This tiny, painfully beautiful gem was written in Theresienstadt, a walled citadel ghetto concentration camp where 15 to 50,000 German and Czech Jews were held during the holocaust (it was built for 6,000). Most were eventually transferred on to death camps. Many prominent people passed through Theriesenstadt, and cultural activities, such as music, theatre, and poetry were permitted as a way of keeping calm. Most of the artistic output vanished with the residents, but this score was passed between librarians in the camp, the last of whom survived. The libretto was written by Peter Kien and the music by Viktor Ullmann. Both perished at Auschwitz in 1944.
The play was conceived with great economy and use of humor and satire in a sophisticated and surreal allegory — Mary felt it was a “singing Chagall painting.” It captured the wrenching hopelessness without being maudlin, transcending circumstances using art. The death of Death; a simple turn of thought, deftly presented. The authors presumed a literate and mentally engaged audience, without pandering, despite the desperate circumstances in which it was written. With dialog like “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – they’re all the same. I used to change days like I changed my shirts” – “You seem to still be wearing last year” the play snatches a scrap of humor from despair rather than giving in to it.
Ullmann came out of the same milieu as Mahler and Kafka. The musical score is rich and well-constructed, a lush fabric in the Post-Viennese School tradition (Ullmann studied with both Schoenberg and Zemlinsky). Its melodic, repetitive, and percussive elements served the story, deftly applied with intelligence and a light touch. The show opens with “Hello Hello” that returns throughout, bringing a rhythm of levity that one can imagine in the daily life of the crowded shtetl, and reminiscent of the Knock Knock scene from Macbeth in its grim humor.
Der Kaiser von Atlantis is a sturdy chamber opera that will survive the ages. It was a fearless work of art. It’s premiere at the camp was suppressed when the Nazis noticed the similarity between the play’s Kaiser and Hitler. Ullmann died in a gas chamber not long after. The opera was finally premiered in Amsterdam in 1975.
Beautifully performed in the pit and on stage, this was one of the most moving performances we’ve been to in recent memory. Get your tickets for tonight’s final performance here: