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Impassioned words for Class of '03

Art and artists are the 'only antidote' to the rampant violence today, director Peter Sellars tells UCLA seniors.

June 16, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Peter Sellars, the provocative theater and opera director, has recently kept a low profile here in his hometown, with many of his larger projects taking place in Europe and Australia.

But the spiky-haired gadfly is also a professor in UCLA's department of world arts and cultures, and on Saturday, he returned to rouse the troops. On a picture-perfect Southern California afternoon, Sellars spoke to the 2003 graduating class of the university's School of the Arts and Architecture.

Most of his outdoor address before about 2,500 people at UCLA's Westwood campus concerned the importance of art and artists in a world of martial and mercantile values.

"When the bombs are done bursting in air," Sellars said, "the work of making peace is much harder than the work of making war. And nobody is going to be safe on this planet until the arts are supported and extended everywhere."

After describing the violence rampant in the world, he said: "These beautiful artists in the sun today are the only antidotes to that violence."

Although he mostly avoided explicit references to the war in Iraq or to politics, many of his remarks, alternately campy and assertive, challenged what he described as a corrupt culture.

"My favorite developing country," he said, "is the United States of America," where politicians, businesses and media outlets have "realized that the only way they could continue to make profits or stay in office is to promote war and poverty."

"The answer to the sterility of the inert corporate imagination is the fertility of the artists in our midst," he added.

Introducing Sellars, Chris Waterman, the school's dean, drew applause when he asked the crowd: "Are you ready to rock 'n' roll?" Many in the audience broke into applause as well when Waterman spoke of Sellars' energies as a teacher.

Sellars, who curated the Los Angeles Festival in 1984, is perhaps best-known for his work with composer John Adams, including the operas "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer" and the recent oratorio "El Nino." His latest project is a version of Mozart's "Idomeneo" playing at England's Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Sellars has placed the opera -- set in the aftermath of the Trojan War -- in surroundings that suggest the Middle East; it begins with Muslim women weeping before body bags.

Appropriately, Sellars' most impassioned statements Saturday urged students to think freshly and do things their own way.

"My generation, we were all told we had to get careers," he said. "Fortunately, your generation does not have Satan whispering that in your ear, because there are no careers. Now, not having a career means you can actually spend your life doing something you love and care about, every day."

Describing his own directorship at age 25 of the American National Theatre at the Kennedy Center, the now- 45-year-old director advised, "Do every day what you care about and it shows, and people notice."

Yet amid the standard you-are-the-leaders-of-tomorrow rhetoric -- combined with an artist's expected pitch for creativity and humanity -- some of what Sellars said was more pointed.

"After all the lawyers and politicians are done chatting in hell," he concluded, to rousing applause, "these beautiful, beautiful artists are going to be setting the table in heaven."

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