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Saint Francoise d'Assise by Olivier Messiaen directed by Peter Sellars
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: <> and <>) This original English language version of the essay appears here by permission of the publisher.]

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.


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.

Cosi fan tutteSellars' 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 operatic experience.

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 and passion.

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.


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.

Peter Sellars, Gerard Mortier, Kaija Saariaho, Amin MaaloufinPlans 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.


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.)

George Tsypin's setting of Saint Francoise d'Assise under construction at the FelsenreitschuleWith 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.")

Above 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 orchestra.

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, element.


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 random heights.

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 stigmata scene with dancing angel in Saint Francoise d'AssiseFrom "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.


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 onstage.

TheodoraPeter 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 in 1997.

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.]


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