Peter Sellars gets Mozart all wrong

Peter Sellars gets Mozart all wrong


norman lebrecht

January 04, 2019

The US director, speaking about his upcoming production at the Salzburg Festival:

‘Mozart wrote such incredible music for the ocean, here in Salzburg, where he never saw the ocean in his life! One passage in the libretto reads: Saved from the sea, I have a raging sea, more fearsome than before, within my bosom. And Neptune does not cease his threats even in this. That is what Mozart’s music is about.’

Oh, really?

Mozart, during his childhood in Salzburg, visited Naples, Loreto, Rimini and Venice – all of which appear to be on the sea – eventually crossing the English Channel to stay in London.



  • Anon says:

    To be fair to Sellars, none of the Italian towns or cities are the “ocean” in the sense of the vast expanse and power of the Pacific, North Atlantic, Arctic (etc.) Oceans.
    But I’m sure the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic Seas gave Mozart sufficient inspiration, yes!

    • V.Lind says:

      They’re both wrong. Sellars is the one that used the word “ocean” though he quotes only the word “sea(s)”. NL seems to think Mozart’s travel, which bordered certain seas occasionally, means he did see oceans, which as far as I can tell he did not.

      • Kate Brown says:

        Some terminological muddle at the root of this. Sellars says ‘ocean’ because he’s American, and the Americas don’t have seas, whereas it’s always been rare in Europe to refer to the ocean unless speaking of the classical world-girdling waters or to a specific one. I don’t understand why Sellars should be puzzled, though – storms in the Mediterranean are perfectly violent and overwhelming enough.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        Any word used by Sellars seems to be wrong…

  • Caravaggio says:

    And not just Mozart. It is too bad this charlatan has been given and continues to be given employment opportunities. All anyone has to do is check out his gross Mozart productions from, when, the 1980s or 90s to realize his unfitness.

    • pianoronald says:

      I watched Sellars‘ production of „Clemenza di Tito“ from Salzburg on TV. It was dreadful although the some of the Austrian critics liked it. Maestro Currentzis‘ conducting matched the production. I‘m afraid this year‘s „Idomeneo“ will be just as dreadful – the combination of Sellars and Currentzis isn‘t very promising.

      • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

        OK, but his DON GIOVANNI, staged and costumed and cast in the manner of a 1970’s blaxploitation flick like SHAFT or SUPERFLY, was utterly fantastic. It really worked out very well, very much in the spirit of the opera. And Mozart often went out of his way to make his music accessible to ordinary folks.

        Of course, Eliz Schwarzkopf did not agree with me; she said that Sellars should be put in prison.

        If you haven’t seen it:

        • Haydn70 says:

          Schwarzkopf was correct, Sellars is a clown/hack/charlatan of the first order.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Crazy production. What such people, anxious to ‘modernize’ old operas to make them ‘accessible to contemporary audiences’, continue to not understand, is that opera is supposed to be a unity of what happens on stage and what is heard in and through the music. What we see is the outside of what happens, and what we hear is the inside – the emotions of the protagonists, of the situation, etc. In Mozart operas, the music is the heart of the work, and it has its own aura, its own character, which resulted from the subject as the composer had imagined it. This imagination of the plot is part of the work. So, changing location, time etc. etc. is violating the work, full stop. And that is utterly unprofessional and barbarious.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Not any worse than the [expletives] presented nowadays in major European opera houses and beyond.

    • Ms.Melody says:

      +1000. This “director ” has systematically destroyed and stripped of dignity and perverted every opera he has touched. Shame on opera companies that continue to hire him.

    • MacroV says:

      Chaq’un a son gout.

      I won’t comment on his opera productions, which I haven’t seen (or saw too long ago to remember), but I absolutely love his St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Phil. I can’t really experience it any other way now. Same for St. John but I’m not as big a fan of the piece.

    • Haydn70 says:

      Spot on, Caravaggio.

  • Gary Carpenter says:

    It’s strictly speaking true that in his life, he never saw the ocean in Salzburg!

  • John says:

    I don’t know what he meant to say, but what he’s actually saying is that Mozart never saw the sea in Salzburg, and so what he is saying is correct, and maybe that’s what he meant to say.

  • Doug says:

    What he is saying is that an artist who has never seen the ocean can deal with it in his art. Allow me to put it another way: a simple minded sheep, like most of the commenters here, can mouth boilerplate slogans about topics of which they know absolutely nothing.

  • Orchestral Musician says:

    The quoted passage in the libretto was written by Giambattista Varesco, not W.A. Mozart.

