Former Laureates

Peter Sellars


The theme of the fortieth anniversary of the Erasmus Prize in 1998 was ‘Experience and Expectation’. This theme has played a role in the work of both of the laureates for 1998: Mauricio Kagel and Peter Sellars.

Peter Sellars (1957) gained fame as artistic director of the Los Angeles Festival, a large-scale experiment to mobilize the arts at grassroots level in a city populated by many different ethnic groups where more than 120 languages are spoken. The festival was international, intercultural and interdisciplinary. In recent years Sellars has mainly directed opera at the invitation of such festivals as Glyndebourne and Salzburg. He specialises in the twentieth-century repertoire, including St. François d’Assise (Messiaen), Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (Adams), The Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky) en Le Grand Macabre (Ligeti). His productions of Mozart's operas are renowned. In 2005 he wrote the libretto for and directed John Adams's Dr Atomic.

The Erasmus Prize was awarded to Peter Sellars because he confronts his audiences with the ignorance and injustice that exist in society, thus forcing them to become morally engaged. With his vision of art, morality and politics, he breaks down the barriers between elite and popular culture and challenges established points of view. His intercultural theatrical experiments have made highly diverse communities aware of their own cultures and heritage and have helped to teach respect for the other. Peter Sellars is Professor of World Arts and Culture at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he teaches Art as Social Action and Art as Moral Action.


In accordance with Article 2 of the constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation concerning the annual award of one or more prizes to honour individuals or organizations whose contributions in the cultural, social or social science fields have been of outstanding importance to Europe, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands confirmed the decision of the Board of the Foundation to award the Praemium Erasmianum for the year 1998 to Peter Sellars.

The Erasmus Prize is awarded to Peter Sellars

  • for combining in his original creations the European and American cultural traditions, thus opening up new horizons in a modern-day approach to opera and the theatre;

  • for confronting the public, as a director, with the injustice and lack of understanding round about us, thereby compelling moral commitment;

  • for achieving, through his intercultural theatre experiments, fruitful cooperation between highly diverse communities, as a result of which individual groups become aware of their own culture and heritage, and approach others with respect and curiosity;

  • for removing the distinction between elitist and popular culture, through his vision of art, morality and politics, and for at the same time calling into question generally accepted opinions;

  • finally, for the fact that all his activities spring from his great love of his fellow human beings, allowing him to inspire all those working with him to outstanding achievements.


On this anniversary of the Praemium Erasmianum, my thoughts go back to the first Erasmus Prize which I presented forty years ago. I expressed the hope, on that occasion, that this might be the beginning of a long and fruitful tradition. I am happy that this hope has been fulfilled and that we can now celebrate an anniversary on the theme of 'experience and expectation'.

I have had the honour of presenting 57 Erasmus Prizes over the past forty years. When I look back, I see that they reflect the multiformity and creativity of European cultural life. It is this multiformity of domains, the diversity of persons, traditions and nationalities, which has always fascinated me as Patron of this Foundation. It has given me a sense of  involvement in relation to the many leading figures from the field of the humanities.

As you all know, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts and to promote appreciation of these fields within society. What always strikes me in this connection is that the humanities and the arts - unlike technology, medicine and physics - are not characterized with reference to the latest state of our cumulative knowledge: they are not characterized in terms of a concept of advancement in which previous attainments are of little consequence. Instead, in the humanities and the arts, the past is still very much alive; there is also no question of a progression, as in technology. Sophocles, Rembrandt and Mozart are not less relevant to the modern world than Pinter, Mondrian or Kagel; neither are they inferior. Our society would be much the poorer if they had not existed.

In the humanities, human beings interpret the world and ascribe significance to their environment. Culture provides us with a context and an ethical framework for our actions. This is what Goethe meant when he wrote "Bezüge sind das Leben" - Relationships are life. They are the meaningful, invisible links which we establish with our families and friends, with things such as our house, our country, our language; or with nature, and with less tangible concepts such as compassion, justice, loyalty. But above all, we need to believe in the meaningful connection between the present, past and future. It is our reflective consciousness which gives meaning and significance to these relationships. Without this consciousness which always has to do with values and significance the world would be totally meaningless. This is the essence and importance of the humanities and this is what our Foundation stands for - a perspective which is nowadays often neglected. So much is determined by outward appearances; so much is expressed solely in terms of money or - even in education - judged in terms of social usefulness.

