I recently learned that James Sellars died this past February. James was an incomparable composer, thinker and force of nature and I can’t quite imagine that he’s gone. James used to call me Josepine ( which he pronounced “who’s-a-peen”) Facehead, for reasons of his own. I think he meant it affectionately, but who knows.
When I heard the news, I was sitting in a bar in Salzburg with composer Douglas Knehans, discussing plans for our second opera. We’d just seen Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, directed by the South African artist William Kentridge, and were deep in discussion. James came up in conversation and I was thinking that I really wanted to reconnect with him again. I wanted to find out how he was doing, what he was working on, talk with him about Wozzeck, ask him what he was listening to these days. We hadn’t spoken face to face since we’d worked together in Hartford, almost 25 years ago. I had no idea he’d been ill – he’d seemed equal parts monumental and fragile to me, even in those days.
I probably wouldn’t have been in that bar in Salzburg if I hadn’t had the great privilege of knowing James – as well as laughing, eating, arguing and working with him. This was in the early 1990s, when I was Artistic Director of Hartford’s Company One Theater, and I spent as much time as I could in the legendary Hog River Family living room (and dining room, when I was especially lucky). So I must also say that Gary Knoble, Robert Black, and Finn Byrhard – as well as the whole brilliant Hog River Gestalt that vibrated around them – were part and parcel of this education for me.
Another Sellars, the director Peter (no relation, as I recall), preceded James as my first opera mentor. I saw every production of his that I could, and then got to observe the rehearsal and production process of his Marriage of Figaro in the late eighties. So one of the great delights of my professional life was directing James’ monodrama Chanson Dada in São Paulo, BR, knowing that Peter had directed its premiere at the Monadnock Festival. Douglas and I are preparing for the premiere of a monodrama of our own, Backwards from Winter, so James had come to mind more than once during the process of writing it, but I never followed through on my impulse to get in touch with him.
The real crucible of my opera education with James was writing my first libretto (adapted from Gertrude Stein) for his opera The World is Round, then directing the production for Company One in 1993 at The Wadsworth Atheneum, in the same theatre where Stein and Virgil Thompson premiered their Four Saints in Three Acts, 60 years earlier. The two other opera libretti I’ve written since, and the new one I’m beginning now, along with the dozens of lyrics for various plays with songs, have all been influenced by that experience, in one way or another. The World is Round was the first full length work of any kind that I’d written for the stage since undergraduate school, so that was the project that really started me on the path of thinking of myself as a writer, as well as a director.
One day we were working in his sweet little composing studio at Hog River, crammed as it was with instruments of every stripe, going over structural questions about the libretto and its interaction with the music. I muttered something about wishing I’d really studied music composition, learned more music theory, stuck with piano lessons longer – so I could write music. I remember him saying something like this: “Can you make up a tune and hum it? Can you clap a beat with your hands? Then you can compose music.” At the time, I thought he was being a bit disingenuous, or perhaps just uncharacteristically modest. After all, this is a man who composed in his sleep, spinning tunes out of his dreams, humming away in his bed. But the echoes of that conversation come to mind when I think about my decision to start writing songs for my own plays, starting with Broken and Little Patch of Ground.
I don’t call myself a composer. But I am today accorded the great joy of making up tunes and clapping out beats as I work on writing the songs for Splitting Atoms with a Butter Knife, my new play with songs about the Atomic Bomb. Immersed in that history, I’m thinking about impermanence even more than usual. Our parting had been complicated, as they say, but James and I exchanged friendly letters a few years ago, and I’d always thought that I’d see him again someday, preferably during a second production of our opera.
The Hog River house had a truly extraordinary collection of flora, thanks to the brilliant green thumb of James’ partner Gary. There was one particularly spectacular plant, I think it was a Night-Blooming Cereus, that only blooms one night a year. So for one night each year, the giant yet delicate alien blooms emerge for a few hours, smelling like sex in heaven, giving the household an excellent reason for cocktails, company and celebration. I have one of these beauties next to my meditation cushion, although it’s a puny thing compared to the magnificent one at Hog River. It didn’t bloom this year, but I’m going to try to coax a blossom or two from it next year.