AWAKE AND SING: Peter Sellars' Mozart operas at Pepsico Summerfare

The 10,000 ticketholders for the 15 performances of Peter Sellars' Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy --The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte -- at the 10th and final PepsiCo Summerfare this July in Purchase, N.Y., got an experience that spoiled them for life. Especially those who witnessed all three productions in two weekend cycles came away with first-hand knowledge of how, in the 10 years since he first staged Don Giovanni for the Monadnock Musick Festival in New Hampshire, Sellars has succeeded in redefiniing the standards of American opera production. For here were productions of three great Mozart operas in which the values of music, acting, staging, design, architecture and audience appreciation achieved extraordinary parity.

Granted, the circumstances under which these productions were created are extraordinary in themselves. Sellars has assembled around him a minirepertory company like none other in this country. The conductor Craig Smith, several key singers (including Sanford Sylvan, James Maddelena, Susan Larson and Frank Kelley), a number of key musicians (including cellist Shannon Natale and pianist Suzanne Cleverdon) and the entire design crew (James Ingalls for lights, Dunya Ramicova for costumes, Adrianne Lobel and George Tsypin for sets) have all worked repeatedly, many of them for at least a decade, on Sellars' operas -- including Nixon in China, his best-known production and the only one that has been both televised and recorded. [note: This is no longer true. All the Mozart-Da Ponte productions were videotaped and televised, though only Figaro is available commercially.]

As the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledged in its visionary program of grants to ongoing ensembles, the benefits of having a company of artists work together over time are incalculable. And the ensemble spirit among Sellars and his company has been nurtured to its current high state largely under the auspices of Christopher Hunt, the brilliant and adventuresome director of Summerfare during its last five seasons. Hunt first invited Sellars and crew to Purchase in 1985, when they performed Handel's Julius Caesar (Giulio Cesare in Egitto) as well as an evening of Brecht and Weill's Little Mahagonny with a program of Bach cantatas. Over the next three summers, the company tackled the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy one by one, performing them in the 670-seat Theatre B of the State University of New York's Performing Arts Centre, a space that is (compared to the Metropolitan Opera or the State Theater at Lincoln Center) almost shockingly intimate and uncommonly conducive to detailed, human-scaled acting.

This summer Hunt turned the theatre over to Sellars for the entire summer to mount all three operas again. This meant the company got to rehearse in the theatre for a month before performances began; the residency in Purchase was preceded by a month of rehearsals in Boston, where many of the singers and musicians live. Two months of rehearsal for 15 performances of productions that have already been rehearsed and performed in previous years -- this is almost unheard of luxury in the opera world, or the theatre world, for that matter.

Much has been written abut Sellars' individual Mozart productions, especially their contemporary scenic designs: There was The Marriage of Figaro set in the Trump Tower, in which Basilio arrived for the wedding toting a camcorder; Don Giovanni on a Harlem street corner, with a Last Supper of takeout from McDonald's; and Cosi fan tutte played out in Despina's roadside diner, with Don Alfonso an embittered Vietnam vet and Despina impersonating, in one scene, Shirley MacLaine. What hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves is the special pleasure of repertory theatergoing as it applies to Sellars' Mozart cycle, both by itself and in the context of the PepsiCo Summerfare.

This was, after all, a rare opportunity to study a body of work in performance, to pick out the differences and similarities in three works that might not be discernible when mounted separately. I had very vivid impressions from seeing the operas before -- impressions heightened, I should add, by the always thoughtful repertory programming at Summerfare. For instance, during the same season that Sellars staged Cosi fan tutte, the festival hosted Liviu Ciulei's beautiful, bleak Guthrie Theater production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The resonance between the two plays, both concerning two sets of young lovers swapping partners and acting out fantasies in the woods, has stuck with me.

The following year, Hunt organized the entire Summerfare around the myth of Don Juan, with six different Don Juan plays and a Don Juan film series in addition to the Mozart opera. Tedious as it became at times, that festival was in many ways a fascinating pedagogical exploration of the art of interpretation; depending on the director's vision, Don Juan could be the embodiment of pure evil, a heroic sexual rebel, a nationalistic symbol or a helpless product of masculine ego. In this context, Sellars' Don Giovanni was intriguingly perverse. Drenched with Christian symbolism (a neon cross frequently blazed on an otherwise dimly lit Tsypin set, which flew apart in the final scene revealing a back wall etched with religious icons), the multiracial production featured in the title role a young, thin, white performer whose Don Juan was curiously, provocatively passive, as if he were merely the will-less receptacle of the values of his drug-ridden, criminal street milieu. It was a strange, unsettling portrayal of one of literature's most willful characters.