The two laureates who are being honoured by us today are a shining example of what I have in mind. Artists are those who give form to the above mentioned relationships. Their work gives a new content and meaning to the world around us and to our relationship to our surroundings; it stimulates our thoughts about art and society, however bizarre and bold their creations may appear at first sight. This is the power of the artist: "Das dichterische als Lebensmacht" - the poetic as a power of life - as Hugo von Hoffmannsthal so aptly put it.

Your chameleon-like mastery, Mr Kagel, characterized by permanent variation, surprise and parody, constantly catches the listener out. You sow doubt and take nothing for granted. Your aim is to make the public listen in a new way. In order to save the true content of music and to rid it of clichés, you wage war against fossilized ideas, the glamour of the concert hall and the aura of the conductor. You use every possible means to achieve this. Your work ranges from the visual arts, film, radio plays, theatre, to anything that can produce sound. What may seem to many people to be radical and iconoclastic is, in reality, a continuous critical dialogue with the history of music and with tradition.

You, Peter Sellars, are possessed by the same constructive, positive spirit, but in your case it is in the field of the theatre and opera in particular. In your work too we witness the tension between tradition and the modern world. Under your direction - which opens up new horizons in a modern-day approach - our cultural heritage is brought to life again. The past and tradition, however, are not there to be passively admired by us; they are there to be actively experienced. "To crack the code and recast it", as you call it. It is the moral content in particular that you seek, since you see it as the purpose of the theatre to rouse the moral and spiritual consciousness of the spectator and to show the injustice and lack of understanding in the world.

Sometimes both of you go very far. It is not surprising that your interpretations have also provoked criticism. However, an interpretation by a poetic mind is always fruitful and an enrichment, since it is in itself a creative act; it has an inspiring effect and manifests the many-sided qualities of every great work of art. You are driven in every aspect of your work by your great love and passion for the past and for your fellow human beings, or, as Wordsworth wrote in the foreword to his Lyrical Ballads "In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and nuances, of laws and customs - in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed, the poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time."

Ladies and gentlemen, you are aware that within the framework of the Festival of Contrasts the two laureates complement one other. But at the same time it is true to say that both are rebels; both enter into a specific relationship with the public; both seek to promote interaction of the arts; both have a modern-day approach to our cultural heritage; both wrestle with the contrast between tradition and renewal: between experience and expectation.

Finally, we are giving the prize not only to a theatre-maker and to a musician; we are giving it to two people who have a clear message for us. Firstly: it is only by having a meaningful involvement with the past that we can have a vision of the future. And the other way around: if we have a relationship with our own time and with contemporary art and culture, this will enable us to perceive the merits and significance of art from the past.

Acceptance Speech

Good morning.

Thank you so much for this beautiful occasion and this powerful citation and award. I have to begin by thanking in Holland the many organizations that have made it possible for my work to be seen by the Dutch public. First Ritsaert ten Cate who brought me here many years ago to the Mickery Theatre, a place that was for twenty five years devoted to 'no one knew what' and therefore you can invite someone who no one knew. And we all just said, what is this, what could this be, what can we create? Twenty five years of an organization that was permanently open-ended. The Holland Festival which has through several generations and directors (Ad's de Gravesande, Jan van Vlijman, and now Ivo van Hove) presented my work at such a high level, right in the center of town and as part of a sense of national excitement and a taste for what is progressive and path-breaking. I am very grateful for that. And of course the Opera here which under the direction of Pierre Audi will, in the next few years, be the first opera house in Europe that has a repertoire primarily of contemporary works; as it was in the time of Mozart and Verdi, what should be normal. I have had the honor and personal pleasure of collaborating with Rudi Fuchs and Dorine Mignot at the Stedelijk Museum on the extraordinary 25 year survey of Bill Viola's work with extraordinary financial and spiritual support. I am very grateful to the Filmmuseum, which is a beautiful place for showing my work, which is almost unseen otherwise, in film. To the television here, the VPRO in particular, for really making space for something that is not the usual. To the Nexus Institute, run by Rob Riemen, for attempting to engage in intellectual dialogue across the lines, economic, political, cultural. Congratulations, it is thrilling to be part of this cultural scene.

