John Adams: It was Peter Sellars’ idea

November 27, 2017 by norman lebrecht


The composer credits his librettist for Girls of the Golden West. ‘I’m making poetry of history,’ he says.

A good seven-minute report on the new opera.


Comments (43)

  1. Ungeheuer says:

    “Making poetry of history” AKA the CNN-ification of opera. Could the FOX-ification of opera be far behind? (-:

    1. C Porumbescu says:

      Odd comment. “CNN-ification” in what sense? The 1849 Gold Rush is hardly current affairs. And operas have been based on fictionalised historic narratives since at least Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea”.

      1. trolley80 says:

        This person keeps writing similar comments about this opera. I’m not sure he actually knows exactly what he means. It could be a phrase he read and wants to repeat to sound smart.

  2. John Borstlap says:

    It is difficult to imagine that anybody would find the subject interesting. Probably the staging has to compensate..And a grown-up man cultivating such hairdo rises suspections about the sophistication of his ideas – to put it mildly. But maybe this is all much too European a view.

    1. Olassus says:

      Thank you.

      1. Frederick West says:

        ‘but soon it became apparent… that the emperor had no clothes’ – not my quotation but one from his time, mercifully short by all accounts, in Australia.

    2. Sue says:

      His hairdresser is obviously using Wilson from “Castaway” as the inspiration. He and Nigel Kennedy are both “Wilsons”. Absolutely laughable.

      1. Mark Henriksen says:

        Eraserhead wannabes

  3. Cubs Fan says:

    As hard as I try, I just can’t get into Adams’ work. If opera is going to remain viable the composer’s have got to start writing melodies the audience loves and recognizes. Menotti understood that basic principle of singing. Modern operas are largely unlovable.

    1. buxtehude says:

      Too true.

      And seven endless minutes listening to these pompous self-important men doesn’t make the latest fruit of their collaboration any more inviting. Is it both of them, or just one? — suggesting that their Big Thinking is going to change history.

      Irresistible melody is the alpha & omega of opera; all the rest adds up to a car with no engine.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        That may well be, but surely contemporary composers can write melodious music for opera but most of them feel quite inhibited, lest they are considered ‘conservative’ by critics.

        And then, what do we consider ‘melodic writing’ in opera? Pelléas et Mélisande is very melodious byt many people would say it is merely recitative.

        1. buxtehude says:

          A fair question, hard to answer. The best I can come up with is that melody — and “irresistible melody” — is whatever your audience feels it to be. George Gershwin spent his whole short life learning what attracted music buyers and theatre goers, ear pressed close to the ground; he plugged his genius into that information, with the results we know.

          Today’s opera composers are greatly sheltered from the verdict of a paying audience, feeding as they do on grants and teaching positions and commissions that seem based on a c.v. of such artificial achievements.

          I do realize that much of the hit list of current musical theatre is, musically, just awful. How we got from say Richard Rogers or Jerome Kern or Frank Loesser to Les Miz or Cats, I don’t know.

          But I believe there’s plenty of room for better.

          1. John Borstlap says:

            That is not about opera but about musicals, and that is entertainment.

            Also, it is entirely wrong to expect composers to let audience’s wishes determine what they write: that is commercial. Serious music is written entirely independently from what audiences want, but by composers who share the culture of the audience, who are part of a communal consensus of communication. In that case, the composer want to share his ideas, and if both composers and audiences are part of the same culture, audiences will appreciate it (if the works are any good). And this can take some time but not 50 years.

            But if the audience’s part is written-out of the script, things get off the rails. Both parties, together with the performers, should be cultivating the same culture, they form an interdependent whole. Indeed much of ‘established new music’ these days is entirely artificial and audiences are merely politely applauding sound boards.

            It is, for instance, truly amazing that gifted composers like this one, are not heard beyond their very local community deep in the Californiian hills:



            This music, although a modern interpretation of ‘older’ idioms, is not welcome in a cultural climate geared to the ‘hip’and ‘trendy’ of decennia ago.

        2. David R Osborne says:

          I saw a fantastic new ‘family’ opera in Duisburg last week John. Gerald Resch’s ‘Gullivers Reise’. And it indeed had some great tunes in it. Deutsche Oper Am Rhein is one German company prepared to buck the trend and risk offending the ‘avant-garde police’.

          1. Sue says:

            Didn’t Carlos Kleiber work with them for a time?

          2. John Borstlap says:

            It looks great and the music seems to be very tonal and simple.


            But it is a children’s production, so there is the excuse. The same with Johanna Doderer in Vienna who has written an opera for children and it is traditional and good – but also there: it has an excuse. An ‘adult opera’ should NOT be lyrical, tonal, singable, etc. etc. Maybe that will change, under the pressures of economics.

