from a massive cross, as Messiaen
wrote in his stage directions, but from small hand lamps held
by the Franciscan brothers: four beams touched the end of each
of the Saint's limbs, while a fifth "pierced" his side.
Across the Saint's hands and feet the Dancing Angel gently poured
liquid that dripped in a red line over his body and then straight
down the steeply raked stage. This simple image of white light
and flowing red liquid (all in straight lines that grew in time
to Messiaen's expansive music) made the Saint's sacrifice to his
faith emotionally magisterial and physically beautiful.
At the 1998 Salzburg Festival, the cast was exact and revelatory,
particularly Jose van Dam, who repeated his remarkable performance
from both the Paris world premiere and the 1992 Salzburg season.
Van Dam performed this marathon part with profound dignity, beauty
of tone, and clear diction, along with dramatically convincing
religious fervor, seeming to project St. Francis' self-doubt and
faith towards a place beyond himself. His characterization was
at once restrained and magnificent. American soprano Dawn Upshaw
(also returning from the 1992 Salzburg cast) showed yet again
how different and more complete an artist she is when she works
with Sellars. Angels are meant to be ethereal, and Upshaw was,
while also utterly believable in her down-to-earth service towards
all who came before her.
Both these performances showed the rich possibilities for opera
when otherwise "conventional" singers (albeit important
musicians) work with Peter Sellars. He is underappreciated as
a teacher and coach. Opera stars, as much as the young cast of
Sellars' Mozart cycle, transform themselves with his guidance.
SALZBURG AND BEYOND
Predictably, the 1992 opening night Salzburg Festival audience
applauded the singers and musicians, then booed Sellars and his
production team. (The Los Angeles Times' review carried this headline,
"The Verdict: Salonen Ja, Sellars, Nein.") Much the
same happened at Salzburg's 1998 revival, conducted this time
by Kent Nagano with his Halle Orchestra from England replacing
the L. A. Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen. (Like Jose van Dam,
Nagano had a long association with Messiaen's score. He assisted
Ozawa at the world premiere, conducted one performance during
the original Paris run, and led concert performances of Saint
Francois in Europe and America during the 1980's.) The boos
came mostly from Salzburg claques that were still opposed politically
to this singular production--the most symbolic offering of Mortier's
nouveau regime, now brought back for a second season. The claque
departed after a raucous first curtain call, while the large audience
that remained in the Felsenreitschule gave a long ovation to everyone
Sellars' audiences--as much as Sellars himself--need the opportunity
to experience his productions on a regular basis. His repertory
should be repeated and revised over years, as his Mozart trilogy
was both at Pepsico SummerFare and on tour. Mortier showed great
courage by reviving Saint Francois d'Assise in 1998.
Announced revivals in Paris after the production's 1992 transfer
from Salzburg were undone by a change in management at the Opéra
de la Bastille. Although there were discussions about recreating
the production in Los Angeles and New York, nothing came of those
plans. Eventually, the US stage rights to Saint Francois d'Assise
were obtained by the San Francisco Opera, and the American premiere
took place there in September 2002. This was the centerpiece of
American producer Pamela Rosenberg's first season as the San Francisco
company's General Director, but she chose to give Messiaen's opera
in an entirely new production created by German artists.
Although unseen in the USA, the Salzburg staging of Saint
Francois established Sellars on the international scene and
led to new assignments in London, Paris, Amsterdam and other cities.
The next summer at Salzburg, in 1993, Sellars directed Aeschylus'
The Persians as part of the Festival's revitalized drama
program (led, at Mortier's invitation, by German director Peter
Stein). Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Symphony of
Psalms followed in 1994, and Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre
Saint Francois d'Assise also led to an unanticipated
new collaboration for Sellars: Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho
saw Saint Francois during the 1998 revival and was inspired
to write her own opera, a form that (like Messiaen before
Saint Francois) she had not considered previously. Commissioned
by Mortier for Salzburg, Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin,
staged by Sellers with sets and lights by Tsypin and Ingalls,
was a major success at the 2000 Salzburg Festival, and in November
2001 the production was brought to the Châtelet in Paris.
L'Amour de Loin was Peter Sellars' final work at Salzburg
before Mortier resigned from the Festival in the summer of 2001.
There had been too many years of growing political intrigue, hostile
criticism and antagonism with the board and audiences. After a
decade of Mortier's fractious leadership (which even included
a courageous public airing of the Festival's past Nazi associations),
Salzburg wanted a rest--and at least a partial restoration of
Karajan's profitable tradition, glamour and comfort.
Peter Sellars is not expected to return to Salzburg soon, but
L'Amour de Loin has become the vehicle for reintroducing
him as an opera director in the USA. In the summer of 2002, he
revived Saariaho's opera at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico.
Santa Fe's quasi-outdoor stage required the redesign and simplification
of George Tsypin's set, but when Sellars' production comes to
the Metropolitan Opera House as part of New York's Lincoln Center
Festival in July 2004, it will be seen in the set Tsypin created
for the Châtelet in Paris. In this version, Tsypin's Islamic-inspired
designs (which required flooding the entire Felsenreitschule stage)
are translated with remarkable beauty to the conventional proscenium,
fly space and stage depth of a classic opera house. Perhaps, with
these American engagements for L'Amour de Loin and also
John Adams' El Niño (Los Angeles and New York,
2003), Sellars will at last have production opportunities in the
United States that match the scale and importance of those he
has had abroad.
In his Salzburg Festival program notes, Sellars wrote that "St.
Francis, by refusing to engage in oppositional politics, transformed
the Catholic Church -- not by attacking it, but simply by living
differently and letting people notice for themselves what the
difference could mean." That comment might serve as a description
of Sellars' own career in opera. An itinerant artist without a
home theatre, he has "lived differently"--working repeatedly
in many countries and theatres with the same designers, performers,
and production staff as opportunities arise. (Sellars' longtime
stage manager, Keri Muir, has learned to "call" his
productions in four languages so that she can supervise his tours
and revivals with stage crews from different nations.) These colleagues,
an ensemble whose careers and lives keep intersecting due to Sellars,
form what one might informally call the world's most prestigious
touring opera company.
While hardly any of this ensemble's work of the past decade has
been seen in the USA, nearly all the collaborators are American.
How thankless and odd, but exciting and ironic, that at Austria's
conservative Salzburg Festival a pre-eminent American director,
American designers, an American stage manager, an American production
staff and a largely American cast could so brilliantly realize
an impossibly challenging contemporary French opera that they
would never have the opportunity to perform in America.
PHOTO INFORMATION (from top to bottom)
1. Olivier Messiaen's Saint Francois d'Assise, directed
by Peter Sellars.
2. Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, directed by Peter Sellars.
3. Peter Sellars, Gerard Mortier, Kaija Sariaho, Amin Maloufin
at the Felsenreitschule.
4. George Tsypin's set for Saint Francois d'Assise under
construction at the Felsenreitschule.
5. The light grid in Tsypin's set.
6. The stigmata scene with dancing angel and two hand-held lights
in Saint Francoise d'Assise.
7. Handel's Theodora, directed by Peter Sellars.
[Robert Marx is a New York foundation director, essayist
and theatre producer who has collaborated with Anne Bogart, Robert
Woodruff, Peter Hall and Richard Nelson.]