1. The Polar Music Prize Ceremony
2. The Polar Music Prize Ceremony 2015
3. An impressive education
4. New stagings of the classics
5. The moderns
6. John Adams
7. Operas of the contemporary
8. The Shakespeare Pact
9. Arts & festivals
10. Awards & titles
2014 Laureate


The Polar Music Prize 2014 is awarded to Peter Sellars from Pittsburgh, USA. The director Peter Sellars is a living definition of what the Polar Music Prize is all about: highlighting the music and presenting it in a new context. With his controversial productions of opera and theatre, Peter Sellars has depicted everything from war and famine to religion and globalisation. Sellars has set Mozart in the luxury of Trump Tower and in the drug trade of Spanish Harlem, turned Nixon's visit to China into opera and set Kafka's obsession with home cleanliness to music. Peter Sellars shows us that classical music is not about dusty sheet music and metronomic precision, but that classical music, with its violent power and complexity, has fundamentally always been and will continue to be a way of reflecting and depicting the world.


Peter Sellars receives the Polar Music Prize from King Carl XVI of Sweden.

Stockholm August 2014

On August 26, Peter Sellars and Chuck Berry received the Polar Music Prize at the ceremony in the Stockholm Concert Hall.

The 23rd Polar Music Prize Ceremony was held at Konserthuset Stockholm on te 26 of August. The evening continued with a banquet in Vinterträdgården at Stockholm’s Grand Hôtel.

HM King Carl XVI Gustaf presented the Prize to the two Laureates Peter Sellars and Chuck Berry.

The citation for Peter Sellars was read by the well known designer Efva Attling and citation for Chuck Berry was read by Sweden’s legendary rock’n’roll singer Jerry Williams.

Special arrangements of the Laureates’ music was performed by Kungliga Filharmonikerna and conductor Hans Ek together with a stellar constellation of international and Swedish artists honoured the Laureates by performing their music both at the ceremony and banquet.

Peter Sellers was accompanied by his mother Patricia Sellars and his nephew Oliver Murphy.

The event was broadcast live on Swedish national television (TV4).

Peter Sellars arriving at the Concert Hall, together with his mother Patricia Sellars and his nephew Oliver Murphy.

"With Darkness Deep," by Georg Friedrich Händel and Thomas Morell. Performed by Elin Rombo accompanied by The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hans Ek. Gunnar Idenstam on harmonium and Johan Hedin on key harp.

Peter Sellars' speech.

Your Majesties, your Royal Highnesses, Excellencies and amazing swedish people! Hello!

Peter Sellars

Back to Stockholm

Peter Sellars returned to Stockholm less than a year after having received the Polar Music Prize 2014, this time to honour his fellow Laureates of 2015, percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and country musician Emmylou Harris. Peter Sellars read the citation for Dame Evelyn Glennie and once again enjoyed the ceremony, the banquet and the celebration: ”This is a dream. The Polar Music Prize has so much joy in it.” 

Peter Sellars reads the citation for Dame Evelyn Glennie

Peter Sellars interviewed by Tilde de Paula at the banquet

We're all on Earth to be creative, to change things, to make powerful transformations in our lives and the world around us.

Peter Sellars, LA Times (May 2013)

An impressive education

Peter Sellars was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1957. He attended the prestigious Phillips Academy and then moved on to Harvard. There he started experimenting with theatrical interpretation and innovative performances of the classics. He made a string puppet show out of Wagner’s Ring cycle and he brought college theater to a new level with the floating experience of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in the pool of Adams House, one of the twelve undergraduate houses at Harvard. ”…Some of the very best, most original theater I have ever seen at Harvard,” signature Primus V says in the Harvard Magazine, 2012.

Phillips Academy (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Harvard College, Annenberg Hall (Source: © 2004 Jacob Rus)

New stagings of the classics

Peter Sellars graduated from Harvard in 1980. Since his very first theatrical works there he is well-known for his unique contemporary stagings of classical operas and plays. Whether it is Mozart, Händel, Shakespeare or Sophocles, Peter Sellars uses the staging for illuminating contemporary social and political issues within the classic framework. Sellars has staged a series of Mozart operas in very innovative environments; Così fan tutte was re-set in a diner on Cape Cod, The Marriage of Figaro in a luxury apartment in New York City’s Trump Tower, and Don Giovanni in New York City’s Spanish Harlem, the cast costumed as a blaxploitation movie.

The Trump Tower (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Le Nozze Di Figaro in the Trump Tower, DVD cover (Source: © Decca/Universal Music)

Händel’s Orlando got a new setting in outer space, and King Lear got a new shape in a motion picture directed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1987. Sellars’ projects have also included a critically acclaimed concert staging of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and performed in Salzburg and Berlin. In 1984, at the age of 27, he was appointed manager of The American National Theatre in Washington D.C, a post he held for two years. There, he continued to mix modern and classics, staging a production of The Count of Monte Cristo and Idiot’s Delight by Robert Sherwood and Sophocles’ Ajax, as adapted by Robert Auletta.

