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Peter Sellars

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Peter Sellars
Peter Sellars at the 2011 Ojai Music Festival in Ojai, California
Born (1957-09-27) September 27, 1957 (age 66)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Occupation(s)Theatre director, professor

Peter Sellars (born September 27, 1957) is an American theatre director, noted for his unique stagings of classical and contemporary operas and plays. Sellars is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he teaches Art as Social Action and Art as Moral Action. He has been described as a key figure of theatre and opera for the last 50 years.[1]


Early life[edit]

Sellars was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard University. As an undergraduate, he performed a puppet version of Wagner's Ring cycle, and directed a minimalist production of Three Sisters.

Sellars's additional productions included Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in the swimming pool of Harvard's Adams House and a subsequent techno-industrial production of King Lear, which included a Lincoln Continental on stage with music by Robert Rutman's U.S. Steel Cello Ensemble. In his senior year, Sellars staged a production of Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector-General at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. He graduated from Harvard in 1980.[2]


In the summer of 1980, Sellars staged a production in New Hampshire of Don Giovanni, with the cast, costumed and presented to resemble a blaxploitation film as part of the Monadnock Music Festival in Manchester, New Hampshire. Opera News described it as "an act of artistic vandalism". In the winter of 1980, Sellars's production of George Frideric Handel's Orlando, again at the American Repertory Theatre, was set in outer space. Later, Sellars studied theatre and related arts in Japan, China, and India.[citation needed]

In 1981, Sellars worked on a project with Andy Warhol and Lewis Allen that would create a traveling stage show with a life-sized animatronic robot in the exact image of Warhol.[3] The Andy Warhol Robot would then be able to read Warhol's diaries as a theatrical production.[4] Warhol was quoted as saying, "I’d like to be a machine, wouldn’t you?"[5] Sellars planned to show the Andy Warhol Robot at the Kennedy Center and American National Theater and Academy.[6]

Sellars served as director of the Boston Shakespeare Company for the 1983–1984 season. His productions included Pericles, Prince of Tyre and a staging of The Lighthouse, with music by British composer Peter Maxwell Davies. In 1983 he received a MacArthur Fellowship.[7]

Sellars was the original director of the 1983 Broadway musical My One and Only, a revival of the George & Ira Gershwin show Funny Face. However, the avant-garde approach of Sellars and librettist Timothy Mayer clashed with the more traditional take of star Tommy Tune, who eventually took over as the director. As Sellars told The New York Times, it was a struggle "between the forces of Brecht and the forces of The Pajama Game."[8]

Peter Sellars in the mid-1980s

In 1984, Sellars was named director and manager of the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. at the age of 26; he held this post until 1986. During his time in Washington, Sellars staged a production of The Count of Monte Cristo, in a version by James O'Neill, featuring Richard Thomas, Patti LuPone, and Zakes Mokae. The production had a set design by George Tsypin, with costumes by Dunya Ramicova, and lighting by James F. Ingalls. He also directed productions of Idiot's Delight by Robert Sherwood, and Sophocles's Ajax, as adapted by Robert Auletta.[9][10]

Sellars was Artistic Director of the 1990 and 1993 Los Angeles Festivals.[11][12] Sellars produced the three operas by Mozart with libretti by da Ponte, Così fan tutte (set in a diner on Cape Cod),[13] The Marriage of Figaro (set in a luxury apartment in New York City's Trump Tower),[14] and Don Giovanni (set in New York City's Spanish Harlem, cast and costumed as a blaxploitation movie), in collaboration with Emmanuel Music and its Artistic Director, Craig Smith. The productions were recorded in Austria by ORF in 1989, subsequently televised by PBS, and later revived at the MC93 Bobigny in Paris and the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.[15][citation needed]

Sellars directed one feature film, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, a silent color film starring Joan Cusack, Peter Gallagher, Ron Vawter, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. He co-wrote and was featured in Jean-Luc Godard's film of the Shakespeare play King Lear.

