A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
That stab. You get a little one from a tax notice, a bigger one from a lost pet, a larger one from the end of a love. Yesterday came a note from my good friend Jim Grant, eminent composer and mind-brother. He had discovered that a composer named Cooper had just received a commission in Paris to write an opera about Elizabeth Bathory. That's my opera, I thought! My love, Erzsébet, a project almost twenty years in the making, swept away by a plotsquatter? It can't be! The stab. Maybe Cooper's okay, I hoped and the idea just popped into his head one day. But until recently, googling opera brings up the first seven entries for just one Bathory opera -- mine.
No, the opera isn't finished. Being out of the opera circuit doesn't help, but the Travel Channel and Discovery Channel didn't mind talking with me. Neither did the crew that's been putting it together for the past decade. It's been featured during International Women's Month every year as it grows, and a team from Vermont has been preparing a year-long college program based on it.
So it feels bad, really bad. Cooper couldn't have missed it. Or maybe he could. I don't know. There isn't much to find about it, but it looks like "La Nef" is the name of the commissioning group, and searching for them brings up a site with my own hand-colored photograph lifted from the website without credit. Maybe it's a different La Nef. I don't know. It's confusing, and it feels really bad.
Given that the project's visibility is about to be obliterated, I might as well tell the story of Erzsébet's progress. The opera idea was born in the 1980s when Vermont politician John McClaughry came by on a mission to find Vermont's hi-tech entrepreneurs. At the time, Green Mountain Micro was making local history as a tiny hi-tech company in a rural town of 330 folks. We had an interesting exchange, and not long afterward a book arrived in the mail, written by John's friend from Boston, Raymond McNally. It was entitled Dracula Was a Woman. A penciled note inside read, "And now, 480 years later -- Dennis!"
It brought back a rush of childhood memories: the whispered discussions about an evil member of the family long ago, and encyclopedia entries hand-copied and quietly given to me in an envelope.
Slowly the idea of recovering Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess, grew. In 1987, the first notes about it were scribbled down. In 1990, it was revealed that poet Andrei Codrescu was writing her history. We exchanged letters. His book shifted from history to novel, and he sent me a draft for comment as I sent him music in hopes we would write libretto & music for the opera together. But the lead character of the novel, Drake Bathory-Kereshtur, was modern (with a name curiously similar to Dennis Bathory-Kitsz). The story was some Gothic time travel. I hated it, and was silent. Andrei loved my music, but we never settled the idea of how to treat it, and sidled apart over several years.
In the meantime, the first draft of a possible scenario was written in Cologne, and after a visit to the site of Erzsébet's crimes in 1992, more ideas fell into place. A schizophrenic set of drafts arose, one based on her history and one based on Andrei's novel.
In 1996, all the materials were collected and put on line. Pavel Kraus joined as the designer the next year. I had worked with Pavel for the original Sex and Death: Offerings in Burlington, Vermont, at the Exquisite Corpse Gallery (ironically named, because Codrescu's poetry magazine was The Exquisite Corpse). I had composed Detritus of Mating for that installation, and for Pavel's Sex Death Offerings in Prague I had created Zonule Glaes II for string quartet and electronic playback.
The website began getting visits, and submissions such as Carlos Perez's Siete Lunas de Sangre and Carlos Carrillo's Legado de los Carpatos began to arrive for publication on the site. Poetry, essays, and photographs arrived. Hundreds of Erzsébet fans -- it was hard to believe -- wrote. In 1999, the separate bathory.org domain was set up, and it became the most trafficked site in all my work (and still is). I was invited to write essays for Vampyres UnVeiled in France, and gave regular interviews to cult publications. MSN.com featured the site, as did the Crime Library after the BTK killings (swamping the bandwidth in the process).
The site was found by the Travel Channel, and in 2001 we went to Slovakia to visit Cachtice. It was my second visit, and I'd since seen it used in the opening scenes of the 1996 film Dragonheart. The castle was a familiar place, and the resulting Travel Channel documentary, though weak, gave impetus to more work on the opera. Requests streamed in for the castle photos and the portrait photos I'd taken there from the Guardian, Bizarre Magazine, Big Bad Women Through History, Requiem, The Most Evil Men and Women in History, The Bloodcult, Romantic Ghost Stories, the Globe, TVMag, Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood, and even Weekly World News. My friends were surprised to see my television appearance -- and after the editing, so was I.
The concept of a virtual opera and video game pairing was formed in 2003, and extensive proposals were drafted. Bob Hobbs, an illustrator for the National Institutes of Health, joined the team, as did Geof Saul, an animator from the U.K. Money remained a problem; the entire opera project stuttered ahead in small steps of the planning stages -- without money, there was no time to finish the opera; without an opera, there was nothing to present along with the package of virtual information. But we kept working, with advice from other composers such as Jacques Bailhé.
Soon the Discovery Channel came calling. Their crew first came to Vermont to record The Blood Scene from the opera, with the marvelously insane Lisa Jablow as Erzsébet and Robert Blais, David Goodman, David Gunn and Marco Oppedisano as the ensemble. Then Stevie and I were off for another trek to Slovakia and a significantly better documentary entitled Deadly Women, which still airs every few months on Discovery. While we were there, the mayor and town council accepted the Bathory family apology, and agreed to the premiere of Erzsébet on the site of the castle atop the hill. Being already familiar with Hollywood film teams, an opera was a small undertaking. At the same time, executive producer Martin Cikánek and marketing coordinator Vit Sirek came on board. Now we had the full team.
Things were going well. Vermont's Johnson State College began planning a year-long program involving artists, musicians, actors, designers, programmers, and videographers -- in effect, a college program would be the production's funding. In January of this year, my PhD was granted, using the entire Erzsébet project as the thesis. Two more years and the opera would be presented in Cachtice by the student ensembles, with a professional version to follow on its heels.
And now a New York composer living in Paris has discovered Elizabeth and captured a major commission for a full-dress opera. A vampire opera -- but it feels like a stake in my heart.
Composers are odd critters, and despite my despair at this hour, I wish him well. He probably just thought it was a cool idea. And why not? It is. Perhaps we will have an Erzsébet bloodletting of historic proportions.
For now, I'm just going to put my head down on this keyboard...
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