          3. David R Osborne says:

            JB, true enough, but what better place to start than with the children?

          4. buxtehude says:

            To JB, a little higher up: Porgy & Bess is an opera.

      2. LeonardL says:

        Adams is a goofy old man who writes music lauded by other goofy old men. No one else cares.

        1. Sue says:

          I saw a preview of a series of programs about Andre Rieu advertized on TV tonight. He was laughing and saying how much fun he was having and then pulled a screwed up face and said, “Oh, but people say it’s not classical”.

          You’re kidding, right, Andre??!!:-)

    2. David R Osborne says:

      They don’t write melodies because they can’t. If they could they would. It is a rare, unteachable talent.

      1. buxtehude says:

        Of course this correct; my puzzlement is where are the people who can? Where did they go? Financial services, like Charles Ives? Rocket science? Computahs? Performing prodigies are stuck with music, they have no choice. Maybe larval composers have more discretion today.

        1. John Borstlap says:

          Niocolas Bacri and Karol Beffa in France, David Matthews in England, many composers in the USA among which Jeremy Cavaterra, living in isolation:


    3. martain smith says:

      Indeed, CUBS FAN!
      I personally feel that Menotti is much underrated – and at the end of the day, those who have endured beyond momentary fashion or one generation – be it from Bach to the Beatles – have realized the essential element which captivates the human soul – and it doesn’t belong in the world of pure intellect!

      1. John Borstlap says:

        True. Music is not about intellectual endeavors, although realizing it needs a LOT of intellect.

        But there have been many gifted, expressive composers since WW II but they have been suppressed, by the media, the modernist ideologues and academia:

        A German radio producer reently informed me that he was well aware of a return of some composers to a more humane and tonal language but he condemned this ‘looking back’, since he thought that ‘we should look forward’. That looking back can be looking forward, in a context where looking forward has degenerated in nonsense…..

        …. was impossible to explain to this well-meaning man. A change of paradigm needs lots, lots of time.

    4. martain smith says:

      Indeed, CUBS FAN!

      I personally feel that Menotti is much underrated – and at the end of the day, those who have endured beyond momentary fashion or one generation – be it from Bach to the Beatles – have realized the essential element which captivates the human soul – and it doesn’t belong in the world of pure intellect!

  4. Tom Moore says:

    Mr. Sellars has cultivated the same “look” since he was fresh out of Harvard. At that time it was “New Age”, and was used by, among others, Laurie Anderson, ten years older than PS.

    1. trolley80 says:

      It’s almost like that’s his personal style and has been consistently for 25 years

      1. John Borstlap says:

        Some people never grow up.

  5. Tom Moore says:

    a factual query: Has Sellars ever written anything for publication under his own name?

    1. Sue says:

      I saw his ‘realization’ of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic/Rattle. Chorus waving its hands around a lot and the ‘cast’ writhing on the floor. “Unsubtle” doesn’t even cut it; they obviously regard audiences as clowns.

  6. Jonathan Grieves-Smith says:

    I am deeply saddened by these personal and vituperative attacks. Reasoned opinion, generosity and curiosity is one thing, but personal, unreasoned, mean opinion is of no shameful.

    1. trolley80 says:

      A lot of people who comment on classical music are very upset that they, themselves, are not professional musicians, or rich folk who can donate a lot to opera houses and symphonies, or administrators who can pick and choose what to perform. This frustration manifests itself as embarrassingly vituperative attacks on people who actually are the things these folks want to be.

      1. Sue says:

        This is absolutely priceless!! I laughed the whole way through. How many unemployed musicians are there in the world with huge government debt to repay? The only thing I play is the stereo and the stock-market and I’m pretty good at both. I love music dearly, but wanting to be in it professionally would never give me enough money to sustain the lifestyle that I have.

  7. Jonathan Grieves-Smith says:

    (corrected) I am deeply saddened by these personal and vituperative attacks. Reasoned opinion, generosity, and curiosity,are one thing, but personal, unreasoned and mean opinion is shameful

    1. Sue says:

      You can fool some of the people some of the time….

  8. David R Osborne says:

    Jonathan, really. What did you think would happen when people who have been denied a voice for upwards of 70 years, suddenly find they have one thanks to forums such as this?

    Courtesy is one thing, but in my experience the almost suffocating culture of politeness in music circles has really only had one purpose, and that is to stifle robust debate. To ensure the establishment line prevails.

    It can be messy at times, but I can assure you, change is coming.

    1. Jonathan Grieves-Smith says:

      Thanks David.

      We would all welcome robust debate, wouldn’t we?

      1. David R Osborne says:

        Ready when you are Jonathan. This has however been somewhat of an inauspicious start.

    2. Sue says:

      I would caution that a change doesn’t necessarily mean an improvement.

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