When Sellars revived Don Giovanni this year, the physical production was identical, but the cast had changed in crucial ways that altered the interpretation entirely. Sellars had cast as Giovanni and Leporello a pair of black twins, Eugene and Herbert Perry. Having these strong and experienced opera singers in the roles not only recentered the story on the Giovanni-Leporello relationship, it sharpened the play's moral drama and deepened Sellars' approach.

One of the problems with the director's Harlem-street-corner Mozart was that it seemed to obliterate the class distinctions that motivate much of Da Ponte's story; with a more forceful, black performer in the leading role, the translation was more clearly made from "aristocrat" to something that made sense on the street: "gangleader" or "drug lord." What had seemed like passivity in the earlier production was still there in Sellars' staging -- when Giovanni seduced the newlywed Zerlina, he sat on a doorstep and let her come to him -- yet in Eugene Perry's performance it came across as quiet power.

What is the power that evildoers hold over others? Why is it that the bad guys are generally men of action, while people who know how to do the right think talk and talk and do nothing? These questions run through Don Giovanni, and again and again Sellars' staging suggested intriguing conclusions. When Leporello exchanged jackets with Giovanni, there was no appreciable change in their appearances; it became a gesture of servitude from Leporello, who knew full well it would only be bad for him. Donna Anna had every reason to hate Giovanni -- he had tried to rape her and had killed her father -- yet she remained hooked on him, a fixation Sellars made literal by having Anna shoot up heroin during her aria, "Non mi dir." During all of Act 2, Giovanni's enemies -- Ottavio, Anna, Zerlina, Masetto and Elvira -- raced back and forth, becoming tiresome in their agonizing while never laying hands on Giovanni. At the stunning finale, after a little white girl has pushed Giovanni down a manhole into hell, Sellars had the quintet sings its closing number from a pink-lit purgatory; the rake may well have been punished, but their fate was still to be determined.

At first, Don Giovanni seemed to have little connection with the rest of the trilogy. Figaro and Cosi shared many of the same performers and the tone of both productions was set by Adrianne Lobel's trademark bright, somewhat cartoonish sets, as opposed to Don Giovanni's black and Asian cast and Tsypin's dark, grubby, turbulent design. But seeing them together created strong connections between Don Giovanni and Cosi, especially Sellars' matter-of-fact (as opposed to melodramatic) approach to moral issues. For instance, in his Cosi, Dorabella and Fiordiligi saw through their lovers' disguises and betrayed them anyway with the same clarity and sense of choice with which Leporello served his master or Giovanni went to hell. Considering all the deception and masqueraderie that goes on among lovers throughout these operas, the trilogy might well have been titled "The Game of Love."

Of the three, Figaro is the least interpreted, the easiest to grasp, and Cosi the hardest, particularly for someone (like myself) not schooled in opera. As an inveterate theatregoer, my bias is toward verbal information. I tend to apprehend the music as subsidiary, as accompaniment; I have to force myself to consider the possibility that the music generates what I'm seeing onstage, rather than vice versa. It's specifically for that reason that I sometimes find Sellars' opera stagings opaque; he is apparently communicating with the score on a level deeper than I can perceive. The first time I saw Cosi, I couldn't entirely understand the seriousness with which Sellars approached it -- although seriousness may be a strange word to attach to a production set in a diner, where the men pop Lite beers and the women flip through Vanity Fair.

But the second time around, at the end of an intoxicating weekend of melodious Mozart and scrupulously staged Da Ponte, I was looking through different eyes. I found Sellars' sensibility at work not just when something outrageous was going on -- someone rolling around on the floor singing in the dark, or Despina trotting in with a word processor and running shoes to impersonate a lawyer named Binky -- but often in quiet, entirely musical moments. There was a lovely moment in the first act, for example, when Fiodiligi stood at the window of the diner shaking her head with her earrings dangling that was cued directly to a passage of dangly-earring music in the score. And I understood that -- like the scenic inventions and the topical references -- much of Sellars' staging is aimed merely at keeping the audience alert to every moment, alive in the theatre. Good practice for being awake in the world.

American Theatre, November 1989