Stage director Peter Sellars and soprano Dawn Upshaw have collaborated over a dozen times since they first worked together on the Salzburg Festival's 1992 production of Olivier Messiaen's opera St. Fran‹ois d'Assise. Included among their many stage collaborations are Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Handel's Theodora, Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de loin, and next summer's Santa Fe Opera staging of Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar.
So it seems natural that Upshaw would contact Sellars about staging Hungarian composer György Kurtág's song cycle Kafka Fragments as part of Upshaw's Carnegie Hall Perspectives concerts (performances are at Zankel Hall on January 10, 12, and 13).
"Peter told me a few years ago, 'Someday we should look at Kafka and think about staging it,'" Upshaw recalls. "I thought then that it would be a huge undertaking, and I found it overwhelming, both the piece itself and learning it musically. But when I was asked by Carnegie to do Perspectives, I went back to him with this."
Kafka Fragments, which had its premiere in 1987, is partially explained by its title: 39 extremely compact songs‹varying in length from 13 seconds to six minutes‹are set to texts taken from Franz Kafka's letters and diaries. Written for soprano with solo violin accompaniment, Kafka Fragments is over an hour's worth of typically intricate music by Kurtág.
Staging song cycles has become voguish recently, but Sellars was among the first in 1996 when he staged Bach cantatas with, of course, Upshaw. So he himself doesn't find it disconcerting to stage a work that wasn't originally written for theatrical performance.
"For our generation, with MTV and so on, it's a visual time in our culture, and many people's experience of music is connected to imagery," Sellars explains. "New paths open to certain types of music: One of the interesting things now is that there are staged concerts and concerts with film. And Dawn's program reflects our time. Taking a piece of classical music that has existed for almost a generation and staging it, putting it with images, and connecting it to the audience's lives, is a really exciting thing to do."
Sellars feels that connecting with the audience is paramount. "For me, the most important thing about staging music is connecting it to your own life experience," he says. "There's a really interesting tension between something unbelievably personal and something that also makes a universal point that can never be pinned down but approaches the unconscious place where music lives."
Sellars also sees his part in Upshaw's Perspectives concerts as an exciting development in live musical performance. "One of the most impressive things about Carnegie Hall is the way it invites artists to chart a direction," he notes. "In the old days, people thought that the classical world was in its own bubble, out of time and eternally in its own present. Those days are over. Everything is changing. There are all kinds of directions‹music means so many different things to so many people, especially in a city like New York‹and Dawn touches on that sense of diversity."
Kafka Fragments is especially suitable for staging, according to Sellars. "There is so much that's compressed in this piece," says the director. "You think of things in a split second, and it's very exciting to move at this speed, at the speed of thought. Kafka is a really important image for the times we live in, because the images in Kafka's world are very present in ours."
Staging what's essentially a song recital is challenging, to be sure. "A tiny little thought opens out into immense vistas," Sellars says. "You want to be the opposite of literal: open up the secret world where the audience members can bring in their own thoughts, dreams, wishes, and regrets. One of the incantatory powers that the song recital has is that it's one of the most public private acts."
Working with Upshaw again was also an obvious selling point for the director. "When you're talking about quality, it's Dawn, who's one of a kind. She's always pushing new boundaries with her amazing presence," he says. "We have been in this vein before, so she invited me to continue."
Upshaw adds, "Peter and I work well together because I understand him and I have a certain sensibility that he feels can help express what he sees in his vision. With our history together, it makes for a strong pairing."
Neither Upshaw nor Sellars omits the contributions of violinist Geoff Nuttall, who will accompany Upshaw both musically and dramatically in Sellars's staging. Upshaw calls Nuttall "amazing," and Sellars describes the violinist's part in the evening's work "intense."
Sellars sees this exclusively American take on a purely European work, both lyrically and musically, as part of a broader conceptual approach. "We are responding to the piece in our way, but that's the purpose of art‹to make things as personal as possible, no matter what it is or where you're from.
"What I love about being able to work this way," he continues, "is to develop an image slowly and beautifully along with music. It's very much part of a larger body of my work," he continues. "Kafka Fragments is theater with just two people onstage: we'll save the big special effects for the Pentagon. Human beings are what's left in the cultural world after all the budgets have been cut. Rediscovering the basics is very powerful."
Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.