Press Release

Art and Activism: an Evening with Peter Sellars at Rothko Chapel

February 20, 2018

Art and Activism: an Evening with Peter Sellars at Rothko Chapel

HGO and Chapel join in conversation, Tuesday, March 20

HOUSTON – Join the Rothko Chapel and Houston Grand Opera for a conversation about the role of arts and activism in society today.

Peter Sellars, opera and theatre director and professor at UCLA, will speak alongside Debbie McNulty, director of Mayor Turner's Office of Cultural Affairs, and Patrick Summers, artistic director of the Houston Grand Opera. The Rothko Chapel’s executive director David Leslie will serve as moderator.

“Art and Activism: an Evening with Peter Sellars” is slated for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 20.  The “pay what you can” event has a suggested value of $20. The Chapel is located at 3900 Yupon St.

Houston Grand Opera’s initiative "Seeking the Human Spirit” is a six-year multidisciplinary effort designed to highlight the universal spiritual themes raised in opera and to expand and deepen Houstonians’ connections to opera and to art.

The Rothko Chapel has joined in the Opera’s initiative to explore the power of the human spirit to rise up and address social injustices and inequality through creative expression. 

“The arts are about justice,” Sellars said. “The arts are about actually making the right move. Knowing what the right gesture is and making the gesture sensitivity, beautifully, beautifully judged performance, beautifully judged insight.”

He explained that the job of an artist is to live in accordance to principle. “The deep sense of justice we have to show that in every action of our lives and that is why we are hired – most people don’t get to realize their finest thoughts in their daily actions and as artists our job has no compromise, no excuse, but to actually realize the beauty, balance, poise, and liberation of creation that is about justice,” he said.

A conversation exploring the role of the artist as a social commenter, the arts as a public voice and the responsibility and growing challenges faced by cultural organizations and patrons is critical, Sellars added.  

“This is a time when this conversation could not be more important and what is thrilling is when institutions can stand for justice in public,” he said “It is crucial at this moment.”

McNulty believes that everyone can get involved in social activism. “It could just be about making your community better,” she said. “I like this notion of shifting activism from being a hammer that you hit people with to something more about listening.”

David Leslie, Rothko Chapel’s executive director, said the event was planned to explore the role the arts hold in the public sphere.  

“The arts play an important connecting role in society in ways that other sectors cannot,” he said. “Artists can move through a variety of environments using music, performance, visual arts and other media to address difficult topics, challenge cultural stigmas, bring diverse people together and provoke new ways of thinking that can lead to powerful social and political changes.”

Leslie added that the discussion will also focusing on how the arts and cultural institutions can serve as a voice for the public in a time of prevalent censorship, political bullying and polarization.

About the presenters

Peter Sellars has gained international renown for his groundbreaking and transformative interpretations of artistic masterpieces and for collaborative projects with an extraordinary range of creative artists.

He has staged operas at the Canadian Opera Company, Dutch National Opera, English National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opéra National de Paris and the Salzburg Festival. Recent projects include an acclaimed production of “La Clemenza di Tito” at the 2017 Salzburg Festival, a concert staging of “The Cunning Little Vixen” with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the premiere of his latest collaboration with John Adams, “Girls of the Golden West” at San Francisco Opera. 

Sellars has led several major arts festivals, including the 1990 and 1993 Los Angeles Festivals and the 2002 Adelaide Arts Festival. In 2006, he served as artistic director of New Crowned Hope in Vienna, where he invited artists from diverse cultural backgrounds to create new work in the fields of music, theater, dance, film, the visual arts and architecture for the celebration of Mozart’s 250th birth anniversary.

Sellars is a distinguished professor in the department of world arts and cultures at UCLA, as well as a resident curator of the Telluride Film Festival. He was a mentor for the Rolex Arts Initiative and a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as the the Erasmus Prize for contributions to European culture. He was also honored with the Gish Prize and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2014, he was awarded the prestigious Polar Music Prize and named “Artist of the Year” by Musical America.

Debbie McNulty served as lead consultant for the City of Houston’s Arts and Cultural Plan before being appointed director of the Houston Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs in 2015.

Her extensive experience includes work in philanthropy, public-private partnerships, community-based organizations and the arts. She was a program officer with Houston Endowment Inc., working primarily in the areas of arts and culture and community and economic development. Then, she became executive director of Art League Houston, a nonprofit art school and gallery, coordinating the development and construction of their expanded facility.

McNulty also previously served as director of the Civic Art and Design Program at the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County (now Houston Arts Alliance), having worked with the program from its inception in 1994 and throughout the effort that resulted in the adoption the Houston percent-for-art ordinance in 1999.

Patrick Summers was named artistic and music director of Houston Grand Opera in 2011, after serving as the company’s music director since 1998. He has conducted more than 60 operas while there and is responsible for many important artistic advances, including the development of the HGO Orchestra.

Some highlights of his work at Houston Grand Opera include conducting the company’s first-ever complete cycle of Wagner’s “Ring” and its first performances of the Verdi Requiem, collaborating on the world premieres of André Previn’s “Brief Encounter,” Christopher Theofanidis’s “The Refuge,” Jake Heggie’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The End of the Affair,” and “Three Decembers,” Carlisle Floyd’s “Cold Sassy Tree” and “Prince of Players, and Tod Machover’s “Resurrection.”

In addition, Summers lead the American premiere of Weinberg’s Holocaust opera, “The Passenger,” both at Houston Grand Opera and on tour to the Lincoln Festival.

He said nurturing the careers of artists, including Christine Goerke, Ailyn Pérez, Joyce DiDonato, Ana María Martínez, Ryan McKinny, Tamara Wilson, Albina Shagimuratova, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Norman Reinhardt, Jamie Barton and Dimitri Pittas, has been another career highlight.

Maestro Summers is principal guest conductor for San Francisco Opera, where he was honored in 2015 with the company’s highest honor, the San Francisco Opera Medal.

To register and learn more about the Rothko Chapel and the full calendar of upcoming programs, workshops and events, visit or call 713-524-9839.

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