Challenging ‘Passion’ to open Ojai music festival

For this year’s 70th Ojai Music Festival, music director Peter Sellars isn’t going easy on audiences.
June 1, 2016

For this year’s 70th Ojai Music Festival, music director Peter Sellars isn’t going easy on audiences. The festival, which runs June 9-12, will kick off with the United States premiere of the chamber version of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s sober, spare meditation on the life and writings of Simone Weil in “La Passion de Simone.”

Saariaho’s “Passion,” described as “a musical journey in 15 stations,” compares the French philosopher, mystic and activist’s sufferings with those of Christ. Staged by Sellars and conducted by Joana Carneiro, the “Passion” features soprano Julia Bullock singing Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf’s libretto, and speaking quotations from Weil’s own work.

Music director Peter Sellars

Weil (pronounced vay) was born in 1909 to Alsatian Jews, who had moved to Paris after the Germans annexed Alsace-Lorraine in the late 19th century. Raised in a secular household, she was reportedly socially awkward and never easy to like. Critic Susan Sontag cited Weil’s “fanatical asceticism … her contempt for pleasure and for happiness, her noble and ridiculous political gestures … her tireless courting of affliction.” 

Weil’s work includes the powerful essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” written in 1940 after the fall of France to the Nazis. Weil influenced as seemingly diverse writers as Albert Camus, Flannery O’Connor and Cornel West, and even Pope Paul VI and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Camus called Weil, who starved herself to death in a London hospital (she was also suffering from tuberculosis) in 1943 at age 34, “the only great spirit of our time.”

Sellars, speaking recently by phone from the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, acknowledged that Saariaho’s “Passion” is a challenging festival opener, but that’s what he wanted. “In an age where everything is comic book characters or corporately owned by Disney,” Sellars said, “it’s wonderful to find something that doesn’t insult our intelligence and insists we’re capable of being thinking adults.”

The director said each musical event at the upcoming festival stays close to 70 minutes, allowing people time to process and absorb works like the “Passion,” as well as Claude Vivier’s “Kopernikus — A Ritual Opera.” The Vivier work, which is also getting its U.S. premiere, ends the festival proper on Sunday afternoon, June 12. (For those who want to unwind, the festival continues with a free street party jam session on Main Street in Santa Paula from 6-8:30 p.m.)

“That’s the maximum concentration time,” Sellars said. “You shouldn’t be exhausted, and I don’t want people to feel pressured. Other experiences of the ‘Passion’ come from reflecting on it — reactions come in layers.”

Sellars said Saariaho may be a demanding composer, but she’s not a pessimistic one. “Her art is complex,” he said, “but it has a spiritual glow that does not perpetuate the pain [of Weil’s life]. It contributes to the healing process. She writes the most ravishing music of anyone alive. 

“The score is powerful harmonically,” Sellars added. “There’s a yearning quality. The harmonic journey is not too far from Bach — it has the quality of a spiritual journey, and the harmonic structure gets you farther and farther. There are layers of alienation, and of love, regeneration and recovery.” 

Saariaho’s Weil may not be everyone’s Weil. Though Weil had a profound personal and philosophical relationship to Christianity, Weil, who has been called a “Christian anarchist,” was never baptized. She said that would betray the unsaved masses. 

“We all know difficult people,” Sellars said, regarding Weil’s unusual life and provocative ideas. “But people who tell us things we don’t want to hear are indispensable. There’s not much in Jeremiah people wanted to hear, and Weil’s philosophy came out of that tradition of the Hebrew Bible.”

Indeed, Sellars isn’t so sure Weil denied Christianity’s Hebraic origins or fully rejected Judaism, as critics like Sontag have charged. 

“The questions she asked came out of a deep Hebrew philosophical tradition,” Sellars said. “That never went away. She’s in the tradition of the prophets, and many prophets didn’t end life quietly. Telling people what they don’t want to hear is one way to lose friends quickly. But that is her greatness. Every time we come to the classics, they give us fresh difficulties, and yet they remain a perpetual challenge.” 

Bullock, the soprano who won first prize at the 2014 Naumburg International Vocal Competition — past winners include Dawn Upshaw, for whom the “Passion” was originally composed — said Weil was grappling with sacrifice. “We’ve seen this in a lot of activists,” Bullock said, “and they can be completely consumed by it. She was dealing with a world in destruction.”

One question Bullock struggled with may remain a mystery. “Why did she decide to diminish and destroy herself when she was really seeking healing?”

The soprano agrees with Sellars that Weil never lost her Jewish roots. “She was very much cognizant of her lineage,” Bullock said. “She was trying to relive and rewrite the Old Testament to make sure it was true for her. She didn’t accept anyone’s presented truth as the truth.”

Sellars said his main role in whatever work he takes on, but especially in the “Passion,” is “giving shape to feelings and creating a space of shared emotion.” Indeed, the director encouraged Bullock to explore fully the physical aspects of portraying Weil.  

“Peter’s hyperaware of your commitment level,” Bullock said. “If he sees any hesitation, he quickly addresses it.” 

Sellars added: “Most of the work is getting people to relax into themselves, so emotions flow more freely. We’re used to what is visible, but what’s not visible is very powerful. We see that in our families every day. These emotions are changing your life, but you don’t know where they’re coming from and how to read them.” 

Asked if learning how to read emotions is one of the primary functions of art, Sellars laughed.

“It’s good practice,” he said.

For tickets and information for the Ojai Music Festival, visit

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