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2001 Harvard ARTS Medal

Peter Sellars

Sellars ’80, one of the leading theater, opera, and television directors in the world today, received the 2001 Harvard Arts Medal. The award will be presented to Mr. Sellars by President Neil Rudenstine on May 5 as part of ARTS FIRST 2001, the ninth annual celebration of the arts at Harvard, May 3—6, 2001. The Harvard Arts Medal was created to honor a distinguished alumnus/a or faculty member who has achieved excellence in the arts and who has made a special contribution through the arts to education or the public good. Peter Sellars is the seventh honorand, following John Harbison ’60 in 2000, David Hays ’52 in 1999, John Updike ’54 in 1998, Bonnie Raitt ’72 in 1997, Pete Seeger ’40 in 1996, and Jack Lemmon ’47, the first recipient in 1995.

Peter Sellars enjoys worldwide renown as a director of opera, theater, and film. His innovative treatments of classical material borrow from western and non-western traditions. He is known for his commitment to exploring the role of the performing arts in contemporary society–viewing art as an agent for social change. He is also known for taking risks, creating controversy, and never compromising his politics or his artistic vision. Whether regarded as an aging enfant terrible or as a mature genius, in the performing arts world Sellars has been impossible to ignore.

When Sellars arrived at Harvard from Phillips Andover Academy, his reputation for artistic precocity preceded him. "There were distant rumblings about him before he even got here," says Myra Mayman, director of Harvard’s Office for the Arts. "And then he just exploded on the scene." Sellars created his own concentration in performance, and, she adds, was lucky to find good academic advisors, including Jurij Striedter.

"He used Harvard to the hilt, taking advantage of every resource, from architecture, to people, to funding." Mayman remembers that as a freshman he petitioned the committee on dramatics to be allowed to direct a production on the main stage of the Loeb Drama Center, a privilege reserved for upperclass students. An exception was made, and by the end of his controversial production of Edith Sitwell’s Façade, using both student actors and puppets, "No one was speaking to him. He’s a polarizer–people either love what he does or hate it.

Peter Sellars


Mayman also recalls Sellers’ application for an OFA grant of $400, with which he did twenty-seven productions "all over the place." These included full use of his residence hall, Adams House, staging Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra on a barge in its swimming pool and Macbeth in the tunnels beneath the house. "Many of the ideas he later developed–the opera Nixon in China, for example, and a rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado with a Toyota onstage and a chorus of dark-suited Japanese businessmen–were conceived here, over dinner in the Adams house dining hall," says Mayman. Her favorite Sellars undergraduate production was Wagner’s Ring Cycle, a condensed two-hour version that drew on his experience of apprenticing to a puppeteer at age twelve while growing up in Pittsburgh. "It was brilliant," she recalls. It featured finger puppets as well as twenty-foot-tall giants made of burlap bags and wooden crates. (Fafner the dragon was created out of bamboo sticks and inflated plastic garbage bags).

By Sellars’ senior year, Robert Brustein had arrived to head the American Repertory Theatre. In an unprecedented move, he invited the undergraduate to direct A.R.T.’s professional company in The Inspector General. There was an eight-foot-tall pineapple traversing the stage, and no one understood what it meant. Of course, it didn’t help that he described his critics as ‘an assemblage of baboons.’ What many people didn’t understand about his work, and still don’t, is that he does ‘translations’ of classic works into contemporary imagery. But if you look into the background of his pieces you realize why he chooses a certain metaphor or image, and it makes sense."

After graduation in 1980 Sellars studied in Japan, China, and India before becoming the artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company at age twenty-four. At age twenty-six he was appointed artistic director of the American National Theatre at the Kennedy Center. He returned to Harvard several times–in the early 1980’s he came back to direct a semi-staged production of Handel’s Saul with the Cantata Singers. A few years later he was an Office for the Arts Visiting Artist and teamed up with Emmanuel Music Director Craig Smith to produce the Weill/Brecht opera, Mahagonny.

In the ensuing years Sellars has continued to be prolific, restless, and visionary. He has directed more than 100 productions, large and small, across America and abroad. He has received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, an Emmy Award, and the Erasmus Prize at the Royal Dutch Palace for contributions to European culture. His first feature film, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, starred Joan Cusack, Peter Gallagher, Ron Vawter, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. He was featured in Jean-Luc Godard’s film of King Lear, and also appeared on television in Bill Moyers’ World of Ideas, Miami Vice, and The Equalizer. A frequent guest at the Salzburg and Glyndebourne Festivals, he has specialized in 20th century operas, most notably Oliver Messaien’s St. Francois d’Assise, Paul Hindenmith’s Mathis der Maler, Gyorgy Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, and, with choreographer Mark Morris, the premiere of Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams ’69 and Alice Goodman ’80. He worked in collaboration with composer John Adams and poet/librettist June Jordan on I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, an "earthquake romance," and in December 2000 he directed the premiere of Adams’ El Nino, a nativity oratorio.

In 1990 and 1993 he was artistic director of the triennial Los Angeles Festival, a large-scale, grassroots, multicultural initiative mobilizing the arts in the community. Projects in recent years include Handel’s Theodora, Stravinsky’s The Story of a Soldier with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Jean Genet’s The Screens, adapted by poet Gloria Alvarez, with the Cornerstone Theater Company and student performers from the community of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. Currently he is professor of World Arts and Cultures at the University of California at Los Angeles and has been appointed artistic director of the 2002 Adelaide Festival in Australia.

Harvard welcomes Peter Sellars back to campus for ARTS FIRST 2001, where in addition to receiving his medal he will be speaking in an informal discussion with undergraduates through the Office for the Arts Learning From Performers Program. His remarks are sure to be anything but dull.


The Harvard Arts Medal was established in 1995 to recognize excellence and demonstrated achievement in the arts and to stimulate interest in the arts among undergraduates. The Medal honors a Harvard or Radcliffe alumnus/a or faculty member who has achieved distinction in the arts and who has made a special contribution to the good of the arts, to the public good in relation to the arts, or to education, broadly defined.