The Salzburg and Glyndebourne Festivals invited Sellars to produce operas, including Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise, Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, John Adams's and Alice Goodman's Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, and Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin.[16]

Sellars also staged Handel's opera Giulio Cesare and oratorio Theodora, and Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, in addition to I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky and The Peony Pavilion.[citation needed] He directed an production of The Persians at the Edinburgh Festival in 1993, which presented the play as a response to the Gulf War of 1990–91.[17]

Later career[edit]

Sellars was the librettist for the opera Doctor Atomic composed by John Adams.[18]

In August 2006, he directed a staged performance of Mozart's unfinished opera Zaide as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center in New York. In late 2006, Sellars organized the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna, Austria as Artistic Director (the festival was part of Vienna Mozart Year 2006). He directed the premieres of Saariaho's oratorio La Passion de Simone and Adams's opera A Flowering Tree, also in Vienna.[19][20]

In 2007, Sellars delivered the "State of Cinema" address at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival on April 29. He introduced the screenings of Mahamat Saleh Haroun's Daratt and Garin Nugroho's Opera Jawa, two of the New Crowned Hope films. The festival also screened Jon Else's documentary, Wonders Are Many, which features an account of Adams's and Sellars's creation of the first San Francisco production of Doctor Atomic. An extensive commentary by Sellars is included in the 2007 DVD of Grigori Kozintsev's King Lear by Facets Video.[citation needed]

In early 2009, Sellars co-curated a contemporary art exhibition of work by Ethiopian artist Elias Simé at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, a kunsthalle in Santa Monica, California. His Othello, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago, was produced in the Fall 2009 season at New York City's Public Theater.[citation needed]

In 2011, Sellars directed a production of John Adams's opera Nixon in China for New York's Metropolitan Opera. This was broadcast in many theaters around the world in HD on February 12. During a backstage interview in the first intermission, Sellars referred to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, which took place in Cairo on the previous day, comparing it to the momentous time when President Richard Nixon first met with Mao Tse-tung in Peking, opening diplomatic and trade relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China. In summer 2011 he directed the opera Griselda at the Santa Fe Opera in Santa Fe, New Mexico.[citation needed]

Sellars wrote the libretto for John Adams's opera Girls of the Golden West.[21]

In 2019, Sellars gave the keynote address at the Salzburg Festival.[22] It coincided with his staging of Idomeneo by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, conducted by Teodor Currentzis.[citation needed]

Sellars is a professor at the University of California Los Angeles.[23]

In 2021, Sellars donated his archive to the Getty Research Institute.[24]


Sellars was criticized for straying too far from composers' intentions in 1997 by György Ligeti.[25]

In 1998, Sellars was awarded the Erasmus Prize for "combining in his original creations the European and American cultural traditions".[26] In 2001, he was awarded the Harvard Arts Medal.[27] In 2005, Sellars was awarded The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, given annually to "a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind's enjoyment and understanding of life."[28] In 2014, alongside Chuck Berry, Sellars was awarded the Polar Music Prize.[29]

The German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf said of Sellars, "I have seen what he has done, and it is criminal. As my husband used to say, so far no one has dared go into the Louvre Museum to spray graffiti on the Mona Lisa, but some opera directors are spraying graffiti over masterpieces."[30]

Sellars's long-time collaborator John Adams has called him an "intensely serious and sophisticated artist with the moral zeal of an abolitionist."[31]

The Palestinian-American academic, literary critic and political activist Edward Said described Sellars as an "extraordinarily gifted man". In a 1989 review of Sellars's productions of Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro, Said wrote that the "turns that Sellars rings on Mozart's courtly operas make you wonder why wooden delicacy and affectations of authenticity have satisfied us for so long. We learn through Sellars that they never did satisfy us, not just because their silly conventions leave Mozart untouched but also because they protect the laziness and incompetence of most opera companies." In 1996, Said characterized Sellars's Covent Garden staging of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler as "compelling and brilliant in conception" and "deliberately uncompromising in its appeal to a late-twentieth-century audience".[32]



