Der Kaiser von Atlantis
Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder Die Tod-Verweigerung (The Emperor of Atlantis or The Disobedience of Death) is a one-act opera by Viktor Ullmann with a libretto by Peter Kien. They collaborated on the work while interned in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt (Terezín) around 1943. The Nazis did not allow it to be performed there. The world premiere was given by the Netherlands Opera under Kerry Woodward conducting first edition on 16 December 1975 at the Bellevue Centre, Amsterdam.
The title is sometimes given as Der Kaiser von Atlantis, oder Der Tod dankt ab, that is, The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Abdicates, and described as a "legend in four scenes" rather than an opera.
About 1943, Ullmann and Kien were inmates at the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt (Terezín) when they collaborated on the opera. The opera received a rehearsal at Theresienstadt in March 1944, but the Nazi authorities interpreted the work's depiction of the character Kaiser Overall as a satire on Adolf Hitler and did not allow it to be performed. Both the composer and the librettist died in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Ullmann entrusted his manuscripts to a fellow-prisoner, Dr. Emil Utitz, a former Professor of Philosophy at the German University in Prague, who served as the camp's librarian. Utitz survived the camp and passed the manuscripts on to another survivor, Dr. Hans G. Adler, a friend of Ullmann's, some of whose poems Ullmann had set to music. The score was a working version with edits, substitutions, and alternatives made in the course of rehearsals. Dr. Adler donated the original manuscripts and two copies of the libretto in his possession to the Goetheanum in Dornach, the center for the anthroposophical movement with which Ullmann was associated.
Through informal personal connections, the score came to the attention of conductor Kerry Woodward. In the process of preparing a performing edition of the score, Woodward consulted Rosemary Brown, who was a prominent spiritualist, known for mediumship with dead composers and for transcribing musical works they dictated. She said she contacted Ullmann and communicated his instructions to Woodward, who incorporated them into his edition. At Brown's direction, Woodward altered the instrumentation of the second part of Death's aria near the end of the opera, substituting strings for harpsichord and adding trumpet and flute.
The first performance was followed during the following year in Brussels and Spoleto and recreated in April 1977 by the San Francisco Spring Opera Theater for its American premiere. The New Opera Theater also presented the New York premiere at the Lepercq Space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on 19 May 1977. All these performances were conducted by Woodward.
Other editions and performances
In 1981, Michael Graubart and Nicholas Till prepared an edition based on the manuscripts in Dr. Adler's possession and Woodward's edition, following many of Woodward's choices but preferring the 1943 text to the changes made on the basis of Brown's contribution. That provided the basis for the British premiere at the Studio Theatre of London's Morley College on 15 May 1981 and for additional performances in May 1985 at the Imperial War Museum.
Ingo Schultz produced another reconstruction of the opera's score between 1992 and 1993 in cooperation with Karel Berman, who rehearsed the role of Death at Terezín, and Herbert Thomas Mandl. ARBOS – Gesellschaft für Musik und Theater (Austria) staged this edition of the opera in Austria, the Czech Republic (including the first performance at the concentration camp of Theresienstadt in 1995), Germany, Sweden, Canada, and the U.S. (including a performance at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum).
Other performances have been given by Ravinia Festival at Temple Shalom in Chicago (2005), City Opera of Vancouver (2009), Long Beach Opera (2009), Boston Lyric Opera (2011), Dioneo Opera (London, 2011), and English Touring Opera in London and locations throughout England (2012). It was presented in Denver, Colorado, by Central City Opera, in collaboration with other Denver organizations, in January 2013. The New Millennium Orchestra, in collaboration with the City of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs, presented the opera in March 2013 on the Pritzker stage of Millennium Park.
16 December 1975
|Premiere at Theresienstadt
(51 years after the general rehearsal)
by Arbos - Company for Music and Theatre,
23 May 1995
|Kaiser Overall (Emperor Overall)||baritone||Walter Windholz||Meinard Kraak||Steven Swanson|
|Der Lautsprecher (Loudspeaker)||bass-baritone||Bedrich Borges||Lodewijk Meeuwsen||Rupert Bergmann|
|Ein Soldat (A soldier)||tenor||David Grünfeld||Rudolf Ruivenkamp||Johannes Strasser|
|Harlekin (Pierrot)||tenor||David Grünfeld||Adriaan van Limpt||Johannes Strasser|
|Bubikopf (A maiden)||soprano||Marion Podolier||Roberta Alexander||Stefanie Kahl|
|Der Tod (Death)||bass-baritone||Karel Berman||Tom Haenen||Krassimir Tassev|
|Der Trommler (Drummer girl)||mezzo-soprano||Hilde Aronson‐Lindt||Inge Frölich||Ingrid Niedermair|
Descriptions and summaries of Kien's libretto vary widely. John Rockwell described the opera as a story of "the abdication of death in the face of life's universal horrors." Harold Schonberg thought that "the play is stronger and more interesting than the music....In several spots the Ullmann work almost makes it as an opera." Most summaries report that Death insists that the Emperor be the first to die, but others emphasize the ending in which "miraculously, the Emperor comes to understand his crimes" and "to allow Death to save millions from the agony of life-without-death, he offers himself as Death's first victim."