I have been treated really well in Holland, which continues this morning. I am very, very grateful.

The sense of Holland as a model society is really powerful for me, coming from America. I know in Germany for example, frequently your country is looked to for an enlightened approach to serious social, cultural questions. So, to be recognized here means a lot.

Of course I neglected to mention the generous response by Dutch journalists to my work across many years and in particular the minor conflagration over the most recent piece, the Rake's Progress, which was really detested in the local press in a way that was truly heartwarming and I felt young again. It is nice to be official but it is also nice to remember: the film you have just seen of the younger me rehearsing Don Giovanni, that production which went on to become quite a classic, was attacked ten years ago as nearly worthless by most of the New York press and so I would take the genuine debate provoked by the work as another kind of badge of honor. At the same time I should mention that I was very touched by the 'American go home' tone to the reviews and I should say why it is that I work here: one reason is of course to have marvelous collaborators and to be part of a scene, but also because I really do feel as an American you have to have an early view what is underway. Right now so many things 'a la americaine' are being imported wholesale to Europe, and you should really see firsthand what the consequences are, the social consequences; they are very serious. And if there was outrage that American was spoken at the opera I would only suggest that far more dangerously American is spoken in your corporate boardrooms and in your parliament. That needs examination even more than the American ideas at the opera. My country is a wonderful country, but also not necessarily making all of the most wise decisions, may we say. Please check before you buy. And the reason I am working here is, quite frankly, I can't work there. This is the first year of my life I am unable to get work in the United States because the nature of my work is too unpleasant for the people in charge of major institutions. Because these institutions are not devoted to asking questions, they are devoted to going through gestures that have a kind of nostalgic value that nobody actually believes anymore, but it is more comfortable than acting on what you believe in. That is serious. And when official culture becomes a conduit for an empty gesture, well that's the government, because the government is even more official than the opera and if the gesture is empty, we have a problem. So what does it take to find a way in which the gesture is not empty? If it is a gesture that was made once, can we still make it? Maybe, but under what conditions and with what types of awareness of what we are inheriting? This beautiful room for example, built with the resources and profits of the Dutch East India Company, brings quite a legacy and as we are surrounded by these fabulous mermaids looking at the cosmos we have to ask ourselves what it means to inherit this, the three hundred years of history of this building and relations with the rest of the world. It is serious. You can't just say, oh we own it now, isn't that nice. It has a legacy, which is very very dark.

So of course I have to work here, because you allow me to work here on a scale that I am not permitted to work on in my own country. But please before you decide that culture is really what works on the market, please notice that in fact classical culture is something that outlives the market. Thank God. You have a fantastic structure of serious cultural support, do not mess that up! As artists we were told we always had to enter into the new economy. As cultural workers we must imagine and participate in the development of a new social ecology as we creatively engage the new economic realities. But as importantly I would please ask the business world to adjust their world to the cultural realities, thank you. Can we begin to notice that beyond the profit line there is another category called human cost. How do you calculate that? What does it mean what Martin Luther King called four hundred years of unpaid wages, which are coming due in our generation. How do you pay those back, because by now it is gone beyond money. The international debt structure is very heavy and I am not talking about the World Bank. I am talking about human debts, and you have to find a way in your lifetime to begin paying those with honor.

I am very moved at the citation of my work but I must emphasize that there is no such thing as "my work"; in honoring Mauricio Kagel you have honored a great individual and his fantastic "oeuvre". In fact I don't do anything, in fact everybody else is who you are honoring, all the other people in the room, because my work is nothing without everyone in the room. And that is indeed our task now: to move beyond the image of the individual genius and begin to understand that all culture is based on systems of reciprocity and democratic participation.

