Greetings fiends and foul ones, Marquis here with Dennis Báthory-Kitsz creator and composer of Erzsébet the Opera: A Monodrama. Dennis is currently seeking funding to help put on his first production of the opera slated for an October 2011 show date.
MD: First off, what inspired you to write an opera about Countess Erzsébet Báthory?
DB-K: “Inspired” isn’t quite the word! When I was a child, there were occasional mentions of an evil person in our family’s history. It was peripheral to my child-life, so not until 1983 did I discover that not only was this person evil by reputation, but interesting enough for books and films to be created about her. It all came together when I was given a copy of Raymond McNally’s “Dracula Was a Woman”—the first contemporary biography in English. By this time I’d been a composer almost 20 years and had already written an opera (an avant-garde piece called “Plasm over ocean” in 1977). The ‘Blood Countess’ story started to re-appear—most notably in hints from radio personality and poet Andrei Codrescu that he was writing a biography of her with new translated documents. It was 1987 that I decided that an opera it would be, and I began collecting shards of information. Serendipitously, computer programmer Zoltán Rádai from Budapest contacted me in hopes of receiving some information about technology he could use in his cloth- and grain-quality projects; it was the last vestiges of the Cold War, and he found getting any technology difficult. We became friends. A few years later I moved to Europe and started sketching ideas for the opera; the next year (1992) I traveled to meet Zoltán in Budapest. Our two families drove in a tiny car to Cachtice in (then) Czechoslovakia to find the rumored Cséjthe Castle. It was there—intimidating and a sight to press me forward with the opera idea.
MD: Did you find it hard to research her life, since there is very little information about her life other than hearsay, court records of her trial and her diary (that has been virtually unseen)?
DB-K: It became easier after the McNally biography and after my trip there. It was surprisingly helpful when I put up an early website in 1996 and soon received information, publications, and eventually links to newly developing research from people such as early European history expert Elizabeth Miller. By that time Codrescu and I had parted ways—his biography ended up being a novel instead, a kind of spooky gothic time-travel book, and he began losing interest in the Erzsébet character. But I had learned from him that letters existed in the Hungarian archives and with the change away from Communism these might be available in the West. Soon the web was teeming with vampire sites and information—much terrible and repetitive mythology but some legitimate—was being traded. Enough historical detail arose that suggested she might have been framed by rival George Thurzo. After all, she had done what many male leaders had done. Why was she singled out as a hideous monster? Considering her skill in languages, negotiation, science, medicine and many other subjects, what had she done especially wrong? Of course she was a woman. That might have been the reason enough that her evil work—done by so many men—was a ‘crime’ for her to engage in. To return to your question, historical information about her culture, environment and politics became more available. New translations appeared. Experts speculated on what might have been the truth and an effort was underway to discover more about a character that had previously been cloaked by rumors and myths.
MD: Now I understand you actually went to Cséjthe (CHAY-tuh) Castle (in Hungary, now Slovakia). What was that like?
DB-K: It’s quite serene now, situated above a lovely little village. When I first visited, it was a poor area—it still is in some ways—and unused to strangers, particularly those speaking only English, Hungarian and Hungarian-accented Slovak. We hiked up the hill in brilliant sunlight and the castle and its grounds were simply a falling down old structure. Whatever evil had been done there had vanished, scrubbed away by 400 years, a thousand storms, and thickly growing forests. On my third visit in 2004, I had the opportunity to be there in the darkness—but perhaps I’m not sensitive enough to notice rustlings from the past. It was dark and forbidding to me, but not especially ghostly.
MD: Did you find that people in that area were still indifferent to her or are they a little more receptive now, much like the Romanians are to Vlad Tepes?
DB-K: This is a very good question. Erzsébet was already the subject of books, some local “Cachtice Stories” magazines, and local historical Vladimir Ammer’s considerable space in his massive history of Cachtice. But the people and especially the politicians are much more receptive now! Four years after my first visit, the opening of the film “Dragonheart” was done there. Since then the town has received thousands of visitors, and European Union restoration funds have begun to flow into town—although not to the castle itself, which I’m told is still privately owned (although the owners disappeared in World War II). In 2008, the glorious flyover scenes for Juraj Jakubisko’s film “Bathory” were shot there. Even during my 2004 visit, the mayor Anna Istoková declared “She is ours now!” So Erzsébet has been turned into a kind of commodity, becoming not the dominatrix but rather the commercial slave of the town. Ironic, isn’t it?
MD: Do you plan to do a performance in Cachtice (the town below her castle)?
DB-K: Actually the first European performance will be at the castle itself, probably in 2012 or 2013. We received the town’s permission to do it there, and we have local producers to help in Prague and Bratislava. But I won’t reveal the details until after the U.S. premiere here in Vermont on Halloween weekend!
MD: Are there plans to take the opera to the MET (the Metropolitan Opera, NYC) or on a national tour?
DB-K: Don’t I wish! Opera is complicated and incredibly costly. This version is a monodrama—one character and a small ensemble. Even so, it’s costing nearly $30,000 to finish the first three performances. So we have to gather some momentum from that, finish a video of it, and then move on to sponsorship for our international performances. We’ve also been corresponding for the past few years with Dani Filth of ‘Cradle of Filth’ about doing a joint show in Slovakia; they’ve been great Báthory fans for years with their own take on the Countess. But the Met? Probably not in my lifetime! It’s taken 25 years to get them to perform a famous piece like “Nixon in China” by John Adams. But a vampire opera? With an incredibly dark theme and beyond-bizarre horrors? I don’t suspect soon!
MD: You’ve spent a good portion of your life creating this, what do you plan to do once it’s all said and done?
DB-K: I’ve never stopped doing other work. This has been a kind of parallel track that began when I was 37 and will finish its first performance when I’m 62—a kind of subterranean obsession, so to speak. I couldn’t put my life aside waiting for it to get done! In fact, the opera is only one of more than 1,000 musical compositions I’ve written, more than half of them since I started the opera project. I’d certainly like to write a full orchestral version that could appear at a larger opera house, too. I don’t plan on stopping my life afterward!
MD: Do you believe in ghosts and if so, have you ever seen one?
DB-K: An odd question. In the way you phrased it, no. Yet I do believe that time is not entirely linear and there is the possibility of it being an ongoing spiral. Like a fuzzy spring, it might touch on the past and the future and we might sense those touchings as ‘ghosts’ when we’re really just brushing up against earlier and later streams of time. I’m open to it, but I’m a sheer amateur in spirituality, philosophy and physics.
MD: Is there an area, where you live or have been to (park, house, etc.) that is known to be haunted? If so, what is the story or legend that makes people believe this area is haunted? Have you ever visited this place?
DB-K: Places that have made me jumpy, but nothing that’s loomed out at me!
MD: Anything else you would like to add?
DB-K: Of course! The project is still a good $6,000 short of its budget when we’re corresponding, so please support the opera via http://bathory.org/ and then come to the opera. It will be premiering here in Vermont in 2011: October 28 at the Hyde Park Opera House, October 29 at the Haybarn Theatre in Plainfield, and October 30 at the Main Street Landing Black Box in Burlington.
MD: Thank you for taking the time to sit down and chat. I wish you much success and look forward to catching it in 2011.
DB-K: And thank you. It’s always a pleasure to talk about, and I learn more with every question that I have to think about.
To learn more about Erzsébet the Opera: A Monodrama or to donate please visit:http://bathory.org
That would be awesome if he does it with 'Cradle of Filth'.
You'll have to interview again if he does.