Peter Sellars Talks ‘Nixon in China’ in Eugene

The Eugene Opera and the University of Oregon have spent quite a lot of time collaborating on events surrounding the Opera’s presentation of Nixon in China – this weekend, Friday night and Sunday matinee, at the Hult Center, tix here – and I was lucky enough to go hear original Nixon conceiver and famous opera/theatre director Peter Sellars when he came on March 8 to talk with the executive director of the UO’s Confucius Institute at the School of Music and Dance’s gorgeous Beall Hall. Thursday was possibly the most gorgeous day Eugene will see until July, so many people with Sellars plans hung out outside, waiting for the doors to Beall to open.!/SuziSteffen/status/177906708432158720

Peter Sellars and Bryna Goodman at Beall Hall, 03/08/12



After we got in to Beall and the program started, I recorded for a while. I was far away – you’ll have to turn this way up to hear him, but I think it’s pretty much worth it.

A few highlights from the recording:

  • Opera is a participatory art form “that everyone helps to shape”
  • Sellars had been working on Giulio Cesare in Egitto when he titled this opera. “Handel’s opera is Julius Caesar in Egypt, so, duh, Nixon in China, right?”
  • “I had to do a bunch of research, and so there I had the Kissinger memoirs, you know, a difficult book, just a monstrous, thick, oleaginous mass of self-aggrandizement. I was reading these things, and couldn’t believe I had the strength to turn each new page, and I said, ‘Something has to come out of this.'”
  • “Of course, my generation critiqued a lot of that [older Western] culture, so we wanted to make Nixon in China something intelligent, unlike French opera.”
  • “The opera isn’t about China, but about the fact that China … is part of American life, part of American history, and that our futures are linked.”
  •  “What I love about the opera is that you know where you are at the beginning, and you don’t know where you are at the end. And to me, that’s what a great work of art should do.”
  • This isn’t music that just goes into your mind; it goes into your body. It has a pulse. The rhythm is irresistible, and the tune is catchy, and all of that is happening at the same time that John [Adams] is painting really delicate, subtle psychological pictures of weather conditions, detente, and very fragile feelings of a sunset on a winter day that you would get in a Chinese poem from the Sung Dynasty.”
  • Opera is an art form feast. It’s rich in layers; it’s rich in textures; it’s rich in meaning, and history is this rich, rich, layered, richly textured experience that’s ongoing. … The opera is way richer now than when we wrote it, and it has way more meaning now than it did then.”
  • “California in 1859 was black cowboys, slaves who came west on horses, and Chinese people. That’s the birth of California.” (Er, and the Californios who were already there … but that’s a different story.)
  • “For me, the future of culture in America is going to be Chinese opera.”

After a while, I couldn’t kill my phone battery that way anymore, so I turned off the recording and started live-tweeting instead, as follows (with one other person’s tweets as well):!/SuziSteffen/status/177916399409311745!/SuziSteffen/status/177931616918835202!/SuziSteffen/status/177933914269159424!/SuziSteffen/status/177934678370684928!/SuziSteffen/status/177935220136345600!/SuziSteffen/status/177935693182545920

By that, I’m pretty sure he meant, “Many people wondered what in the world the EUGENE OPERA was doing, taking on such a complicated project, but now that it’s happening, the Opera’s going to keep on pushing itself even more.” Which is true – see the Q&A with Laura Decher Wayte for more on that.!/KitAlderdice/status/177936133114699777

This one I had to shorten obnoxiously in order to fit in the hashtag, dang the luck:!/SuziSteffen/status/177937095241904128!/SuziSteffen/status/177937472376946688!/KitAlderdice/status/177937985856208896

I believe Sellars talked for about five minutes after I left (I thought it was over, but the woman holding the microphone asked one last question). Yay, UO and Eugene Opera and Peter Sellars! That was fascinating.


  1. Suzi- Thanks for the poetic and mixed-media postcard from Sellars’ visit…I couldn’t be there, but I like to believe you’ve captured both the form and content!

    • Thanks, John! I believe someone from the School of Music (or maybe the Eugene Opera?) was taping it, so it’s possible we’ll have an even better check on everything that happened in that room someday. But for now, I felt like it deserved some kind of report. Glad to be of service!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s