Why Peter Sellars Retooled "Winds of Destiny" for America's War in Afghanistan

The theater director and musical impresario Peter Sellars is on the phone from Southern California, and he says he's in a "groovy" mood. Sellars is often in a groovy mood. It's what makes him Peter Sellars, a person who relishes humor and strangeness in life, and in the works he brings to the stage, whether it's John Adams's Nixon in China or Shakespeare's Othello. This day, though, Sellars's mood quickly changes from groovy to grating because of one subject: The U.S. war in Afghanistan.

"We're spending $121 billion per year in Afghanistan right now. It's the longest war in our country's history, and the most costly, without even talking about the human toll," Sellars says. "And yet what trace of Afghan culture or presence is there in America?"

Sellars is bringing that culture to a wider audience by directing The Winds of Destiny, a work by composer George Crumb that Sellars has rejiggered, having it focus on both the U.S. Civil War and the military campaign in Afghanistan. The Winds of Destiny makes its Bay Area premiere this Thursday, June 16, 2011, after its worldwide premiere at the Ojai Music Festival in Southern California. Celebrated Afghan singers and musicians, including the Bay Area's Ustad Farida Mahwash, are performing after each staging, giving audiences a two-for-one engagement. With Dawn Upshaw in the role of a U.S. veteran (Upshaw is musical director of this year's Ojai festival), The Winds of Destiny is a tour de force that brings together some of the biggest names in stage and classical music.

Haunting and beautiful, The Winds of Destiny was initially created by Crumb in 2004. Both the original and reworked versions feature historic folk songs like "Oh Shenandoah" and such stalwart Civil War-era songs as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Crumb has turned these tunes into a bittersweet plea for normalcy in a time of chaos. The pathos and humanity of conflict are seared into the music, and Upshaw has said that, "The way George Crumb sets ('When Johnny Comes Marching Home') is very pained and angry." Sellars has categorized Crumb's songs as "strange and ghostly" and also "amazing."

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In a phone interview from his home in Pennsylvania, Crumb says his music -- particularly "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," where he emphasizes loud military drums and sudden musical transitions -- is about patriotism gone awry.

"The tempo goes from march tempo and reduces to something like a funeral piece," says the 81-year-old Crumb, whose awards include a Pulitzer Prize, two Guggenheim grants, and a Grammy. "All the songs in the world that are so patriotic, and many national anthems have a sound inspiring battle -- if those are turned around (musically), I'm sure people everywhere would find that those songs lose their meaning in situations like war."

Crumb, who was never in the military himself ("a cousin was lost in the Korean War") has followed events in Afghanistan since the war began 10 years ago. His first personal experience with Afghans happened more than 50 years ago, when he was researching music in school: "I knew an Afghan student from Kabul who was studying in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was a very nice fellow, and he ended up staying over here. He married an American girl. I think he was more interested in the culture here than in Afghan culture."

The potential for cross-cultural exchange is one reason why Sellars is so enthusiastic about The Winds of Destiny. Sellars says he isn't trying to instantly change audiences' perception about Afghan culture, or about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The impact of art, he says, happens in the long-term, not because of one or two performances.

"In art, we don't do it like advertising -- this is not a marketing campaign; it's not going to change votes tomorrow morning, and people aren't going to shift their brand of toothpaste," says Sellars. "What we're doing works slow and deep, across generations, and is actually the way lasting change is created. Culture is about these longer-term things that are not about today's headlines and that reach beyond the statistics and move you in deeper and quieter ways to the deeper and quieter changes that you need to make in your life, and to those moments of truth. Yeah, they don't last long. It's why they call it 'a moment of truth' because most people can't face truths much more than a moment. It's a human thing."

Sellars laughs as he says those words, then adds more seriously, "We're paid as artists to bring into the world some moment of truth." The Winds of Destiny has resonance, he says, because the songs it showcases from the Civil War have more resonance today. "One of the reasons you call something 'classic' is that it lives across time and actually accumulates power rather than has power diminish across decades and across generations," Sellars says. "And the music of the Civil War had such depth of feeling because it was one of the most intense times in America. It was the struggle for the soul of America."

"I wanted to create an evening that both spans our own history and music that did arise through the pain and soul-searching and violence of the Civil War, and that music does search the soul," adds Sellars. "And that music is a reflection of the terror and the violence and the fervor of the abolitionist movement that was about the promise in equal rights and the promise of equality that is still where America's future lies."

The Winds of Destiny is being staged Thursday, June 16, 2011, and Saturday June 18, 2011, at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Playhouse. Ustad Farida Mahwash and other Afghan singers and musicians perform afterward. For tickets and information visit calperfs.berkeley.edu.

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