In an interview, conductor James Conlon, a prominent reviver of works lost in the Holocaust, described the work as both a political satire and a parable of hope in which the isolated Emperor represents Hitler and the Drummer his confidante Eva Braun. The young lovers and Pierrot embody "the lost world of normal human emotion."
Andrew Porter has described the text of the opera:
- The plot is no cut-and-dried allegory but an elusive death-welcoming parable about a mad, murderous ruler, possibly redeemed at last, who says farewell to the world in a mock-Faustian vision of a natural paradise no longer spoiled by men; had his dream come true all men would be dead. The Emperor of Atlantis, ruler over much of the world, proclaims universal war and declares that his old ally Death will lead the campaign. Death, offended by the Emperor's presumption, breaks his sabre; henceforth men will not die. Confusion results: a Soldier and a Girl-Soldier from opposite sides sing a love duet instead of fighting; the sick and suffering find no release. Death offers to return to men on one condition–that the Emperor be the first to die. He accepts and sings his farewell.
A voice heard over a loudspeaker sets the scene and presents the characters.
Harlequin describes his sorry life without laughter or love. Death joins him and together they lament how slowly time passes in their grim environment. Death belittles Harlequin's wish to die and explains how much more dire his own situation is than that of Harlequin. He lacks respect now that the "old-fashioned craft of dying" has been replaced by "motorized chariots of war" that work him to exhaustion with little satisfaction.
The Drummer announces the latest decree of the Emperor: Everyone will be armed and everyone will fight until there are no survivors. Death denounces the Emperor for usurping his role: "To take men's souls is my job, not his!" He declares that he is on strike and breaks his saber.
In his palace, the Emperor gives battle orders and monitors the progress of the universal war. He learns of a man who continues to live eighty minutes after being hanged and shot. The Loudspeaker reports that thousands of soldiers are "wrestling with life...doing their best to die" without success. Fearful that his power will not endure without death, the Emperor announces that he has decided to reward his subjects with the gift of eternal life. More honestly, he asks: "Death, where is thy sting? Where is thy victory, Hell?"
A Soldier and a Maiden (the Bobbed-Hair Girl) confront one another as enemies. Unable to kill each other, their thoughts turn to love. They dream of distant places where kind words exist alongside "meadows filled with color and fragrance." The Drummer attempts to lure them back to battle with the sensual attraction of the call. The Maiden responds: "Now death is dead and so we need to fight no more!" She and the Soldier sing: "Only love can unite us, unite us all together."
The Emperor continues to oversee his failing realm, where his subjects angrily protest their suspension in limbo between life and death. Harlequin appeals to him, reminding him of his innocent childhood. The Drummer urges the Emperor to maintain his resolve, but the Emperor's memories turn his thoughts from his plans for the annihilation of all. Instead he gazes into a covered mirror and asks: "What do men look like? Am I still a man or just the adding machine of God?"
He pulls away the mirror's cloth and faces the reflection of Death. "Who are you?" he demands. Death describes his role modestly, like that of a gardener "who roots up wilting weeds, life's worn-out fellows." He regrets the pain his strike is causing. When the Emperor asks him to resume his duties, Death proposes a resolution to the crisis: "I'm prepared to make peace, if you are prepared to make a sacrifice: will you be the first one to try out the new death?" After some resistance, the Emperor agrees and the suffering people find release in death once more. The Emperor sings his farewell. In a closing chorus, Death is praised and asked to "teach us to keep your holiest law: Thou shalt not use the name of Death in vain now and forever!"
The score comprises 20 short sections and lasts about fifty minutes. Parts of it are danced and there are long spoken sections. The 1943 orchestration is for chamber ensemble and includes such unusual instruments as banjo and harmonium. Alto saxophone and harpsichord also appear. Ullmann used the famous Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott as a melodic motif as well as a theme from the Asrael symphony of Josef Suk. Critics list among Ullmann's antecedents and influences "the radical young Hindemith" as well as Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg. One critic has said Ullmann employed "an omnivorous musical language that draws on both classical and popular styles." The work ends with the chorale to the text "Come, Death, who art our worthy guest."
The character of Harlequin is sometimes called Pierrot, a different character from the commedia dell'arte. The classic Pierrot is moonstruck and a sleepwalker. In the opera, this character is an old man who twice recites poems Kien had written earlier. The first describes a cold and pitiless moon, establishing his identity as Pierrot. Later he sings a lullaby that uses a text Kien wrote as a paraphrase of another lullaby text, one familiar to all his contemporaries in the camp, that had been sung during the Thirty Years' War. Ullmann set it to a catchy melody composed by Johann Friedrich Reichardt in 1781.
