Peter Sellars, photographed for the FT at English National Opera
Peter Sellars, photographed for the FT at English National Opera © Victoria Birkinshaw

Peter Sellars doesn’t do handshakes; they’re not his style. Instead, when we meet during rehearsals for The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a “Passion oratorio” he conceived with his long-time creative partner, the composer John Adams, I am held in a warm embrace. It has become one of his trademark quirks, together with his vertiginous hairdo and wild, unpredictable laughter. And on first encounter, it’s easy to forget that Sellars, 57, is one of the – if not the – most disruptive and influential opera directors of the past 30 years.

Adjectives such as these must have been pinned to him from the start. A precocious child, Sellars apprenticed at the Lovelace Marionette Theater in Pittsburgh at the age of 10, and after high school spent a year studying experiment­al theatre in Paris. As an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1970s he became famous for his radical reinterpretations of the classics: an Antony and Cleopatra set in and around the Adams House pool, a puppet Ring cycle and a set for Three Sisters that featured 30 live birch trees hauled from Harvard Forest.

It was the 1980s, however, that proved career-defining. Sellars’s productions of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas, which he updated to the present day (Le nozze di Figaro set in Trump Tower, a trailer-trash take on Così fan tutte and a drug-soaked Don Giovanni) left a trail of gobsmacked awe and indignation in their wake.

Controversy still stalks him – last month, a staging at the Met Opera in New York of The Death of Klinghoffer (the second in a loose trilogy of operas he created with Adams between 1987 and 2005, which includes Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic) provoked angry protests – but more recently Sellars has focused on sacred music and explored different forms of theatre.

“Wall-to-wall opera isn’t necessarily what we need,” he explains. “It’s great also to allow some things to have this other kind of spiritual radiance and other kind of abstract splendour and beauty, exactly when the world is so in your face.”

If El Niño, Adams and Sellars’s millennium collaboration, was seen by many as a contemporary update of Handel’s Messiah, then The Other Mary, which is soon to make its stage premiere at English National Opera, can be considered in the light of Bach’s Passions. But the score, pungent and challenging, is underlined by a nerve-jangling blend of cimbalom, tuned gongs and bass guitar; the Passion narrative is told from the perspective of two women close to Jesus (Mary Magdalene and Martha); the action, which begins with the howls of a woman in drug withdrawal, is updated to our own time; and the libretto splices Gospel verses with non-biblical texts.

Alan Opie and Jesse Kovarsky in ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ at the Metropolitan Opera in New York
Alan Opie and Jesse Kovarsky in ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ at the Metropolitan Opera in New York © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

For Sellars this was as much a political as an artistic choice. “One of the reasons I love making librettos out of multiple sources is that we’ve all learnt in our generation to distrust the master narrative and say there is no master narrative, and democracy is actually recognising how many voices and viewpoints there are simultaneously,” he says.

A central theme here, and in much of Sellars’s work over the past decade, is that of history’s forgotten women. “The women were at the foot of the cross, the men really weren’t, so the idea with The Other Mary is: ‘the women were there, so let’s ask them,’ ” he says. Mary and Martha are given voices, and many of the additional lines originate from the work of female authors including the 12th-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen, Dorothy Day, the political activist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Louise Erdrich, whose writing explores both Catholic and Native American spirituality.

He offers me a quote from Erdrich’s 1989 poetry anthology Baptism of Desire, which the chorus sings in the penultimate scene: “ ‘It is spring. The tiny frogs pull/ their strange new bodies out/ of the suckholes . . . ’ and it’s like – of course! – the frogs coming back are the sign that the resurrection is real, it’s not some giant metaphysical idea, it’s very real, and I love that embodied feminine spirituality . . . It takes you out of ‘do you believe or not believe’, it’s ‘do you recognise that these plants are back’. This is not ‘do you believe – this is just ‘open your eyes!’ ” he says, flashing a beatific smile. “So this sense of pregnancy and miracles is so present.”