Jean-Luc Godard in 1968 at Berkeley (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, directed by Peter Sellars, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and video art by Bill Viola. (Source: © R. Walz)

Interview with Sir Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars, spring 2014

The moderns

Beside the modern versions of the classics, Peter Sellars has established a reputation for bringing 20th-century and contemporary operas to the stage, including works by Olivier Messiaen, Paul Hindemith, and Polar Music Prize Laureate György Ligeti. Le Grand Macabre was revised by Sellars for the Salzburg Festival in 1997, where he chose to follow the theory of the apocalypse by placing the story within the context of the Chernobyl disaster. Sellars has also worked with fellow Polar Music Prize Laureate, Kaija Saariaho; L’amour de loin was originally staged by Peter Sellars for its first production.

Polar Music Prize Laureate 2004 György Ligeti (Source: © Polar Music Prize)

The Moderns

Polar Music Prize Laureate 2013 Kaija Saariaho

John Adams

Multi-talented composer and writer John Adams is Peter Sellars’ long time collaborator since the Harvard years. Together they have created several new works including Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, El Niño, Doctor Atomic, A Flowering Tree and The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Johan Adams, born in New England (USA), started composing at age 10 and studied at Harvard where he met Peter Sellars. He became composer-in-residence at the San Francisco Symphony in 1982, where he created and premiered several successful - and controversial - works, for example the ”New and Unusual Music”-series. Adams is also a film composer and a teacher both at Berkeley and Juilliard. In parallell, Adams writes book reviews for the New York Times and has written for both The New Yorker and The London Times besides his own blog, Hellmouth, and has published his memoirs Hallelujah Junction.

John Adams (Source: © Margaretta Mitchell)

"Those Birds Flying Above Us," from the opera The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams and Alice Goodman, performed by Olle Persson at the prize ceremony 2014, accompanied by The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Hans Ek.

Operas of the contemporary

In the middle of the 80s, John Adams and Peter Sellars began a collaboration with poet Alice Goodman who wrote the libretto for two groundbreaking operas: Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), two of the most performed operas at the end of the 20th century. Nixon in China was inspired by President Nixon's official visit to China in 1972, one major event during the Cold War period. The Death of Klinghoffer told the controversial story of the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and their eventual murdering of one of the passengers, Leon Klinghoffer, based on an initial idea of Peter Sellars. The first performance took place at the Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels in Belgium in 1991.

Nixon in China

President Nixon meets with Mao Tse-Tung, Feb 29, 1972 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

"The Shakespeare Pact"

A cultural argument between Peter Sellars and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison ended up in a creative pact in the beginning of the 00s. As a response to Sellars staging of a four-hour futuristic Othello 2009, Toni Morrison and musician Rokia Traoré composed text and music for the musical and theatrical performance, Desdemona, directed by Sellars in 2011 and premiering at the Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers in the Parisian suburbs. The performance, that re-tells the story from the Shakespearean heroine's point of view, was performed in several major cities in Europe and the U.S. and presented in London as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Promotion film for Desdemona at the Lincoln Centre in 2011.

Arts & festivals

Sellars has led several major arts festivals, including the 1990 and 1993 Los Angeles Festivals, the 2002 Adelaide Arts Festival in Australia, and the 2003 Venice Biennale International Festival of Theater in Italy. In 2006 he was Artistic Director of New Crowned Hope, a month-long festival in Vienna for which he invited international artists within music, theater, dance, film and the visual arts to perform and create new works. Polar Music Prize Laureates Kaija Saariaho and Kronos Quartet were present among others. As another example of his multitalent and great international network, Peter Sellars has also curated exhibitions with artists around the world. In 2009, he took Ethiopian artist Elias Simé to the Santa Monica Museum of Art in California, also initiating the making of a film showing Simé’s work to create art with children in Addis Abeba. Sellars is also Resident Curator of the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, USA.

Elsa Longhauser, Peter Sellars, and Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Oedipus in Ethiopi conversation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, April 3, 2009. (Source: © SMMoA - Photo by Elizabeth Pezza)

Awards & titles

Sellars is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Erasmus Prize, the Sundance Institute Risk-Takers Award, and the Gish Prize, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been honored by the American Academy in Rome and Opera News Magazine. Sellars is a professor at the Department of World Arts and Cultures at the UCLA, where he teaches Art as Social Action and Art as Moral Action.

Dave Harrington from The Kronos Quartet congratulates Peter Sellars on receiving the Polar Music Prize...

...and Sellars responds, honouring The Kronos Quartet.

Content of biography is presented here as it was published in 2014.

Header photo and portrait by Kevin Higa.

All pictures from Polar Talks, the ceremony and the banquet by Annika Berglund, © Polar Music Prize.

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