  1. ^ Battle, Laura (November 7, 2014). "Peter Sellars talks about his spiritual side". www.ft.com.
  2. ^ Thompson, Ayanna (2018). Shakespeare in the Theatre: Peter Sellars. London: Bloomsbury. p. xxx. ISBN 978-1-350-02174-7.
  3. ^ Ridenour, Al (2002-05-16). "The Automated Andy Warhol Is Reprogrammed". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2023-08-04.
  4. ^ Magazine, Smithsonian; McGreevy, Nora. "Hear an A.I.-Generated Andy Warhol 'Read' His Diary to You in New Documentary". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2023-08-04.
  5. ^ Watercutter, Angela. "Why 'The Andy Warhol Diaries' Recreated the Artist's Voice With AI". Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. Retrieved 2023-08-04.
  6. ^ Hogrefe, Jeffrey (1984-10-02). "It's A Mod, Mod World". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2023-08-09.
  7. ^ "Peter Sellars". www.macfound.org. Retrieved 2023-08-04.
  8. ^ Shewey, Don (May 1, 1983). "HOW 'MY ONE AND ONLY' CAME TO BROADWAY". The New York Times. Retrieved December 7, 2022.
  9. ^ Rich, Frank; Times, Special To the New York (1986-02-24). "STAGE: 'IDIOT'S DELIGHT,' AT THE KENNEDY CENTER". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2023-09-07.
  10. ^ Brown, Joe (13 June 1986). "'Ajax': A Murky Muddle". The Washington Post. Retrieved 6 September 2023.
  11. ^ Braxton, Greg (1990-08-31). "The Artist at the Helm : Can Festival Director Peter Sellars Pull It Off on Vision Alone?". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2023-09-04.
  12. ^ Haithman, Diane (1993-06-05). "Scaled-Down L.A. Festival Loses International Artists : Arts: On the positive side, artistic director Peter Sellars says that 'the whole world is in L.A., and the festival is actually going to prove that.'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2023-09-04.
  13. ^ Rockwell, John (July 18, 1985). "Opéra: Mozart's 'Cosi fan tutte'". New York Times. Retrieved 3 February 2019.
  14. ^ Rockwell, John (July 15, 1988). "A Sellarized 'Figaro' in First Performance". New York Times. Retrieved 3 February 2019.
  15. ^ Maurin, Frédéric (2002). "Did Paris steal the show for American postmodern directors?". In Bradby, David; Delgado, Maria M. (eds.). The Paris Jigsaw: Internationalism and the city's stages. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 244. ISBN 0-7190-6183-0.
  16. ^ Ross, Alex (2017-08-14). "The Salzburg Festival Reawakens". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2023-09-05.
  17. ^ Attilio Favorini. Memory in Play: from Aeschylus to Sam Shepard, pp. 56–58 (2008)
  18. ^ "Doctor Atomic". earbox. Retrieved 4 September 2023.
  19. ^ Midgette, Anne (2006-11-29). "An Earnest Meditation on a Life Devoted to Human Suffering". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2023-09-05.
  20. ^ Westphal, Matthew (15 November 2006). "Photo Journal: John Adams's A Flowering Tree Premieres at New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna". Playbill. Retrieved 5 September 2023.
  21. ^ Press release, San Francisco Opera to Present World Premiere of "Girls of the Golden West" Archived 2016-06-17 at the Wayback Machine, San Francisco Opera, 14 June 2016, accessed 15 June 2016
  22. ^ "Blog • Peter Sellars to Deliver Keynote Address at the Opening of the 2019 Salzburg Festival". Salzburger Festspiele. 2019-05-17. Retrieved 2020-12-27.
  23. ^ "Peter Sellars". www.wacd.ucla.edu. Retrieved 2023-08-04.
  24. ^ "Archive of Celebrated Stage Director Peter Sellars Comes to Getty". www.getty.edu. Retrieved 2023-08-04.
  25. ^ Tom Service, "Ligeti's Riot Through History", The Guardian (London), August 27, 2009
  26. ^ "Erasmusprijswinnaars". Praemium Erasmianum Foundation. Retrieved 2023-09-04.
  27. ^ "History of the Harvard Arts Medal". Harvard University Office for the Arts. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  28. ^ The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Archived 2013-10-06 at the Wayback Machine, official website.
  29. ^ "Peter Sellars — Polar Music Prize". www.polarmusicprize.org. Retrieved 2023-09-04.
  30. ^ Newsweek interview, 15 October 1990
  31. ^ Adams, John (2008). Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-374-28115-1.
  32. ^ Said, Edward (2008). Music at the Limits: Three Decades of Essays and Articles on Music. London: Bloomsbury. pp. 89–90, 213. ISBN 978-0-7475-9778-0.


  • Favorini, Attilio. 2003. "History, Collective Memory, and Aeschylus' Persians." Theatre Journal 55:1 (March): 99–111.
  • Meyer-Thoss, Gottfried, Extrakte. Peter Sellars – Amerikanisches Welttheater, Parthas Verlag Berlin, 2004

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