Opera director Peter Sellars may have accepted the prestigious Polar Music Prize in Stockholm this week, but he still doesn't quite consider himself a musician.
"Music is what I spend my day doing, but when you are in a room with the amazing people that I'm in a room with, you get to have a very humble view of your own self, believe me," he says. "I think of myself as kind of helping out."
Only two musicians receive the Polar Music Prize each year, and Sellars joins the company of past winners like Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and Ennio Morricone, so he might want to reconsider that perception of himself as just a helper. This year he shares the honor with Chuck Berry, a musician whom Sellars is quick to redirect praise to.
"He is responsible for not just a great moment in the history of music but a great moment in history," says Sellars.
Sellars was born in Pittsburgh in 1957, the year before Berry released his signature song, "Johnny B. Goode." But whereas Berry took a rock 'n' roll path, it was opera that appealed to Sellars. And from the time he was 10 years old he has worked at turning the conventional notion of what opera is on its head. Most notably has been where he has chosen to stage operas; in a Cape Cod diner, in a luxury apartment in Trump tower, and in the 1980s he chose the ghetto of Spanish Harlem for his take on Mozart's "Don Giovanni."
Sellars is almost pragmatic about this revolutionary approach.
"I grew up staging a lot of things to music, so that was normal, and most operas I heard were only from records, so I imagined all these amazing things happening," he says. "I was really shocked when I went to my first opera and realized, 'Well, they're just standing there.' So for me opera was this thing that was just teeming in the imagination with all the possibilities. For me it was just a totally normal thing to say, 'Let's make this as exciting as it should be!'"
In conversation, Sellars still maintains this excitement for music, his tone taking on a quality of awe as he discusses its powers.
"Music is just a great catalyst and it makes such a spark," he says. "It opens up space that didn't exist before, creates a new way that people feel and think of themselves and see each other. … It's just flowing through everyone, so you're just catching it and you're bathing in it pretty deep. That river is totally flowing, and when people get caught up in the places that music can take you, they do amazing things."
Luckily Sellars is there for, as he says, "helping out."