New production of Smetana’s Dalibor finds inspiration in IRA man Bobby Sands

This year marks 200 years since the birth of the great Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. To mark the anniversary, the National Theatre in Brno has prepared a new staging of his opera Dalibor. Its British director David Pountney found inspiration in Bobby Sands, a member of the IRA who died in a hunger strike in 1981.

Photo: National Theatre Brno

Bedřich Smetana’s opera Dalibor is based on the medieval tale of the Knight Dalibor of Kozojedy, who learned to play the violin in prison. The drama about revenge, passion and political intrigue was first staged in 1868 on the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone of Prague’s National Theatre.

The new, and very contemporary, production of Dalibor, premiered at the Janáček Theatre in Brno, earlier this month. I discussed it with its UK director, David Pountney:

“What's interesting about the character of Dalibor is that he is on the one hand a murderer and somebody we would probably describe as a terrorist, but he is also clearly presented as a heroic figure. Not only is he violent but he also has one could say a deeply spiritual connection to music. So it’s a very unusual combination of features.

“But of course it has become a hugely topical issue, given the fact that we have an organization like Hamas were clearly terrorists for millions of people in the West and clearly freedom fighters and heroes to a million people in the East. So this kind of ambiguity of Dalibor’s position is something that it acutely topical.”

Would you say Dalibor is a political opera?

Photo: National Theatre Brno

“When I began working on this, I actually sort of identified a character called Bobby Sands Bobby Sands was a member of the IRA who was partly responsible for violence actions in the whole Northern Irish troubles.

“Bobby Sands was a rather beautiful young man, a very kind of romantic figure who died as a result of a hunger strike in the Maze prison, so I thought: That's the sort of person that Dalibor is. But then of course suddenly the whole issue became much more topical as we got nearer to the premiere.

“So I'm very happy actually that I decided to present the piece as a contemporary piece set in modern times. Because the issues that it discusses are intensely contemporary.”

What was the cooperation like with the other authors, namely conducted Tomáš Hanus and stage designer Robert Innes Hopkins?

Photo: National Theatre Brno

“These are people who I've worked with regularly over many years. I have a very close relationship with Tomáš. I brought him to the Welsh National Opera as the music director so he and I collaborated over a number of years. I've worked with the set designer Robert Innes Hopkins, the costume designer Marie Jean Lecca and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour for probably 20 years, so these are very close collaborators, who are part of my regular team.”

I know you have a very close relationship to Czech music and you have staged a number of Czech operas. How did you discover Czech music?

Photo: National Theatre Brno

“It was when I was in my late teens and I was staying with my friend Mark Alder, who's now a very highly regarded conductor in North London. We went to the local library, which had a music section in those days, and took out a whole bunch of long playing records without having any idea really what we were picking.

“And I will never forget the impact of putting on this record and the opening bars of Katya Kabanova coming out of the record player. I had never heard a note of Janáček at this point, but I was so spellbound by the music that I made it my business to find out about Czech music, which I did in great detail.”