The Rebel Arrives at the Met

“A Cosi fan tutte that will haunt me for the rest of my life,” Peter G. Davis wrote in his 1984 New York review of Peter Sellars’ landmark production of Mozart’s opera. The performance took place at the Castle Hill Festival in Ipswich, Mass.; critics noted that the opera’s roadside diner set resembled the places that dotted local Route 1A. Mr. Sellars was then just 26, but Mr. Davis was already looking ahead to bigger things. “Will Sellars ever direct a production at the Met or City Opera?” he asked.

Nearly 27 years later, the answer is finally yes. On Feb. 2, Mr. Sellars’ production of John Adams’ Nixon in China opens at the Metropolitan Opera, marking belated Met debuts for one of the great contemporary works of music theater and one of the visionary opera directors of our time.

“It’s emotional,” Mr. Sellars said in an interview last week at the Met. “My grandmother had a subscription here, and I remember coming here with her. She’s no longer alive, and I know this would just mean the world to her. It has a lot of emotion in that way.”

Mr. Sellars is a small, slight, enthusiastic man with a famously gravity-defying shock of brown hair, lately thinning a little. He’s from Pittsburgh and lives in L.A. now. There’s something bicoastal about his combination of restless intellect and sunny calmness.

He favors vibrantly colored shirts, and his hand was twisted around one of the long beaded necklaces he always wears as he mouthed the words during a rehearsal of the first scene of Act II, when Janis Kelly’s Pat Nixon takes a surreal tour of Chinese factories and schools. He shouted a profusion of thank-yous as he ran into the wings when the scene was over, and at one point cheerfully exclaimed, “Happiness is our fate!” with more than a hint of sarcasm but also, it seemed, more than a hint of earnestness.

This blend of satire and sincerity was central to Nixon‘s historical re-imagining, and to Mr. Sellars’ production, which featured bold, flat, Soviet Realist-inspired sets by Adrianne Lobel that have been adapted for the Met.

Mr. Adams’ opera premiered in Houston in 1987, when memories of its subject–Nixon’s 1972 trip to China–were still fresh, and it widened the possibilities of the art form. It showed that contemporary opera could struggle with national history, with the intersection of the personal and the political, with humanizing hateful people through music, as vividly as did Verdi in Don Carlos and Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov. And it certainly hasn’t lost its relevance.

“This history looms larger in our lives now than it did then,” Mr. Sellars said. “Hu is here right now, and is gonna tell us what the American dollar is worth. Gone are the days when we go to China and tell them to shape up. It’s like, excuse me, they’re our banker! We need them more than they need us–well no, that’s not fair, we really need each other, so completely. Our destinies are so intertwined, which is of course Act III of this opera.”

Mr. Sellars’ legend began even earlier than that 1984 production of Cosi. In the late ’70s, he directed dozens of plays and operas as an undergraduate at Harvard. His dazzlingly creative work–a stark take on Gogol’s The Inspector General, a version of Wagner’s Ring performed with puppets, Antony and Cleopatra in a swimming pool–got the attention of critics and presenters, particularly after he won a MacArthur grant in 1983. He began his long association with Mr. Adams with Nixon, ventured into Handel and completed his cycle of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas.

In addition to the diner Cosi, Mr. Sellars set Don Giovanni in Spanish Harlem and The Marriage of Figaro in the Trump Tower. It’s easy now to look back on descriptions of those and other trademark productions and view them as dated. But they worked–and continue to work, as DVDs show–because they were focused not on superficial concepts but on making vividly real the composers’ and librettists’ interests in class, gender and politics.

“It’s not about style,” he said. “It’s about content. Once you focus on content, then the stakes are real. What is the surface leading you to? That’s when it gets really serious.”

Audiences were split–fights kept the orchestra from starting the second act of the Figaro in Barcelona–and some critics, including Charles Michener writing in The Observer, have disliked some of Mr. Sellars’ interpretations, like a 2006 New York production of Mozart’s Zaide that focused on contemporary slavery. But the director’s vision has always reminded us why these works matter, and have audiences leaving the theater talking not about the soprano’s high notes but about the work’s themes.

Though his work still has its detractors, Mr. Sellars is now an institution, just like Nixon–as tends to happen with once controversial artists and works. The Met, which passed on Mr. Sellars’ production of Mr. Adams’ Doctor Atomic a few years ago, is getting with Nixon as close to a sure thing as contemporary opera offers. And the company has itself changed: After edgy productions like Willy Decker’s new Traviata, Mr. Sellars’ Nixon can seem positively conservative.

“Regrettably there’s nothing to boo here,” Mr. Sellars said. “It doesn’t have to argue or force its place. It feels like it totally belongs. Just as you used to go to the Met for Lisa della Casa’s Countess and Cesare Siepi’s Figaro because they were classic portrayals by people who’d been doing these roles all their lives, there’s something thrilling about these years of Jimmy Maddalena”–who originated the role of Nixon and will play him at the Met–“and Janis Kelly on the stage together. We’ve all been through it a lot. It’s great to arrive on the Met stage not as a new piece, but as a classic.”

Mr. Sellars’ recent style–seen, for example, in his almost semi-staged production of Mr. Adams’ Flowering Tree-tends to be more pared-down than Nixon‘s pop stylizations, the Mozart cycle’s modernizations or the massive abstraction of his Salzburg production of Messiaen’s St. Francois d’Assise.

“When times are hard, you don’t want something to feel decadent,” he said. “You want it to feel correct to this moment. There are so many forces to dehumanize everything and to depersonalize everything, and I love saying, ‘There’s nothing onstage but people.’ It’s all you’re looking at it, and that’s why we’re here.”

This spare aesthetic–“less of the Nancy Reagan element,” he said–is also in keeping with recent reductions in arts funding, particularly for the kind of newer, riskier work on which Mr. Sellars has lately focused. He said that in the past couple of months, emails have been streaming in announcing budget cuts of up to two-thirds on many of his upcoming European projects.

As for Nixon, anything that fills the massive Met proscenium could hardly be described as tiny. But Mr. Sellars insisted that his long-awaited debut is about as intimate as a production at the house could be–perfect in its timing and correct for its moment.

“It’s a very low-budget grand opera,” he said with a massive laugh. “And I couldn’t be prouder.”

  The Rebel  Arrives at the Met