We have all got to be very creative about inventing and sustaining new democratic structures, because the old ones are in trouble. There are many parts of the world where people are literally dying for the right to a meaningful vote, I come from the world's most financially successful democracy where only 37% of the population cared to vote in the last election, which therefore could be won with 19% of the population which then of course creates a very strong right wing. We have to say, why aren't people more engaged, why if you have the right to create a democracy, why is the discussion not richer, why is the discussion not more intense, why are the stakes not understood to be higher in public dialogue, why do we have the same trading of clichés? Obviously the political world and the way the political handlers are now working, it is virtually impossible for genuine personal content to be felt in politics. It is now up to a generation of artists to reinvest the discussion with the high stakes that never went away, but that are still looking at us and waiting for us to wake up. But we are living in a moment where the temperature of business and the temperature of the media is just a little chilly; successful but a little cold. What does it take to generate the heat, the warmth, the intensity of full engagement and participation? it is a cultural question. Restoring political and economic systems to genuine democratic vitality is a cultural question. So it is up to artists now to begin working as creatively as possible in new combinations with businessmen, and with politicians, and not just to think that we are the decoration, or the dessert after the meal. No, we are the basic nutrition, that is the heart of the meal. There will be no meal until cultural workers create a table at which we can all actually sit down at together. We live in an age of Nelson Mandela, of a previous laureate here Mr. Havel, who have amazingly against all odds set out to make new societies based on creating a government with your enemies and working across areas of differences and pain that are unbearable. They are unbearable. I must emphasize that right now the media is not equipped to discuss the level of pain, dislocation and injustice that we are living with on a daily basis. There must be another language for that, and that language has yet to be developed. Dostojewski got a good start.

So of course I am ashamed to be honored at such a young age, when, I think, well I have hardly done anything yet. So I am personally taking the message of this award as: make your work a lot better from now on.

But at the same time I have to emphasize the fact that we are in, at best, a period that is awkward, where the transitions from these forms we have inherited to something else that will be the shape of a society that we don't yet understand, is going to be awkward. We have to be willing to be awkward in order to at least make our first contact and to be willing not always to be right, but to maybe get it wrong. And understand in getting it wrong at least spectacularly, we might begin the conversation that has a hope of some healing energy. The arts are coming through a period where the highest value was complexity and obscurity which I understand fully in a world that is dominated by advertising, where the message must be as simple as possible and is so unbelievably dominant that it becomes meaningless. Artists naturally decided to take the opposite path and say, o.k., truth and beauty are in fact hidden. You will never see them on daytime television, because the real things that motivates our lives of course are hidden, and you don't know someone based on how they are dressed. Everything that is really going on is going to take a while to discover. But maybe if we are willing to move through the difficulty instead of around it or away from it, we will learn something about each other.

My work is about setting a task of maximum difficulty for a group of people and then we try and just go in there. From night to night you don't know what the results will be but you should give it everything you have got.

When I came to this room months ago the beautiful "milky-way" carpet was not yet out. Underneath this carpet are beautiful maps of the world, of the universe, that are inlaid in the floor, and it is very moving to see in 1650 what people thought the world looked like. It is very exciting, the age of exploration, and also the age of exploitation. But you look at these maps and you have this double reaction. One, amazement of what this kind of aggressive business policy could accomplish but also a sense that these maps are incomplete. In fact the world does not look like that; that was people's best idea at the time, but we know a whole lot more now. May I suggest that we are still operating with the same partial information? May I suggest that it is our task now to appreciate the craftsmanship, the ambition that created these partial maps, the enterprise. Let's say that it is going to take more than sending our business team and the World Bank to the rest of the world to be of help, to ourselves let alone to others. If we talk about the Indonesian legacy where as you know today it is very difficult to find rice in Jogyakarta, the devastation in that country in the last eighteen months, if we ask ourselves, what have we learned from Indonesia.