Sellars’s own spiritualism tempts and then resists interpretation. His conversation – frankly, more of a monologue – is by turns fascinating and exasperating, delivered at manic speed or slow and sotto voce, and embellished with gesture and animated expression. It’s a style of delivery well suited to a lecture hall (he is professor of World Arts and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles) but it is unyielding to the prompts and prods of an interview.

Adams refers to himself as a “secular liberal” and I wonder aloud how Sellars might describe his own faith, or lack thereof. “Well, you know, I don’t des– . . . ” he hesitates for a nanosecond. “For me the pleasure of all of this is that there are no labels, the labels just fall away, and none of us can be summed up in an adjective and a noun. What’s so rich is that a human being is an infinity, is an immensity, is a cosmos, a complete set of future lives and past lives.”

Yet he admits that the time he spent working at Emmanuel Church in Boston, where he was “adopted” by a group of musicians during the early 1980s, helped inspire his belief in art as an instrument for social change.

“When you’re staging a Mozart opera with a shelter for battered women down the hall, you rethink everything . . . Every week in a church like that you’re having to talk someone down off a bridge and you have to give them several reasons to go on living. And you realise that Bach and Mozart and Handel wrote music for really broken people to help them put the pieces back together.” With his flamboyant shirts (today’s is earthy brown with gold stripes) and beaded garlands, Sellars certainly looks the part of hippie activist. But his whimsical appearance and dreamy rhetoric seem to serve as invitations to explore his work, where his identity finds clearer expression.

British tenor Mark Padmore worked with Sellars on an important production of Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic, first seen in 2010 and recently revived. Padmore cites an oft-quoted remark by the late English dramatist Dennis Potter, about religion being the wound rather than the bandage, when reflecting on Sellars’s work: “He’s got this vulnerability, he exposes himself, in a certain sense, to his performers and audiences,” Padmore explains. “I think he wants the piece itself, the Matthew Passion, to be that sort of meditation on the wound, and not the comfort, not the bandage.”

Sellars’s myriad interests include the slow food movement and concern for the welfare of farmers but my inquiries on this front result in a somewhat circular response. “I think it’s amazing that food is coming back into people’s hands, agriculture is just the deepest and most profound thing; you know, Jesus says, ‘If I be planted as a seed,’ ” he says with childlike wonder, “like, of course! That’s the resurrection!”

The Other Mary has marked the start of Sellars’s five-month residency at ENO, which will involve various community projects and culminate in a production of Purcell’s unfinished semi-opera The Indian Queen. This staging, which premiered last year in Russia at Perm State Opera, tells of the initial confrontation between Spanish conquistadors and Mayan tribes but through a text based on The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by Nicaraguan author Rosario Aguilar, and with set designs by LA-based street artist Gronk. Sellars enthuses about Purcell’s ability to unite music, dance and visual art: “It feels very much like when John [Adams] and I were growing up, and that thrilling moment with Bob Wilson and Philip Glass and Meredith Monk and the Downtown New York scene, where nobody called anything opera, and there were all kinds of amazing people collaborating.”

Sellars remains a deeply divisive figure. There have been walkouts (notably his resignation as artistic director of the Adelaide Festival in 2001), and his insistence on contemporary relevance continues to delight and outrage audiences around the world. Serge Dorny, artistic director of Opéra de Lyon, to which Sellars will return in 2015 after a 24-year absence with his production of Iolanta/ Perséphone (to be seen first in Aix-en-Provence, then in Lyon itself) describes Sellars as “a politician, in the primary sense of the word” and admits that unpredictability remains one of the director’s main attractions. “He is still extremely provocative,” says Dorny, “he has lost none of his vibrancy, and his work is as challenging as ever.”

Lunch break over, Sellars prepares to rehearse soloists, chorus and a “flex dancer” named Banks through Act I, Scene III of The Other Mary. “Hello, happy people!” he singsongs to a group assembled in the cafeteria and then ushers them into the studio for an intense re-enactment of the raising of Lazarus.

‘The Gospel According to the Other Mary’, English National Opera, November 21-December 5,

Photographs: Victoria Birkinshaw; Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera

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