Friday, August 1, 2008

The Harvard gap

As I gathered my thoughts about the role of the academic theatre in Boston, I found myself pondering again a certain fact that's rarely spoken aloud along the banks of the Charles, but which I call "the Harvard gap."

Egad, you say, dear sir, Harvard has no gaps! It is a perfectly smooth edifice of perfection! Uh-huh. I admit, the place is dazzling, but anyone can see said edifice isn't perfectly smooth - there's at least one gaping hole where the School of the Arts is supposed to be. Now there's nothing wrong with that per se, I suppose. Does a great university have to have a School of the Arts? Perhaps not.

Still, Harvard acts as if it had such a school, and everybody else around here acts as if it did, too. And for a long time that charade worked pretty well, because - and here's what's interesting - a lot of great artists happened to go to Harvard, all the way down from such titans of nineteenth-century American culture as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James to post-war giants like Norman Mailer, Leonard Bernstein, and John Ashbery.

But for some reason, great artists don't go to Harvard any more. I'm not sure why, really, but it's obvious no major artistic figure has emerged from the college in what, thirty years? Indeed, the career of Peter Sellars - who was supposed to be a bearer of the Harvard arts flame, but who obviously lacked the genuine chops - perhaps marked the death knell of the whole phenomenon. As far as theatre goes, you might have to go all the way back to Arthur Kopit for the last Harvard man of any real significance. And it's telling that one of the last Harvard composers, Elliott Carter, has in recent years been lionized locally almost beyond belief. It's almost as if they know he's the last one.

So in a way Harvard ends up looking like a rarefied trade school (leading to its premier adjuncts, the Schools of Business, Law and Medicine), with, of course, a brilliant program in pure science as well, and a highly developed critical and analytic culture - but with little in the way of actual artistic ferment or presence. (This, to me, is clearly reflected in the stance of the A.R.T., but more on that later.)

Has Harvard come to terms with that reality, however? I'd argue no, and of course few people in the local area have the cojones to call the $40 billion elephant in the room to account. We still reflexively grant them the prestige of a hegemony they long ago lost. But some adjustment in the university's self-image may finally be in the offing. President Drew Faust recently called a task force together to review "the place of the arts at Harvard." Apparently someone realized the arts actually didn't have much of a place at Harvard, given the size, scope, and influence of the institution. But can Harvard ever re-attract artistic genius to its halls? It's an open question - and an interesting problem.


  1. Peter Sellars "lacked the genuine chops"? Do you mean he's controversial and a risk taker?

    Are you talking about the same Peter Sellars who directed a series of famous Mozart Operas in the 80s, then directed the premiere's of some of the most important American Opera's of our time, namely, Nixon in China, Death of Klinghofer, and ....... allow me to quote

    "Sellars was invited to the Salzburg and Glyndebourne Festivals, where he mounted productions of various 20th century operas, notably Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise, Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, and, with choreographer Mark Morris, the premiere of John Adams' and Alice Goodman's Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.

    Other projects in which he has been involved include stagings of Handel's opera Giulio Cesare and oratorio Theodora, Stravinsky's The Story of a Soldier with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky and Peony Pavilion.

    In 1998, Sellars was awarded the Erasmus Prize for his work combining European and American cultural traditions in opera and theatre.

    One of Sellars' closest musical associates is the composer John Adams. Sellars directed (and wrote the libretto for) Adams' Dr. Atomic , about Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb, for the San Francisco Opera (2005), De Nederlandse Opera, and the Chicago Lyric Opera (2008). This opera received mixed reviews.

    In August, 2006 he directed a staged performance of Mozart's unfinished opera Zaide as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center in New York; the pre-concert discussions were about contemporary slavery and the prospect of abolishing it, as well as Mozart's egalitarianism and opposition to slavery. In late 2006, Sellars organized the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna, Austria as Artistic Director (the festival was part of Vienna Mozart Year 2006), and directed the premiere John Adams' most recent opera, A Flowering Tree, also in Vienna.

    In 2007, Sellars delivered the State of Cinema Address at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival on April 29. He introduced the screenings of Mahamat Saleh Haroun's Daratt and Garin Nugroho's Opera Jawa, two of the New Crowned Hope films and it also screened Jon Else's documentary, Wonders Are Many, which features an account of Adams and Sellars creation of the first San Francisco production of Doctor Atomic.

    He lacks chops you say?

    Perhaps by chops you mean "running a theater company", which he really has no interest in (after doing so at the age of 26).

    Now if you don't like John Adams' music or Peter's Sellars direction, then say that as an *opinion* not as a pronouncement of fact as if you are some God of Art.

    Have you directed or produced any theater? Run a theater company? Composed an Opera? Have an international reputation (even if controversial)?

    Work on your own chops.

  2. I didn't say Peter Sellars didn't have an extensive career. I said he wasn't a great talent. I stand by that. I've seen, and been bored by, many of his productions, although I admit opera is more forgiving of his rarefied conceptualism than drama is. And he worked his way into a talented crowd, it's true. I'd say there have been some striking images and moments in his work, but they can't quite hide the fact that he's essentially superficial. (An extensive career in European opera probably substantiates that assessment rather than undermines it.) And btw, the theater companies he ran he also ran into the ground.

    And my own chops are just fine, thank you very much.

  3. So let me see if I got this straight: Peter Sellars -- the internationally renowned Peter Sellars -- lacks the "chops" because YOU didn't like his work? Excuse me, but how is that a viable standard of judgment?

  4. Yes, you've got that straight. Do you really want me to tear into the charming but vapid Mr. Sellars? Because it won't be pretty, and his career is essentially peripheral to the main point of this post, anyhow (as he graduated what, almost thirty years ago). And btw, I thought you said you were going to stop reading my blog, which is, rather obviously, about my judgments.