Keynote address Peter Sellars
Opening of the Salzburg Festival 27 July 2019 at Felsenreitschule
Dear Distinguished Guests,
Good morning and welcome to the 99th Salzburg Festival. This is a very special place to work and a very important place from which to speak. Every summer, leading figures in government, business, and finance, and leading and emerging creative artists gather in remarkable conditions to examine and experience charged topics in the context of deep values and deep listening, prioritizing new insights, and new interpretations of complex histories. Music and opera are experiential art forms which create space for the acknowledgment of difficult pasts, space in which we can hear the voices of ancestors, and space in which we hear the voices of unborn children. And perhaps a space in which we can become quiet enough to hear our own inner voices. In that that space we conceive and construct the next civilization. At the initiative of our inspired artistic director, Markus Hinterhäuser, this year’s festival is consecrated to myth.
Tonight we open the 99th Salzburg Festival with Idomeneo, an opera written by a very brilliant, very angry, and very impatient 24-year old named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His visionary, overwhelming, and still unfinished opera was a challenge to its first audiences and remains a challenge to us today. It is an opera about the ocean. The waves are breaking, alive, seething, teeming with infinite life. Covering 70% of the earth’s surface, and the planet’s life support system, the vast ocean systems sustaining our planet generate weather, food, mystery, beauty, and hold unfathomed depths that mirror the human soul, the subconscious realms of human dream, memory, and imagination. More than half of every human being is water, and the emotion that surges through our minds and our bodies is also fathomless. We are beings containing oceans of love, oceans of hurt, oceans of knowledge, oceans of longing, oceans of remorse, oceans of compassion, oceans of joy, and oceans of hope ebbing and flowing in violent and calm weather patterns that move through the human heart, in the blood that runs through our limbs and our lives. Mozart wrote his music for the ocean in a landlocked country, feeling the ocean as a physical force, a cosmic force, and a magnetic moral presence.
Idomeneo is based on Greek mythology, on references in the Iliad and the Odyssey which describe the ocean’s response to the Greek armies who were so proud of their victory at the end of the long, brutal, and ultimately pointless Trojan War. The victors turned from the bloody beaches of Troy, stepped into their ships to go home, and set sail, and the ocean said “Stop right there.” The victors’ ships were destroyed and in those shipwrecks, their hubris and their egos. Some of these Greeks would spend 20 years trying to reach their homes again and others perished in the waves and became food for fish.
Mythology was invented as a way to understand and affirm that everything in the world is linked, and to recognize causality or karma across all experiences and all phenomena. The ancient Greeks personified the ocean in the figure of Poseidon, Neptune. Today we are learning, in the midst of climate change and warming oceans, that coral reefs smell of rotting flesh as they bleach and die. Occupying less than 1% of the ocean, they contain 25% of all marine life. As the reefs, whose intricate ecosystems protect islands and coastlines and feed more than 500 million people, become translucent, ghostly, lose their flesh and vanish, we should recognize that our own flesh is crumbling.
Mozart’s wild opera is about a warrior leader, courageous, compassionate, but haunted and traumatized by war, hidden from his people and from his own family, operating impulsively and autocratically in a command and control political economy, who is certain of the nobility of his motives, and who is in fact, without realizing it, sacrificing the next generation. Idomeneo imagines that he is quicker and more clever than Neptune, and that he can postpone and avert the urgent response which the god is demanding. The result of his failure to understand that a larger sacrifice is being asked of him is a tidal wave which destroys an entire city creating new refugees, utterly unnecessary suffering, and thousands of dead victims who were suddenly overwhelmed by unexpected catastrophe.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are today facing leadership across the world that is willing to sacrifice the next generation and the generations after that, delaying urgent action and an urgent response to what the planet is telling us. How many hurricanes will it take? How many heat waves, how much desertification, how much acidification, hypoxia, anoxia, melting of sea ice and glaciers, how much toxic air, and how many extinctions will it take to recognize that large-scale action is required? In Mozart’s Idomeneo the humans are endlessly blaming the gods, blaming the stars, and claiming that nature is cruel rather than getting the message. Human beings are now consuming six times what the earth can sustain. Perhaps something is wrong with us. And now what we need to create, with urgent daring, care, intelligence, creativity, and sacrifice, is nothing less than a new civilization that moves at last from the era of empire into the era of ecological awareness.
