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Opera awards sing praises of Peter Sellars, 4 singers

NEW YORK--Director Peter Sellars has won a special award along with four of the world's best singers.

On Sunday, the prestigious Opera News Awards went to the American theater whiz, and to Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, German soprano Anja Silja, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei and Finnish soprano Karita Mattila.

With his trademark hair shooting straight up, Sellars accepted the award at Manhattan's Plaza hotel.

“Nothing in my life prepared me for this ballroom,” the Pittsburgh native deadpanned to the bejeweled fans, including Princess Madeleine of Sweden.

For the seventh year, the opera magazine honored stars of an art form that still expresses today's emotions, “here and now,” says the director who once set Wagner in an abandoned American Airlines terminal and Mozart with props including switchblades, guns, and drugs, and waist-up nudity.

Opera, he says, “is the deep end of the pool, where we get real,” and the top singers “take this and transform it into something beautiful ... things we care about most.”

On Sunday, honorees included Hvorostovsky, the silver-haired native of Siberia with the rich liquid voice, who was listed by People magazine as one of the 50 “most beautiful people.”

Silja's 62-year career is marked by the thrill of her modern acting, plus a voice that carries a tradition reaching back to the late Wieland Wagner, the composer's relative and her “real-life soul mate.”

Mattila opened a recent Met season in Puccini's “Tosca,” broadcast live to movie theaters worldwide in high definition.

The award to Sellars was presented by American bass-baritone Eric Owens, who played the general directing the World War II bomb project in the director's “Dr. Atomic.” Several years ago, the work drew a young crowd to the Metropolitan Opera that filled cheaper seats with their backpacks — and enthusiasm for a cutting-edge opera as fresh as a Broadway musical.

“People come because it's about a subject they're interested in,” says the 55-year-old Sellars. “Opera can be cool, with sheer American energy — jazz, and an R&B bass.”

With his surprising, sometimes shocking direction, “people at first didn't know what hit them,” says Opera News editor in chief F. Paul Driscoll. “Now, we appreciate his work for its emotional truth.”

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