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Music

Peter Sellars: 'The Gospel is told by men. We changed that.'

John Adams's opera "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" recently premiered in Germany, staged by the renowned American director Peter Sellars, who told DW why the work is appropriate not only for the Easter season.

Sometimes a librettist collaborates closely with a composer, such as in 2012, when Peter Sellars compiled Biblical and contemporary texts to form the basis of an opera/oratorio by the American composer John Adams. It's unusual, however, for that same librettist to personally direct the stage production, as was done in a collaboration between the English National Opera in London and the Bonn Opera.

An instructor in the subjects "Art as Social Action" and "Art as Moral Action" at the University of California in Los Angeles, Sellars is known for his many highly creative dramatic interpretations of operas and plays over the past four decades. For "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," he compiled texts from the Bible and from historic and contemporary sources ranging from Hildegard of Bingen to Dorothy Day. After weeks of rehearsals and in the run-up to the premiere in Bonn, Peter Sellars sat down with DW to share his insights into a work that he has worked on, from the initial idea to most recent presentation, over a period of five years.

DW: It's unusual to have a stage director who also compiled the texts. Give me a sense, please, of your collaboration with John Adams.

Peter Sellars: We've known each other for 30 years now, and this is our seventh piece, I think. John doesn't write a note of music until he has the complete libretto in front of him. But in this case, the idea actually came from him. He said, "I want to write a passion."

I happened to be at work on a production of Bach's St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic, so I was deeply immersed in Bach's dramaturgy. Working with the poet Picander, Bach would take a passage from the Bible followed by a poem - a kind of meditation on the Biblical passage that also makes a contemporary reference. The third element is a traditional Lutheran hymn. So with Bach, the text operates as a fantastic collage that moves across the centuries. It's a striking and beautiful structure, and I retained much of it.

The central figure in Bach's St. Matthew Passion is Mary Magdalene, so I thought, let's continue with that. The drama begins in Bethany, with Jesus raising Mary's brother Lazarus from the dead - and you realize that it's a kind of dress rehearsal for Jesus' own resurrection.

Because of the political times we're living in with so much bad news every day, I couldn't end the piece with Good Friday and everybody sitting around weeping. So I said, "I need to begin the piece with the story of a resurrection and end it with another resurrection."

Peter Sellars (Thilo Beu)

American stage director Peter Sellars teaches the moral and social implications of art and drama in California

Mary Magdalene is an interesting figure. These are all people with their problems, sins and shortcomings - she maybe more than the others. It this what fascinates you about the character, too?

Jesus was very clear that he wasn't here to be with nice or easy people. He was here to be with people who are on the edge, who are prone to suicide, violence and struggle. Mary and Jesus live together, and people are saying, "Don't you know this is a prostitute?" And Jesus says very clearly, "I'd rather be with her than with lots of other people."

You get the sense that when your life is collapsing and you've made the biggest mistakes is when spiritual hunger is at its deepest and the closeness to God is so real, necessary and urgent. There's the sense that you need to have faith and step into the unknown with all your heart and being.

This woman represents that desperation, courage and an unmitigated act of love. And when Jesus is arrested, the disciples flee - but the women remain. And on the morning of the Resurrection, it's the women who are the first to see the angels and to report the Resurrection. So I think the Bible also gives them a very special place. You just don't hear what they have to say. We've changed that!

Is this about an opposition between established religion as represented by Jesus' disciples and those who, as you say, had absolute trust in the Divine?

I've left certain elements that were necessary in Bach's time offstage. In scholarly discussion, a case can be made that once Rome became Christian, they had to invent reasons why the Romans hadn't killed Jesus. So they came up with the supposed culpability of the Jews and portrayed Pilate as sort of a good guy. I've left all that out. There's no blame culture here - and nobody telling you what to think.

A scene from The Gospel According to the Other Mary as staged by by Peter Sellars (Thilo Beu)

A scene from the production at the Bonn Opera

You spent weeks here in Bonn working out the elements of character depiction in combination with the music. But in the earlier versions it was performed in concert or only partially staged. Is the work evolving?

On the score, John calls it an oratorio. But I think he means it in the sense of Handel's oratorios, which are the most dramatic things he ever wrote. For Handel, it's the theater of the mind, where his imagination can finally run free and the music is highly dramatic. I still hesitate to call it an opera. This isn't about show business. It's not about "Does Carmen get the guy?" It has a larger question in it. And in theater you can use light, movement and sound to take you to a place you can't go any other way.

Did you have to come to Europe to realize this at this level? I would imagine that the logistical or time constraints must be different in the United States, or is that just some prejudice on my part?

I would give anything to show this in the United States! I would love for anyone there to see what the people in Bonn are seeing. The stage presentation came about after the head of the English National Opera came to see the concert version and said, "But this needs a full production." And now here in Bonn, we can really work on it and give it a dimensionality we could never in other circumstances.

I'm grateful to be working on this piece here in Germany, one of the few places in the world where people are not going crazy, really not losing their cookies. They are maintaining a kind of emotional/psychic equilibrium at a time when so much of the world is actually being swept by anger, reactionary forces and extreme reactions. It's just a joy to wake up every morning in Germany and see people who are in balance. People have a perspective and are saying, "We're not going to lose everything we believe in. We're actually going to deepen it." That's a very wonderful moment in my life.

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