The first step in this awareness is acknowledging that we are not separate from our environment or anything in the natural world — animals, plants, rocks, clouds, air, water, or sunlight. Our beings interpenetrate and are interdependent with every molecule, every particle, every life, and every death. The same microorganisms that live in the ocean live in our bodies and now that millions of tons of plastic have been dumped into the ocean (insert figure), plastic which absorbs marine toxins and which is eaten by fish and by birds, which are in turn eaten by humans, the current estimate is that each of us is eating one credit card of plastic every week. We are becoming plastic people. The degradation of the environment is the degradation of our own bodies and beings.
The ancient Greek theater invented and perfected the art form of tragedy as a way to underscore and demonstrate to the citizens of Athens that evil does not exist. As we also learn in Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, there is no evil, there is only ignorance. Ignorant people engage heartbreakingly in deeply destructive actions, fatal to themselves and to the people around them, tragically lost in a haze of self-righteousness, self-justification, short-term thinking, and denial. The gods are speaking to them and they are unable to see and unable to hear.
It is a tragedy that in the West we are so proud of our high standard of living and genuinely imagine our culture, Western culture, to be superior to the cultures of the rest of the world. Are we living well? When 14% of the world’s population is consuming 80% of the world’s resources, in what way can this be considered to be living well? (FACT CHECK). What does it mean to decide that most of the world’s people, entire populations, histories, cultures, continents, landmass, rivers, animals, insects, plants, and oceans simply don’t matter? I think we must acknowledge that we are living very badly, and it is not the gods that are cruel. Even our constant use of the words “we” and “our” are poisoned by our narrowness, our “we” and our “our” do not include most people and most of the planet. This morning the eight richest people in the world own more than the 3.7 billion people, one-half of humanity, that lives on less than three euros a day.
Mozart’s source material for Idomeneo was a French tragédie, Danchet’s Idoménée, in which the father does actually sacrifice his son, killing him, and the story ends in a blood bath. Mozart and his generation could not accept that outcome. There comes a time when we need new stories and when it is no longer acceptable to repeat the appalling cycle of human failure, learning nothing, refusing to advance. Artists have to look ahead, to see what is missing from today’s picture, what is not yet there, or what has been there for a long time but is waiting to be seen. Artists open the eyes and minds of a generation to new possibilities, new feelings, new stirrings.
Mozart’s Enlightenment project was to move beyond autocratic delusions, beyond the received artificial structures which sustain autocratic delusion into the far more liberating realities of equality, the fact that every being is equal in the sight of a larger universe. In Idomeneo, his explosive and revolutionary opera, Mozart presented to the world his great breakthrough: the first fully realized operatic quartet.
Mozart and Haydn were part of the Freemason’s Movement, the network of activists and intellectuals who created the American and French revolutions. After Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that “all men are created equal” at the birth of the United States of America, an unprecedented nation invented from a population of indigenous peoples, immigrants, and slaves, humanity was left to solve the problem of how to create and demonstrate this equality. As two of the most committed artists of their era, Mozart and Haydn set to work on the problem and perfected the string quartet, an artistic structure held in a delicate equilibrium in which the equality of the four participants is inseparable from the integrity of the form. If one person leaves the conversation, or is excluded, the
entire structure collapses.
Mozart’s brilliant and liberating act was to take this intellectual construct from church music and instrumental music and apply it to social and personal relationships in his operas. The great quartet that is the spiritual summit and human crucible of Idomeneo equalizes parents and children, men and women, rulers and citizens, haves and have nots, entitled native-born and refugees. Mozart created an unprecedented structure of compassion and pain in which all four participants are obsessed and blinded by their own suffering and then gradually begin to realize that the people around them are also suffering. The shared recognition of human suffering is the first step of compassion, which opens a new path which leads beyond suffering. These are the Four Noble Truths, Buddha’s first teaching after he awakened under the Bodhi Tree. The truth of suffering leads to the recognition that suffering is shared and intolerable which leads to the search of a path out of suffering which leads to the recognition of that path and the determination to walk humbly and courageously on that path.
Mozart’s project is reconciliation instead of a bloodbath, recognition and enlightenment instead of tragedy, and the creation of a new vocabulary which can give voice to a genuine apology for years of incorrect behavior, false assumptions, greed, and thoughtlessness, and translates that remorse into action allowing the community to move forward together. Every Mozart opera ends with this moment of recognition, repentance, and renewal, initiated by a woman.
How do we do battle with climate change? For a start we have to shift out of bad habit energies and make basic, common sense changes in our lives and social structures that we should have made long ago. Yes, we need to end capitalism (the crisis of capitalism is already well underway), redo the international banking system, and create widespread social and political justice. Is that a hardship or a long overdue wake-up call and opportunity?