- 1997: Stephen Swanson, Rupert Bergmann, Johannes Strasser, Stefani Kahl, Krassimir Tassev, Ingrid Niedermayr; Arbos Gesellschaft für Musik und Theater/Ensemble Kreativ; Alexander Drčar, conductor. Studio Matouš 0022-2 631. This recording uses the original instrumentation.
- 2007: Iris Vermillion, Michael Kraus, Herbert Lippert, Christiane Oelze, Walter Berry, Martin Petzold, Franz Mazura; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Lothar Zagrosek, conductor. Decca 440 854-2. This recording uses expanded orchestration and replaces the harpsichord with piano.
- 1997: The Emperor of Atlantis. German TV film, directed by John Goldschmidt, starring Teresa Stratas and Siegmund Nimsgern, performed by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Kerry Woodward, 57 minutes. Plus short introductory documentary on origin of the opera based on an interview with H.G. Adler, illustrated with drawings by concentration camp inmates. WDR/BBC/Clasart
- 2007: Viktor Ullmann - Way to the Front 1917, documentary film. Directed and written by Herbert Gantschacher; editor: Erich Heyduck. ARBOS-DVD Vienna-Salzburg-Klagenfurt-Arnoldstein.
- 2009: The Emperor of Atlantis or The Disobedience of Death, documentary music theatre about the opera by Viktor Ullmann. Directed and written by Herbert Gantschacher; sound-engineering: Roumen Dimitrov; editor: Erich Heyduck ARBOS-DVD Vienna-Salzburg-Klagenfurt.
- Hugh R.N. Macdonald, "Der Kaiser von Atlantis", Tempo (New Ser.), 116 (1976), 42-3
- Karas, p. 33
- Allan Kozinn, "Born in the Camps And Still Kicking", The New York Times, 24 November 1994
- Michael Haas (October 2012). "When Death Went on Strike". Jewish Renaissance 12 (1): 38–39.
- Michael Graubart, "The Emperor of Atlantis: The First British Production", Musical Times, Autumn 2009.
- Harold Schonberg, "Two One-Acters Are Sung in Spoleto," New York Times, 28 June 1976, accessed 29 March 2010
- Andrew Porter, "A Lecture and a Parable", The New Yorker 6 June 1977
- John Rockwell,"New Opera Theater Offering Work of Argento and Ullmann," The New York Times, 21 May 1977, accessed 29 March 2010
- Tim Ashley, "The Emperor of Atlantis – review", The Guardian (London), 9 October 2012 Retrieved 10 October 2012
- Central City Opera's website, with background information. Retrieved 3 December 2012
- New Millennium Orchestra performances on cityofchicago.org Retrieved 22 January 2013
- Jacobo Kaufmann, "The Emperor of Atlantis in Terezin, All About Jewish Theater accessed 28 March 2010
- Gherardo Casaglia. "Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder Die Tod-Verweigerung". AmadeusOnline. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
- See on You-Tube
- Terezinský vzpomínkový festival / Terezín Memorial Days / Theresienstädter Gedenkfestival 21.-23.5.1995 under the patronance of Karel Berman
- Karas, p. 35
- David Schiff, "A Musical Postcard From the Eye of the Nazi Storm," New York Times, 23 March 2003, accessed 29 March 2010
- "Synopsis: The Emperor of Atlantis", Long Beach Opera production, 2009, accessed 29 March 2010
- Anthony Tommasini, "From the Doomed, an Ode to Life And a Warning Not to Insult Death," The New York Times, 19 September 1998, accessed 29 March 2010.
- William Lloyd, Review of recording of Der Kaiser von Atlantis, Musical Times, 136(1824), 106 (1995).
- The Emperor of Atlantis on imdb.com
- Holden, Amanda (Ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001. ISBN 0-140-29312-4
- Karas, Joža, Music in Terezín, 1941-1945. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 1990
- Conway, James, "The Emperor of Atlantis: Director's Notes" in English Touring Opera's Autumn 2012 programme book, pp. 22 – 23.
- Fligg, David (Ph.D.), "Creativity in Adversity" in English Touring Opera's Autumn 2012 programme book, pp. 24 – 29.
- Rob Barnett, Music Web International review of Studio Matouš recording, October 2003
- "The Emperor of Atlantis" - Tracks to World War I
- "Viktor Ullmann, Witness and Victim of the Apocalypse" – An Exhibition
- Reynolds, Mike,Review of 2012 English Touring Opera performance on musicalcriticism.com
- Connolly, Kate, "Viktor Ullmann's opera written in Nazi concentration camp revived in Berlin", The Guardian (London), 24 May 2013