Q&A: Anne Bogart On Discovering Dvorak’s Rare Opera ‘Dimitrij’

By Francisco Salazar

This weekend, Dvorak’s “Dimitrij” premieres at the Bard Summerscape. The opera is being staged in the U.S. for the first time by director Anne Bogart, a Bard graduate. She has directed numerous opera productions including Bizet’s “Carmen” and Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Glimmerglass Festival and has also helmed Bellini’s “Norma” with the Washington National Opera. Her theater work has been hailed for its intricate perspectives, winning her numerous awards.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with Bogart on her immersion into this rare work and her growing love for it.

OperaWire: How did you get involved with directing this production of ‘Dimitrij?’ 

Anne Bogart: I was contacted a year-and-a-half ago about doing a Polish opera. So I listened to it and thought that it was challenging but interesting. So I said yes. And then they switched it to “Dimitrij” and I got even more excited by that. It’s the first time I’ve worked with Bard and with Leon Botstein. So it seemed like a great adventure.

OW: Were you familiar with this Dvorak work when they told you about it?

AB: I had never heard of [“Dimitrij”]. I knew “Rusalka” and Dvorak’s symphonies but certainly not this piece. In fact, I don’t know many that do either.

OW: Is this your first time directing an opera in Czech?

AB: Yes and that is always a challenge. I’m used to working in German, Italian, or French and with those languages, I know where I am. But Czech is a big challenge and I am in awe of the singers because this is a very long piece, particularly for Clay Hilley, whose doing Dimitrij. He’s got to sing so much.

OW: What are the major challenges of directing the Czech language?

AB: I think knowing where I am is challenging because no matter how much I study the score and libretto and look at translations, when it gets down to the moment of staging I have a hard time picking up where we are. There are a lot of consonants in the Czech language and that is always tough.

OW: What was your process like when you first started working on the opera?

AB: After listening, studying and looking at the historical context of it, my first job was to figure out the world in which it will live. If I were doing “Boris Godunov,” I would probably set it in the 16th century, at the time it was meant to be set. But here, there is a Czech writer, writing a sequel to “Boris Godunov” and the notion of Czech nationalism is very different from that of Russia. It doesn’t have that cultural feel of Russia. And certainly, the music is Czech. So I didn’t feel that I needed to keep it set in the historical time it’s in.

So I started looking for analogies for the “Time of Troubles,” which is what they call that period in Russia. I wanted to know what that it felt like. So I started remembering the feeling of 1989 when the walls came crashing down between Eastern Europe and the rest of the world. And I remember all those men and women not knowing what was going to happen next. It wasn’t like everybody knew it was going to become capitalism in the Eastern part. But there was this moment where no one knew what was going to happen next and that was a very, very fertile moment. And if you look at “Dimitrij,” there is a moment when the people rise up. It’s a piece very much about individualism, but it’s also about the people who are trying to find that equilibrium. So I tried to find something from the late 80s when the communist era was falling. It’s more metaphorical where the world is decaying and falling apart and the people are trying to find a new sense of harmony.

OW: Once you had your idea locked down, what was the process with your team in creating that world?

AB: First I turned to the design team. It’s the first time I have ever worked with David Zinn and he is extraordinary. I’m working with Constance Hoffman on the costumes and Brian H. Scott, who I’ve worked with a lot.  It was also right after the election that we were really getting deep into it. We were deeply affected by it and even though we had talked about a sort of post-communist setting, the more we worked on it, the more we wanted it to resonate for the particular moment that we’re living in. And Constance did not want it to look just like 1989 but also have a feeling of our own times that we’re living in. Although we didn’t turn it into a simile of what is happening right now, we were influenced by it.

OW: Do you find that your work is inspired by the modern world?

AB: I think every work you do has to. I’m working on Greek plays and it is always about the moment we’re living in. It’s never really about the time that it takes place in. That is, of course, not to say that we always have to put it in modern dress. But as an artist, you’re always dealing with your times through the lens of people from the past.

OW: What has it been like to work with this cast?

AB: We have this extraordinary group of principles, none of which I have worked with before. They are incredibly talented. And then there is the chorus, which is the happiest chorus I have ever worked with. They come back to Bard every year and some have been here two decades. It’s like a party for them and they are really high-level singers who do a lot of professional work during the year. We have such a great group who you feel are a community already, which is what is called for in the score.

OW: How has it been like to work with Leon Bolstein?

AB: He is very erudite. I think he has more ideas about staging than any other conductor that I have ever worked with. It’s very collaborative and he is very involved in the aesthetics and the story. That is helpful.

OW: How do you balance the intimate moments with the chorus and large moments in the opera?

AB: That is in the structure of the piece. It reminds me of an Eisenstein film with all those crowds and suddenly, the stage is emptied out with two people having a very intimate scene. You see the repercussions. You see the world and then the intimacy and I think that is the key to good theater. And it’s not something I have to do because it’s incredibly built into the piece.

OW: There are very few productions of this opera. Is that helpful in creating your interpretation?

AB: No. I am a big fan of doing old chestnuts. I’ve done a lot of Verdi and Bellini and I love doing work that a lot of people do. Shamelessly, I look at every choice that other directors have ever made. So I feel like I have a much wider palette of understanding of the opera. I feel much more at sea with this opera because I don’t have the gathered wisdom of centuries or decades of people doing this work. It feels less free.

OW: Since this is the first staged production of “Dimitrij” in America, what have you discovered from Dvorak’s music that you didn’t know?

AB: What struck me is that the music is rarely what you would expect from the dramatic situation. In other words, there are incredibly lush and melodic moments for scenes that are full of strife. You would expect them to be pounding and angry, but it’s not.

As I’ve worked on it, the music’s become addictive. My greatest hope for the opera is that people will see it and experience it and want to do it in the repertoire everywhere. I don’t know why it’s so unknown. It’s big and there are a lot of people in it, but it’s a great story and the music is just amazing.



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