The opera world has never been quite the same since director Peter Sellars teamed up in 1985 with composer John Adams to premiere Nixon in China. The production, which was unveiled in 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera, marked the start of one of the most brilliant artistic partnerships of our time. While controversy is perennially present in Sellars and Adams’s stage collaborations, few would deny what the pair has achieved is nothing short of revolutionary.
Adams and Sellars’s collaborations The Death of Klinghoffer; I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, El Niño, and the massive Dr. Atomic, which had its world premiere at the SF Opera in 2005 have redefined the musical and theatrical landscapes of the modern opera. Even more remarkable, the basis for this innovation wasn’t the European avant-garde but an identifiable and modern American sensibility. While Adams successfully integrated academic and experimental techniques with popular urban genres, Sellars explored cultural juxtapositions between the contemporary American experience (including those of marginalized communities) and the histories of people from other times and places.
This week Adams and Sellars return to Davies Symphony Hall for the SF Symphony’s US premiere of Adams’s A Flowering Tree. The multimedia performances, directed by Sellars and conducted by Adams, incorporate Balinese theater dancers; soloists Jessica Rivera, Eric Owens, and Russell Thomas; and the SF Symphony Chorus.
The new score isn’t typical of most other Adams works it’s remarkably lyric, energized by soaring vocal passages and an ever-present feel of magical transformation. Contrary to the claustrophobic, doomsday intensity of Dr. Atomic, A Flowering Tree is a warm fable with an uplifting message of redemption, based on A.K. Ramanujan’s version of a 2,000-year-old south Indian folktale. It is the story of a young woman who can magically turn herself into a flowering tree, and like Mozart’s The Magic Flute (a partial inspiration), it explores themes of growing up, loss, hope, truth, and reconciliation. "Each work is generated from a very different impulse," Sellars says in a recent interview. "We had just worked on this intense, highly toxic opera that had lots of ticking sounds. We needed to go to the warmth and the light, with a tale existing in a springtime of its own."
Originally created for Austria’s New Crowned Hope Crowned Festival (of which Sellars was appointed artistic director) to celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday, A Flowering Tree is infused with messages of universal spiritual harmony. "People may wince, but multiculturalism has been the reality of the world for so long," Sellars notes. "Mozart already had a global imagination under way in his Magic Flute. The opening stage direction is ‘a Javanese prince enters the stage,’ so we’ll have dancers from Java onstage with the San Francisco Symphony. For Mozart, that’s his imagination, but for us, it is actually our reality." (Ching Chang)
THE FLOWERING TREE
Thurs/1Sat/3, 7:30 p.m., $31$114
Davies Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness, SF