Theatrical director Anne Bogart is, in her own words, “not a classical musician by any stretch of the imagination.” She used to play folk guitar a lot, she explained. But she can’t read music easily, or hear music in her head while reading a score. So whenever she directs an opera, she burrows deep into research about the piece to help her formulate an initial vision.
“I feel like that gives me the right to walk in the room,” she said in a recent interview in a rehearsal room at the Huntington Avenue Theatre. Boston Lyric Opera was just under two weeks into rehearsals for an upcoming production of Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” which runs for four performances from March 22 to 26 at Flynn Cruiseport Boston in the Seaport.
Because this is Bogart, who famously directed “South Pacific” set in a hospital for traumatized veterans, that vision won’t look like anyone else’s. “I was listening to a video of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the famous conductor, talking about ‘Bluebeard,’” said Bogart, who also helmed BLO’s production of Poul Ruders’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” in 2019. “He said, nothing happens. They don’t move. And here I’m thinking, we do a lot of movement!”
The action of “Bluebeard’s Castle,” a Symbolist adaptation of the macabre fairy tale of the same name, typically takes place in a single room with seven doors. What’s behind each of them (examples: a torture chamber, a treasure hoard, a garden, a lake of tears) is described in the libretto as Judith, Bluebeard’s inquisitive new wife, urges and then demands that the doors be opened.
Movement is crucial to Bogart’s vision. At that Monday afternoon rehearsal, the two principal singers and three dancers (representing Bluebeard’s mysteriously missing former wives) planned out the run up to the opera’s climactic scene. Perched at the center of the large bed at the center of the room, Irish mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell sang her lines, at half volume, in which Judith accuses Bluebeard of murdering his former wives and hiding the bodies. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny paced slowly around the bed. The dancers raced around the edge of the space, where the walls were plastered with the production’s mood board: printouts of various early-20th-century artwork next to various depictions of the biblical heroine Judith beheading Holofernes.
Abruptly, O’Connell called a stop. She’d lost her place, and something didn’t feel good about the blocking of the scene. Bogart encouraged her to elaborate.
“I don’t feel powerful. I feel emptied, and I don’t think it’s right,” said O’Connell.
The singers, Bogart, and movement director Victoria L. Awkward huddled to discuss ideas. They decided to see what would happen if McKinny stayed on the bed longer before lowering himself to the floor backward, and then got up to start walking.
By the time I spoke with O’Connell over FaceTime two days later, the choreography had evolved again. “We’ve worked it out,” O’Connell said. “It’s been like that the whole time. We start to shape, see what works … it’s a good room.”
Collaboration is, for Bogart, “the whole reason” she does what she does. “It’s a core value for me. I wouldn’t do a production if it wasn’t collaborative,” said Bogart, who was co-artistic director of the ensemble-based Saratoga International Theatre Institute for all three decades of its existence. “I say this is what I know, this is what I think; try this and let’s see where it goes.”
Bogart knew she wanted to offset the hour-long “Bluebeard,” which is often presented side-by-side with another piece, with music by a woman. BLO music director David Angus suggested songs by Alma Mahler, and Bogart seized the idea.
“Alma Mahler not only lived at the same time as Bartok, but also married [Gustav] Mahler and sublimated her own creativity for her husband!” said Bogart. “I think of all the women throughout history who have sublimated their creativity to their male companions.”
During Gustav and Alma Mahler’s courtship in 1901, Gustav famously dictated that were the two to marry, Alma would need to give up her music.
”You must become ‘what I need’ if we are to be happy together, i.e. my wife, not my colleague,” he wrote to her. “The role of ‘composer’, the ‘worker’s’ world, falls to me — yours is that of the loving companion and understanding partner! Are you satisfied with it?”
Alma’s diaries reveal that she was initially furious, but within a few days she convinced herself his conditions were acceptable. Nine years later, their marriage was foundering. Alma was deeply depressed after the death of their daughter Maria Anna at age 4, and she began an affair with architect Walter Gropius. Gustav then started supporting Alma’s compositions and urged her to publish them, even editing a few songs, but less than a year later, he died of an infection.
“She was very oppressed by his attitude, and we felt that tied in very neatly with the fact that Bluebeard oppresses his wives. And the songs are gorgeous, really beautiful,” said Angus. “Anne has staged it so that they actually run together. We have three songs, then the Bartók complete, then we do one more Mahler song at the end.”
For O’Connell, who will sing the Mahler songs and connect the two works in character, it’s a dream come true. She has long been interested in the role of Judith, she said, but her lyric mezzo voice doesn’t have the Wagnerian heft that singing it with a full orchestra would require. “To do it with a chamber ensemble allows for a lighter voice to sing it,” she said. “It’s a role I never thought I’d get to do, so it’s really nice to be able to dig into it.”
BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE/FOUR SONGS
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera.
At Flynn Cruiseport Boston, 1 Black Falcon Ave. March 22-26. 617-542-6772, www.blo.org
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.