We are learning that perhaps one of the most important steps in battling climate change is going to be the worldwide education and empowerment of women. Across the planet it is women who make the decisions about water, cooking, food, food waste, fuel choices, eating, the use of natural resources, and sustainable living. Women comprise the majority of small farmers in the world. And of course when women are equal partners enabled to decide when to bear children, the result will have a powerful impact on overpopulation.
Forests and natural resources managed by indigenous communities are richer in biodiversity and richer in biomass with richer soils and forests that store more carbon. Most importantly, indigenous peoples have developed cultural intelligence, ways of thinking, ways of seeing, ways of feeling, and ways of sharing that align their daily life choices and life practices with the wellbeing of the earth. Native stewardship of the land also includes finely calibrated systems for spiritual health and restorative justice in relation to visible and invisible natural worlds. Climate change will be addressed through scientific analysis and innovation, through new technologies but in fact it is the old technologies that we also need and that are held in trust by indigenous populations. Indigenous technologies have everything to teach about caring for land, spirits, ancestors, and each other.
These are all cultural questions as much as they are scientific and political questions and need to be addressed through cultural action and embodied in music, dance, painting, film, poetry, and new stories in new voices. And there are new stories to tell. This year renewable energy sources outstripped fossil fuels in profitability for the first time. Even capitalism is smelling the coffee. Large-scale change requires governments and genuinely representative democracies to act on a large scale. But it also requires small and meaningful actions, culturally-rooted daily choices that have a cumulative economic and morally liberating effect, but that also creates more oxygen in our lives, better emotional weather, in human affairs.
What the planet is actually asking from us is to live well, and the planet is providing us with the resources, beauty, pleasure, and cycles of renewal that invite us to live well and in balance. The sheer exhilaration and wellbeing that you feel when you are walking in the mountains here in Salzburg let you know that you are part of the natural world and that you are finally coming back to yourself. Anything that is important in life cannot be monetized and the act of mistaking profit for value generates money but impoverishes people and the planet. Let’s start by eating more plants. If 18% of the arable land on earth has been taken over by the beef industry to graze more cattle, it is definitely time to eat less meat. The deforestation that accompanies agribusiness must be reversed giving both people and the planet their lungs back.
[We need The solutions are human and involve compassion, courage, and creativity, the human capacity to take on great challenges, and the human capacity to reject greed, unfairness, and injustice. 97% of climate scientists are quite clear about the causes and immediate threat of global warming, pollution, and environmental degradation.]
The scientists have given us 15 years to literally create a new civilization, an ecological civilization. So where are the artists? For too long certain voices have been hugely overrepresented and others truly underrepresented. What a relief now that women’s voices, indigenous voices, and voices from the very areas where environmental degradation goes hand-in hand-with the violation of human rights, are finally starting to be heard. Cultural institutions are moving but still have a long way to go to make sure that we are hearing from peoples and parts of the world that have a lot to say and whose participation will be crucial to the creation and construction of an inclusive and representative ecological civilization. We are surrounded by a lot of cultural products that prolong an era of war, male power, prestige and privilege that is simply out of date. Young people are stepping forward and creating artworks that increasingly are actions, not objects. In the new civilization, actions count.
Climate change has brought us to an amazing and powerful point in which we can no longer face what we are facing as nations or races or geographically isolated peoples. Climate change is challenging every nation on this earth, every race, every geographic grouping, every adult, every child. Climate change is demanding that we recognize each other as equals and that we create communities, networks, and structures that will allow us to act as equals.
The 24-year old Mozart ends his opera with an astonishing intervention, a message from the future and an act of healing. Neptune appears and tells Idomeneo that because he has broken his promises, he will no longer be king. Neptune offers the new leadership to young people, Idomeneo’s rebellious son Idamante and Ilia, his refugee bride, whose innocence, integrity, and love have actually won the day. Their education has not been about achieving good test scores but about finding insight in painful and impossible adversity. It is their tenacity and vision that qualify them for leadership.
At this tumultuous moment in human history which is asking all of us for something more, something larger, young people are filling the streets with determination, idealism, and momentum. Children are speaking to their parents, powerfully. Children, please continue to talk to your parents; you are the most important influence in your parents’ lives. Parents, please listen to your children. Our generation has been the generation of empire builders and consumers. It is now time to welcome the new generation of creators, activists, repairers, restorers, and healers.