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Best opera ever? Peter Sellars chooses Purcell's The Indian Queen

Editorial Staff

Best Operas Ever is a new podcast from Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC Radio 2. In each instalment, host Ben Heppner talks to one of the major opera figures of our time about a particular opera recording that they especially love. You'll find each episode here on, and you can tune in to CBC Radio 2 at 1 p.m. any Saturday from now until the end of November to hear these classic recordings in their entirety — along with extended conversations with our esteemed guests.

Best Operas Ever No. 7 - Peter Sellars

Ben Heppner talks to opera's provocateur-in-residence about his total reinvention of a Purcell masterpiece.


Any assessment of Peter Sellars' achievements as an opera director starts with the controversies. He famously staged a Handel opera in space, and was accused of "artistic vandalism," whatever that is, when he set Don Giovanni in Harlem. His productions have been met with shock, horror, and oftentimes even acclaim — but never boredom.

For what it's worth, Ben Heppner has always been a fan. When he called up Sellars to ask him to talk about his favourite opera recording ever, Sellars had a bit of trouble deciding what that was. The issue, he said, was that he always prefers the interpretations of the musicians he works with directly to anything in his record collection. So, Ben jumped at the chance to have Sellars walk him through one of his own productions: specifically, his radical re-think of Henry Purcell's unfinished would-be masterpiece, The Indian Queen

Sellars fleshed out what remains of Purcell's opera with other music from Purcell's oeuvre, including sacred choral music and dances that weren't originally intended for the opera stage. And he bolstered the story with text from Rosario Aguilar's novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma, about the 17th-century massacre of South American native peoples by Spanish colonists. For Sellars, this story accompanied by this music has profound resonances in contemporary society. "There are tanks moving into indigenous communities all over the world," Sellars told Ben. "So in fact, this story of native peoples having to push back on this totalizing nightmare force, where everything they own — that cannot be owned, nature itself — is being monetized, that story is ongoing and is at a fierce pitch right now. We could put this onstage in completely contemporary costumes without any fear of contradiction."

Hit the play button above to hear Heppner's full conversation with Sellars about how he modernized The Indian Queen. You can tune in to Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on Oct. 22 to hear more from this conversation, plus Sellars' reinvented Indian Queen its entirety, conducted by Teodor Currentzis. 

Subscribe to Best Operas Ever on iTunes!

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