New Crowned Hope

Dave Calhoun finds opera director Peter Sellars in jubilant mood after dishing out cash to filmmakers in far-flung corners of the world

Peter Sellars.jpg
Opera maestro Peter Sellars celebrates Mozart's 250th anniversary by doling out cash to world cinema (image © Armin Bardel)

It was only last month (TO 1921) that our opera critic Martin Hoyle was wondering on these pages why filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Michael Haneke have been turning their hands to opera of late, with Gilliam directing at La Scala and Haneke wooing Parisian crowds with his icy version of ‘Don Giovanni’. And then, lo and behold, Woody Allen and William Friedkin, the director of ‘The Exorcist’ announced that they, too, will be throwing their hats into the ring by directing a trilogy of works by Puccini in Los Angeles next year. Will anyone be left in the movie studios at this rate? Thankfully, the traffic isn’t all one-way: the New Crowned Hope festival opens at the Barbican this week and will inadvertently flip this trend on its head by injecting a dose of Mozartian opera into the far reaches of world cinema.


How so? Several years back, the city of Vienna was pondering how to honour the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth and invited Peter Sellars, the opera and theatre director famed for his ultra-modern productions and unmissable sprout of spiky hair, to curate a city-wide event last year. Sellars leapt at the opportunity – but with one reservation: he didn’t want to focus directly on Mozart. Instead, he called on figures from the worlds of cinema, music, art and dance and commissioned brand new work for the festival. He summoned the artist Bill Viola, dance innovator Mark Morris, composer John Adams and filmmakers including Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. He wanted the mood of New Crowned Hope (the name of the Viennese Masonic lodge to which Mozart was affiliated) to be progressive, not retrospective. He also wanted to smash the barriers between disciplines.

‘Any ghetto is very irritating,’ reasons an ebullient Sellars down the phone from Amsterdam, where he is directing John Adams’ opera ‘Doctor Atomic’. ‘What’s great is that we are sharing space. Our generation is the first generation that can be in Shanghai tomorrow and back again. We have friends in all parts of the world and there is already an ongoing conversation. The more we can begin to feel this conversation, the better.’

But how not to lose sight of the catalyst for all this exuberance – Mozart? The answer was thematic: Sellars wanted the spirit of the composer to haunt the festival. He asked his collaborators to take inspiration from the themes of the last years of Mozart’s life. In the months before he died in Vienna at 35, Mozart wrote ‘The Magic Flute’, ‘La Clemenza di Tito’ and ‘Requiem’ – works that brim with ideas of hope, reconciliation and mercy. Sellars wanted the artists of New Crowned Hope to grab the baton from Mozart. ‘Where Mozart ended is where we begin,’ declares Sellars.

The festival was a rousing success in Vienna last autumn and now arrives at the Barbican this summer. Central to the jamboree are six new feature films that were commissioned and part-funded by New Crowned Hope after Sellars called on the expertise of the independent British producers Simon Field and Keith Griffiths. Field was finishing a seven-year stint as director of the Rotterdam Film Festival when he accepted Sellars’ mission to find and commission filmmakers. The spirit of Rotterdam – that most international and esoteric of film festivals – is evident in the resulting six films, each of which hails from a far-flung corner of the world. From Chad, there’s Haroun’s ‘Daratt’, a wise tale of post-war forgiveness. From Indonesia, there’s Garin Nugroho’s ‘Opera Jawa’, a musical epic that’s steeped in local tradition. From Kurdistan, there’s Bahman Ghobadi’s ‘Half Moon’, a story of crossing borders. From Paraguay, there’s Paz Encina’s ‘Paraguayan Hammock’, an austere slice of rural life. From Thailand, there’s Apichatpong’s ‘Syndromes and a Century’ and from Malaysia, there’s Tsai Ming-Liang’s ‘I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone’. Not a note of Mozart will be heard, but his ghost will be apparent, whether it’s through Encina’s use of the structure of ‘Requiem’ or Haroun’s embrace of reconciliation. The films are all steadfastly uncommercial and resolutely poetic.

‘What we’re up against in a mediatised world is sound and image on overdrive,’ Sellars explains. ‘Every Hollywood film is determined to destroy you in the first five minutes. If you can create space for people to be treated and recognised as artists, that’s a nice thing.’

What, no European or American films? ‘Let’s put it this way: certain parts of the world are rather over-represented at the moment,’ deadpans Sellars, before letting out a huge laugh. ‘We have heard from them. But when was the last time you saw a film from Chad? For me, it is important to redress the balance. Bizarrely, very few cultural artefacts arrive from the places where the news is being made. What’s very odd is that you have the CNN or BBC reporter standing in the crisis zone, but you don’t get a lot of other images. Of course, what’s so amazing about Haroun’s film from Chad is that it’s not just an image of permanent crisis. It asks: what’s also happening? That’s why it’s also great to have Ghobadi’s film from Kurdistan: you get the crisis – but also so much more.’

Some of the New Crowned Hope films were already written when Sellars, Field and Griffiths came calling. Others were mere ideas. They gave each filmmaker ‘enough money to make a difference,’ says Field, ‘and in some cases, as in “Opera Jawa”, I don’t think it would have been made if it wasn’t for our commission.’

And did they stand over the shoulders of their directors as they worked? Sellars laughs.‘I absolutely did not! You know, one of the things I’m very aware of as a director is that what you don’t need is another director! You want to be left alone, you need to go to your own place, you don’t want advice.’

New Crowned Hope runs at the Barbican until Aug 12. The films show from July 14 to 19.




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