The Director of the Ojai Music Festival Wants to Use Art to End Violence

For Peter Sellars, June’s four-day event can “completely re-imagine the era we’re living in”
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Peter Sellars is a shaman—not literally, of course. But the opera, theater, and festival director believes culture is the cure for what ails us, and to that end he has staged operas, curated art exhibits, and collaborated with composers the world over. And as music director for the Ojai Music Festival, which celebrates its 70th anniversary next month, he will be bringing his contagious enthusiasm for artistic diversity to the relaxing California enclave June 9 through 12.

“The cool thing is electrifying the landscape and having people realize they’re not in some auditorium,” says Sellars. “Most things are unbearably predictable. This avant-garde music in this amazing ravine with these glorious rocks will be a very, very special moment.”

Longtime Angelenos may recall the Los Angeles Festivals that Sellars staged in 1990 and again in 1993, which were intended to continue the tradition of the hugely successful 1984 Olympic Arts Festival that helped establish the city as a cultural destination. Sellars says he was originally tasked with bringing “distinguished and fantastic arts” from Europe, but this objective struck him as narrow and limiting. He wanted to honor the native homelands of L.A.’s many residents and in the end managed to highlight and showcase artists from Cambodia, Chile, China, Thailand, Korea, New Zealand, and more in disciplines that ranged from film to dance to literature.

“So much of the culture of Los Angeles happens quasi-invisibly,” says Sellars. “If you’re an insider in a certain community, you know it’s happening. [But] most people in L.A just don’t know what people on the other side of town are doing, and in L.A. everything is on the other side of town.”

Sellars has lived in Culver City for 25 years (when he’s not crisscrossing the globe, that is). We reached him by phone in Amsterdam, where he was keen to talk about how the L.A. Festival broke the mold, what’s happening in the Middle East, and the formidable group of largely female performers who will gather in Ojai next month.

What should people expect at this year’s festival?
We’re going to honor certain completely visionary women with a lot of visionary women. In one way, I don’t want to advertise this. In most concert programs, all the music’s written by a man and nobody says, “Welcome to an entire evening of music by men.” At the same time, history is changing in our lifetime because women are in positions of leadership and visibility. A festival can completely re-imagine the era we’re living in. So it’s not a marketing thing. It’s this crucial human thing that we all need.

Egyptian singer, composer, and guitarist Dina El Wedidi is one of the much anticipated performers at this year's Ojai Music Festival.
Egyptian singer, composer, and guitarist Dina El Wedidi is one of the much-anticipated performers at this year’s Ojai Music Festival.

Photograph courtesy of dinaelwedidi.com

Do you think you would have an easier or harder time mounting something like the L.A. Festival today?
Culture is unable to be one of the financial priorities in the current era. The L.A. Festival really broke the mold in terms of what festivals could be and do. We were only able to do it because Mayor Tom Bradley and City Hall recognized that L.A. was an emerging identity and unlike any city in the world in those years. Bradley knew that celebrating that and making that visible was a very important growth moment.

Now, discretionary funds are just basics. What happened in the ’90s was a shutting down of so many cultural initiatives and the hiring of 5,000 more cops. That turned out to be very shortsighted. There was a massive spike in violence. So many of those cops that were hired quickly devolved into the Rampart scandal. It would be lovely if the pendulum came back. Safety is not a cop on every corner. Safety is an atmosphere where people can share and recognize and understand each other and solve things creatively rather than through violence.

Rodney King happened after your first L.A. Festival and before the second. Did that impact the 1993 event?
It became very urgent. When a city is set on fire by the people who live there, the French surrealist Antonin Artaud called that “gesturing through the flames.” These are messages that most of America had no idea how to read. In fact the envelope has still not been opened and the message has still not been read. Violence is a response to what is under- or misrepresented. We’ve managed, both in inner cities in America and in the Middle East, to create overwhelmingly violent responses that create overwhelmingly more violence. Until culture is an important part of the picture, the cycle of violence is only going to continue.

What do you make of Los Angeles’ evolution over the past 25 years?
There are good people carrying on in thrilling ways. No one would have guessed that Disney Hall would have been built. There’s all kinds of very cool stuff occurring. But to begin to sense the collective power and teaming energy of the city, we’re not yet there.

Do you think L.A. is a capital of the arts, like it’s often hyped to be?
Of course. The range of activity from things happening in small corners of certain neighborhoods to the big Hollywood monster to the massive explosion of museums and gallery art—yes! But gathering it and getting the sense of the critical mass of it is elusive. Everything in L.A. is inside information. You have to know someone who knows someone who knows someone to find a restaurant in east L.A. or get a film made in Hollywood. What’s so cool about the [Ojai] festival is the dynamic of the animal itself. With Ojai it’s not some giant prepackaged cultural thing. You’re rubbing shoulders with everybody. It’s small enough that anyone you want to meet is standing right there.

Soprano Julia Bullock in composer Kaija Saariaho's Le Passion de Simone
Soprano Julia Bullock in composer Kaija Saariaho’s Le Passion de Simone

Photograph courtesy of the Berlin Philharmonic

Which performances are you excited about?
Dina El Wedidi is a very special case. Right now the whole world is being held hostage to the crisis [in the Middle East]. For me it’s very, very important that we’re listening not to the usual fear and stereotyping, but to positive voices from the Arab world that we don’t see in the newspaper. Dina is one of those visionary, progressive, very inspiring voices.

And the performance of [The Passion of Simone] features the extraordinary soprano Julia Bullock. Julia engages the figure of Simone Weil as a young African American and in context of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think the performance really sharply highlights where we are now with activism and what it takes to sustain change in this time of renewed public violence.

And the young composer Caroline Shaw, who won the Pulitzer prize a couple of years ago, just has an amazing immediacy and directness. Kanye West contacted her and said, “We have to collaborate.” Caroline’s music represents a breaking down of the usual boundaries for this generation and for the next generation.

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