One of the things I have learned from Indonesia is a very moving approach to art practice. In Bali, the senior dance teacher on the island, a beautiful elderly gentleman, explained the difference between a good dancer, an excellent dancer, and a great dancer. A good dancer understands the music, knows the moves, knows the words, is technically proficient. An excellent dancer understands the music, the words, knows the moves, is technically proficient and realizes the inner meaning. But a great dancer understands the music, knows the moves, is technically proficient understands the inner meaning and is a farmer. Because part of our job is to feed people in any way possible; part of our job is to emphasize growth, natural processes; part of our job is to remain connected to the world and I must emphasize the next generation of artists needs this connection. It is not art in its own universe, it is art in the real world with people's needs meeting specific areas of hunger. In Bali last year I assisted at a cremation ceremony where the music was there on a third night to bring the spirit of the dead person back into the room so she could talk with her family, let them know she was allright, and that the entire village could come together at the feast and weep and for the last five hours laugh. The music was a metaphysical healing action and as such was scientific. It was not entertainment although it was hugely entertaining, it was repairing something broken in people's lives.

Our task is to accomplish something and to be of service but not necessarily in the terms of the new tyranny, the new totalitarianism of the market that is being imposed globally. But to stop and look around and see all of the pain people are carrying with them, try and touch that pain and to engage in serious healing practice. That practice is about understanding the primary condition right now on our planet which is exile, refugees; there are more refugees on the surface of the planet earth than in any previous time in history. What does this mean, that I am getting an award for services to European culture and I am from America as Mauricio pointed out. It means we are exiles from our own culture, it means strangely we are all foreigners, it means strangely that we have to rediscover ourselves through others and in fact it is only the possibility of others that permits us to understand what we have and who we are and who we might still become. Please, please as a leader of nations, open the borders. In art as in society: keep the borders open! Understand that we all need each other. You cannot shut things down, not now, not in history. Right now it is the deepest level of engagement across the lines, a generosity of receiving people, and then in the process of struggling with difference, you learn what you are made of. You learn things about yourself you would never have known otherwise. And you open new possibilities for your society and of course when I am doing Strawinsky's Rake's Progress setting it in an American prison let me be clear the question is: is European culture over with, has it done all it has to do, or is in fact the very point of European culture this radical openness that is inclusive and is it deep and large and visionary enough to include the next society not just the last one. Is European culture strong enough to be open and move forward and not backward? And when I do an up to the minute version of an opera it is because my answer is: Europe is moving forward, please not backward. Mozart lived and died, so that we might live and die just a little better. And I emphasize the sadness and inadequacy of his death. His music defied those limitations. His music knows no border guards; the radical social, cultural and political inclusiveness of his music remains our example.

In our age of the triumph of science, with our social sciences and our political sciences, the sciences that we are missing are the sciences of the heart. Can we be as ambitious in culture in the next generation as we are in business and in science? I hope so. Thank you very much.


Peter Sellars is one of the leading theater, opera and television directors in the world today, having directed more than 100 productions, large and small, across America and abroad. A graduate of Harvard University, he studied in Japan, China and India before becoming Artistic Director of The Boston Shakespeare Company. At 26 he was made Director of the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He was Artistic Director of the 1990 and 1993 Los Angeles Festivals, a large-scale, grassroots, international, intercultural and interdisciplinary experiment mobilizing the arts in a city where more than 120 languages are spoken. He is currently a Professor of World Arts and Cultures at University of California at Los Angeles. His first feature film, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, is silent in colour. A frequent guest at the Salzburg and Glyndebourne Festivals, he has specialized in 20th century operas, most notably St. François d'Assise, Le Grand Macabre, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and, lastly in Amsterdam The Rake's Progress. Peter Sellars is also well known for his Mozart opera productions.

November 1998

HRH Princess Beatrix and Mauricio Kagel

HRH Princess Beatrix and composer and Erasmusprize winner Mauricio Kagel during the award ceremony in 1998.

Doctor Atomic, by Peter Sellars and John Adams

The American director Peter Sellars shared the Erasmus Prize with composer Mauricio Kagel in 1998.

40th anniversary of the Erasmus Prize

The fortieth anniversary of the Erasmus Prize in 1998 was celebrated with the festival 'Experience and Expectations'.