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Director Sellars: 'You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet'

December 13, 1987|JUDITH MICHAELSON

HOUSTON — At first it's hard to spot Peter Sellars amid the glittering first-nighters at the opera. But then who would expect the director to be there, working the crowd, at the world premiere of "Nixon in China," which he not only directs but also dreamed up?

It's intermission. In the lobby at Houston Grand Opera's Wortham Center Oct. 22, the peripatetic Sellars is out there--lobbying.

With his distinctive shaggy porcupine hair framing his face like a Statue of Liberty crown, Sellars, standing just over five feet tall, is holding court under the chandeliers. In a blue Mao jacket and matching pants, he stands out from the black-tie and bejeweled crowd where oil executives mingle with the nation's music critics and a pair of Los Angeles Festival representatives.

Arms folded across his chest, face aglow, Sellars tells one cluster before flitting to the next: "Get ready for the second act. You ain't seen nothing yet."

Sellars--most recently director of the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington for three years and director of the Boston Shakespeare Company for a year before that--turned 30 on Sept. 27, one day after the announcement that he would succeed Robert Fitzpatrick as director of the Los Angeles Festival.

Sellars has been leapfrogging across the United States and Europe on a variety of assignments. And everywhere he goes he seems to polarize opinions about his work. He has been tagged as an enfant terrible or a Wunderkind, a genius (as a $136,000 1983 MacArthur Foundation Fellow), or a Cuisinart of contemporary theater (an American critic), brilliant or merely the latest flavor of the month (according to a London critic).

He has also been likened to another "Amadeus," possessed of child-like exuberances, an almost-manic energy and an artistic vision that may herald the future.

Get ready, Los Angeles Festival, for the second act under Peter Sellars.

Setting a 'Hot' Pace

The Los Angeles Festival under Sellars promises to be quite different from its initial venture under Fitzpatrick. The first festival ended its 24-day run (Sept. 3-27) in the black, after presenting 177 performances of 37 music, dance and theater productions by 352 artists from 11 nations at nine locations. About 80 performances were sold out. Overall attendance was about 150,000. Among the attractions were Le Cirque du Soleil, Peter Brook's "Mahabharata," Ingmar Bergman's "Miss Julie," Michael Clark and Company and a John Cage Festival.

Seventeen years younger than his predecessor, who quit to become president of Euro Disneyland, Sellars speaks about music videos as an emerging art form or Tibetan music with the level of enthusiasm Fitzpatrick reserves for the Royal Opera of Covent Garden. Sellars is an artist rather than an administrator/academician. He is ebullient rather than elegant, punctuating his lines with cackling laughter and energetic hands. He is "hot" rather than "cool."

More than a taste maker, Sellars is setting the pace, whether it's putting Mozart's 18th-Century operas into contemporary settings or dealing with current issues in entirely new work, like "Nixon."

"What I love about opera is that it's not off on the side," he says. "It's always central. It's in the big theater in the center of town and everybody comes together to deal with issues that are really central. Nixon struck me as a pretty central figure and China struck me as a really central issue. A lot of the issues are sitting around the edges of that opera--what is meant economically by capitalism and communism in this (period) when the stock market crashes and where (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev and (Chinese leaders) are moving toward a capitalist situation. Suddenly those ideologies which were so rigid are opening up.

"The opening of China is a crucial event for the next 50 years. They're about to be a big player. We're really watching a situation where the Japanese are changing the way Detroit thinks, and that's a real Cultural Revolution. And I think Western culture meeting Oriental culture is one of the big turning points of our time."

Sellars has already revealed that Asian culture will figure prominently in the next Los Angeles Festival.

On the Run

The making of the second Los Angeles Festival began Oct. 26 at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Houston. "Peter had never been to NASA before and I was game for a ride," says Tom Schumacher, associate festival director who had flown in to see "Nixon" and Sellars. "We pulled up and he immediately became excited because they had these huge rockets outside." Sellars liked NASA so much, Schumacher said, that they came back the next day "and Peter became obsessed with Mission Control."

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