The 12-year-old prize, which includes a $250,000 cash award, recognizes "trailblazers who have redefined their art and pushed the boundaries of excellence in their field." Previous winners include saxophonist Ornette Coleman, choreographers Bill T. Jones and Merce Cunningham, and architect Frank Gehry.
"In these times in America I am very moved and grateful that the Gish Prize has chosen to support diversity, controversy, complexity, and non-conformity," Sellars said in a statement. "I am a collaborative artist, and I accept this recognition on behalf of the courageous artists who have opened and challenged new worlds and old, in a body of work that has created shared space on a divided planet."
Sellars began to draw attention for his theater and opera directing in the early 1980s, even before his graduation from Harvard. Starting in 1985, he staged Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and CosÐ fan tutte at the State University of New York at Purchase. The modern-dress productions, set in Trump Tower, Harlem, and a diner, respectively, were later broadcast on PBS and brought him wide acclaim.
In 1987, Sellars directed the world premiere of John Adams' Nixon in China; he has since staged Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer and El Niê±o. Doctor Atomic, the latest collaboration between the two, opens at San Francisco Opera this fall.
Other recent projects include a staging of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde created with video artist Bill Viola and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Paris Opera, and a staging of Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar at Santa Fe Opera.
The Gish Prize selection committee was chaired this year by playwright David Henry Hwang—the librettist for Ainadamar—and included Ken Brecher, executive director of the Sundance Institute; Red Burns, chair of New York University's interactive telecommunications program; Joel Conarroe, the former president of the Guggenheim Foundation; and Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum in New York.