Thursday, September 27, 2007

Happy Birthday

Nineteen fifty-seven was a very good year, and part of the evidence is that Peter Sellars turns fifty today, about midway between Jonathan Bellman's birthday and mine. This is as good a moment as any to mention my first encounter with the Sellars genius, at a now-legendary production.

He was at Harvard when I was at Brandeis. In May September of 1979, a friend found a review of a condensed Ring performance being staged, improbably, at Harvard's Loeb Theater. The review said something about puppets. The friend suggested we go, and a bunch of us got tickets.

We walked in and found that the Loeb was in its theater-in-the-round configuration, but with only three-quarters of the seats in place. No orchestra was in sight. The lights went down, a trap in floor opened, and in the dark we heard the Rheingold prelude emanating from speakers. Spotlit sheets of mylar, manipulated by the fully-visible stage crew, rippled below floor level.

It was pure magic: the perspective was right, the music was Solti.

The prelude reached the entry of the Rheintochterin.

"Weia! Waga!" sang the bright green muppet puppet playing Woglinde. "Woge, du Welle,walle zur Wiege! Wagala weia! Wallala, weiala weia!"

That nicely punctured the reverent mood. The rest of the production was marked by just that balance of cheekiness and affection for the Ring. The giants were macrame, and you could see them only from the hips down, hung from the flies on the proscenium stage. The galloping Valkyries were children's hobby-horses, the magic provided by the best use of a disco ball I've ever seen in my life.

It was a great introduction to the Ring on stage. I wish I could see it again, or that I could find a more complete description of the proceedings.

Thank you for that, Peter, and other productions since and to come.

UPDATED: The Puppet Ring was in September, not May. And a contemporaneous review makes it clear that the giants were made of potato sacks, not macrame. H/T Alex Ross for publishing a copy of the program and sending me a link to the review.

9 comments:

pjwv said...

That's actually the most detailed discussion of that puppet Ring that I've ever seen -- it was legendary by the time I saw Sellars stuff (a few years later in the early 80s) but nobody that I heard ever got past "there are puppets." I always wondered how they did the music. I wish I had seen it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Well, maybe I got some details wrong. There is a description here, but it's just a couple of years old, so who knows if the description is any more accurate.

Hmmm, I wonder if "profwill" is Bill Fregosi, theater designer and teacher, who has commented here in the past and whom I'm known for years.

Lisa Hirsch said...

No, apparently not, I find.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure this was in 1979? I was there in 1979, and don't know how I might have missed this... well, exam period, but even so...

By the way, the puppeteer was surely Doug Fitch Harvard '81, now directing things like "Hansel and Gretel" at LA Opera, "Abduction" in Washington and "What Next?" at Tanglewood.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I am sure it was '79.

John Branch said...

Who knows when another Peter Sellars type will turn up at Harvard, or another Twyla Tharp at Hunter College? With that in mind, I've been trying to attend a few performances at the colleges and conservatories in NYC. It paid off last spring, though not in the way we're talking about here: at Juilliard, I got to see a revival of Tharp's Deuce Coupe.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yes, indeed!

Berlinbound said...

I had the great good fortune to work with Peter on his film, "The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez." He is a unique creature with a generosity of spirit that is a balm to the soul. I've worked with a number of wonderful Directors, and I don't think it is unfair to say that the experience of working with Peter is the one I will cherish until the end.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you for that!

I saw him floating around at intermission during one of the Dr. Atomic performances and stopped to tell him how much I'd loved the Ring all those years before. We had a nice chat and hugged goodbye - I thought he was a total sweetheart.