Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Not Peter Sellers

Tonight I went to a Harvard Club event (my first!) with the brush-haired opera director Peter Sellars, who is in town to direct John Adams' Doctor Atomic at the Lyric Opera. Peter went to Harvard and became nationally renowned for his wildly original direction even while in college. I pause to gnash my teeth with envy and shame.

He teaches at UCLA now and talked about his teaching with such love and conviction as I occasionally possess myself, and I found his wild interdisciplinarity very inspiring. His enormous lecture class, Art as Social/Moral Action, takes up a single topic (this semester's is food supply, organics and genetic engineering) and gets expert speakers in to address it from all kinds of points of view: chemistry, marketing, anthropology... Very Harvard, as he smilingly noted, to get to experience everything through the most expert people. His final exam is one of the most original I've ever heard of, and most likely to allow for creative thought (as well as the usual dreck). Part I: Describe a moment of change in your life. How did it come about--what pressures from outside, what took place inside? Part II: What is the future of the food supply? Part III: Link the two.

In other words, how are you going to bring about change in the world? Peter (I can't call him Sellars, somehow -- so stiff and formal) teaches tons of athletes, and pointed out that they are people who already have a media platform before they leave college, much like he did, and that he hopes to get them thinking about things in new and interesting ways. Which is what I always hope to do with my students, and perhaps occasionally accomplish. I had a good quarter.

Peter also spoke very passionately about the opera Doctor Atomic, which is a Faust-in-reverse take on Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the bomb, and the need to rethink and erase nuclear proliferation. I admit that he is right. Other than the usual spurts of anti-axis-of-evil rhetoric that I hear and snort at, I haven't thought about the arsenals still nicely aimed and ready in a very long time -- not since Model U.N. in high school, at least not in depth. I greatly look forward to seeing the fourth staging of this three-year-old opera.

I also hope to nip round backstage to see one of the singers, James Maddalena, the original Nixon of Adams' most famous opera Nixon in China, who played Sharpless in Boston Lyric Opera's Madam Butterfly when I was an extra. Jim and Frank Kelley, who was also in that production, have worked with Peter very often on Adams and other projects.

It was a good night. Sometimes, amid the politicking and slow dissertation writing, you need to meet people who remind you why you got into 'all this' (I wave my arms in the general direction of the arts, public intellectualism, and teaching) in the first place.


zubin said...

I fınally get to see Peter Sellers ın person and lısten to hıs talk ın Istambul

Heidi said...

Really! Was it for an opera production he was directing? If so, didn't know he directed so far abroad. That's great.