  • Cynical Bystander says:

    Good to know that even in these straightened times there is an audience willing and able to pay up to 440 euros to enjoy, if that’s the right word, the latest offering from an ageing enfant terrible.

  • Jonathan Sutherland says:

    It doesn’t take a Ph.D in Geography to know there is no ocean (albeit several “Seen” auf deutsch) near Salzburg.
    Either Sellars’ syntax is as sloppy as his direction or he is deliberately obfuscating the point. From the interview quote, the clear inference is that Mozart was not at all familiar with the ocean yet miraculously managed to recreate splendid sea pictures in Idomeneo from his alpine isolation. Nice story, but historically inaccurate. Mozart was in Naples in late Spring 1770 where the Tyrrhenian is not always so tranquil. He also visited three seaside locations on the Adriatic, not to mention making two English Channel crossings between the age of 8-9 when there was definitely no commodious Eurostar. Whilst the placid waters of Fuschlsee were undoubtedly more familiar to Mozart than the stupendous swells of the South Atlantic, Idomeneo is set in Crete where the eastern Mediterranean is entirely comparable to the Tyrrhenian which Mozart experienced eleven years before. Anon’s point is not really valid – afterall, this is Mozart’s “Pietà! Numi, pietà!” not Weber’s “Ozean, du Ungeheuer”.

  • Allen says:

    Typifies everything that’s wrong with opera today.

    He belongs in the circus.

  • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

    Fred Astaire in YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH:

    “I joined the Navy, to see the girls,
    And what did I see?
    I saw the sea.
    I saw the Atlantic and the Pacific
    And the Pacific isn’t terrific,
    And the Atlantic isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.”

  • Richard G says:

    He directed “Idomeneo” for the Glyndebourne Festival in 2003. That was dreadful!!

  • M McAlpine says:

    One reason I never go to the opera house is that you can spend a fortune and end up with clueless production from some twit trying to make a point.

  • BLB says:

    On top of that, he stole John Lydon’s look!

  • John Borstlap says:

    An elderly man presenting himself as a ‘hip’ cartoon figure should not be trusted, and certainly not in connection with Mozart opera productions.

    • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

      But for much of his career, he was NOT elderly. Started in the early 1990s, maybe even earlier.

    • Ms.Melody says:

      He should not be trusted with any other classical masterpiece for that matter. He made a mess of Handel’s “Hercules”, rendering it basically unwatchable.

  • Tuomo says:

    Mozart? I thought Giambattista Varesco wrote it.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    Many years ago I saw his production Handel’s Theodora Glyndebourne, which almost managed to ruin a wonderfully sung performance of an absolute masterpiece. It included the utterly sublime Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. It says much for the pathetic trendiness of the operatic world that he is still roaming the globe ruining operas and no doubt being exorbitantly paid for doing so

  • BrianB says:

    Good catch, Norman.

  • graça lourenço says:

    Realy he was just a child when he saw or hear the ocean. About Selers Mozart procutions I enjoy his D. Giovanni very much.

  • liz bennett says:

    He’s right, though, that ‘Idomeneo’ is about having ‘a raging sea…within my bosom.’ And some of us loved his ‘Theodora’ and ‘Don Giovanni’ – if he ‘s so bad, why did the peerless Lorraine Hunt Lieberson do so much with him?

  • thornhill says:

    He’s obviously means travel across the Atlantic Ocean, not literally see a body of water.

  • Leandro Oliveira says:

    Anyway, the libretto was not written by Mozart

    • Veronique Weldon says:

      YES! That was my first thought when I read that stupid quote by that stupid hack, Sellars. Knowing Mozart didn’t write the libretto, I looked it up: The libretto was adapted by Giambattista Varesco from a French text by Antoine Danchet, based on a 1705 play by Crébillion Père. So, the opera’s libretto is 3 generations away from the original. Also, even if Mozart had written the libretto–great writers can turn exquisite phrases–write books, dialogue, songs–about things they’ve never seen or experienced–it’s called imagination. Sellars is such a dolt. I’ve been to one of his “creations.” People let at the interrmission. I stuck it out becuase I didn’t believe it could continue to be as terrible in the second half–I was wrong. He’s not an “enfant terrible,” he’s just TERRIBLE.

  • Teresa says:

    “Straitened”, actually. Just saw a DVD of Sellars’ St. John Passion and found it exquisite, even though I was skeptical at first of his seeming to gild a lily that definitely needs no gilding. In the accompanying interview, he bowled me over with his insights, finding undreamed-of depths of meaning in the work. Love him or hate him, there is content there.

  • Haydn70 says:

    Peter Sellars; for decades one of the Emperor’s most important tailors.