The scenario sounds eerily familiar: A plutocrat on a high floor in Trump Tower wields enormous political power, while a woman in his employ worries that he believes that his wealth and position entitle him to do anything he wants with her.
No, it is not the synopsis of a new book about the 2016 presidential campaign. It was rather one of the most influential opera productions of the last 50 years: Peter Sellars’s 1988 staging of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” which he happened to set on the 52nd floor of Trump Tower, a symbol of wealth and excess and power in an opera about inequality.
These days, of course, Trump Tower has taken on a very different meaning. It is where Donald J. Trump descended an escalator in June 2015 and began his improbable but ultimately successful presidential campaign. It is where demonstrators gathered to protest after his victory. And these days, C-Span has a live feed of its lobby, as politicians arrive there seeking office.
In a recent telephone conversation, Mr. Sellars spoke about setting Mozart in Trump Tower, a decision that now seems oddly prescient. The plot of “Figaro,” based on the play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, turns in part on whether the master of the house, Count Almaviva, will claim his feudal privilege — the droit du seigneur — to compel a servant to have sex with him.
While viewing a DVD of the Trump Tower “Figaro” after the election, it was hard not to think of the tape that surfaced in October in which Mr. Trump spoke in vulgar terms about grabbing women and pushing himself on them, and boasted that he could get away with “anything” because of his celebrity — and of the women who accused him of sexual assault. (Mr. Trump denied their allegations and apologized for the taped remarks.)
These are edited excerpts from the conversation with Mr. Sellars.
Tell me about your decision to set “Figaro” in Trump Tower.
It was, of course, in the Reagan years, an emblem of the new feudalism.
And, for Mozart, I think one of the most important things about this opera — which is, in fact, the story of the French Revolution — is what it means, this project, in a feudal world, to insist on equality and democracy, and to make those happen in practice. Mozart’s very courageous and breathtaking gesture is to treat all people of all classes as equals in the quartets and sextets and trios, where people of very different social status are treated equally by the music. Their humanity is equally honored and represented — including people of all social classes making huge mistakes in judging each other.
The setting seemed largely chosen to highlight income inequality. But the way the campaign played out, with the release of the tape, it was almost as if people were talking about droit du seigneur all over again.
Not almost. I mean, it’s literal. It’s so literal. Obviously, the locker room discussion was entirely about that — it was precisely about that. These things are not new. That’s what makes it powerful to actually look in the mirror of the 18th century. Particularly at a moment when certain artists had the highest aspirations for what we are ultimately capable of.
In Mozart’s time, the nobility had political power as well as great wealth. Did you ever dream that Trump Tower would become a symbol of political power as well?
It’s like anything. If you want to see the future, look at what’s going on now. The future is just the seeds you’re planting at the moment. And guess what? They will, with the proper amount of water and sunlight, turn into trees. So what you’re watering is a big question, and those were the seeds that were planted in the Reagan era, and those are still being watered.
This is an opera that ends not with a sort of class strife but actually an astonishing gesture of forgiveness. And the very person who has been monstrous — the Count, with his droit du seigneur and feeling that he owns the human beings who work for him and can abuse women absolutely with impunity — not only does he learn otherwise, and actually learn to recognize the humanity of other people, but he is forgiven. And there’s an act of transformation for everyone, which reaches beyond judgment and is actually a breakthrough in the social paralysis of the ancien régime.
Mozart was creating a musical path toward forgiveness and away from all this violent speech, and the violent action of a law which respects some people’s lives more than others. So it’s an astonishing document in the history of humanity. And, of course, in the middle of the Reagan years, when we were watching inequality expand so dramatically, it was a very important project to use Mozart’s highest vision of what human beings could become.
Do you hold out hope of recognition and change and forgiveness in real life?
I think that when things get to a certain extreme, you can’t push them farther in that direction. There has to be some kind of coming together. And, obviously, Mr. Trump didn’t win everything; his margins are so slender, and the country is, in some sense, of course, deeply divided. So how do all of us work across the divide? Again, without demonizing the people on the other side. How deeply can we listen and realize that we’re all singing an ensemble, not a solo aria?
That’s the courage and beauty of what Mozart was trying to do at a moment in history where again, there were no examples of democracy for Mozart to point to in Europe. So he had to put it onstage and use a musical language that would allow people to actually listen to each other and realize that they have to sing together in harmony. Harmony is made of not people parroting or repeating each other’s notes, but the opposite: The blend of very different notes creates the chord. And so it’s not just singing in unison; it’s singing in harmony, with everyone’s diversity intact.
Has the recent election led to any ideas for new works? [His answer refers to “Girls of the Golden West,” the new Gold Rush opera he is working on with John Adams, the composer of “Nixon in China.”]
I’m so not allowed to talk about it, of course, but you will see that the next John Adams opera is quite on point. It could not be more exact.