Opera from the Ashes

“By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon…our endeavor with respect to art was commensurate with our will to live,” wrote composer Viktor Ullman in the diary he kept while an inmate in the Terezin concentration camp. Here, Ullman wrote his immortal opus, Der Kaiser von Atlantis, presented steampunk style by Opera Moderne at the National Czech Center.

Ironically, the two years that Viktor Ullmann spent in Terezin were some of the most prolific of his live. The Nazis used Terezin as a “show camp” to show the world how they were protecting, not annihilating, Jews and political opponents. They allowed cultural activities to thrive and it soon became the macabre cultural mecca of Central Europe during the war.

Approximately twenty of Ullmann’s compositions have been discovered, mostly song cycles and chamber music, but he is best remembered for his one-act opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis. The opera received a few rehearsals in the camp, but it was banned for its barely veiled commentary on the Third Reich and camp life. Before he, and many of the artists involved in the opera, were sent to the martyrdom in Auschwitz, Ullmann entrusted the manuscript and libretto to a fellow inmate, Dr. Emil Utitz with the request that they be given to Dr. H.G. Adler. after the war. The opera remained in Adler’s care, unheard and forgotton, until the world premiere in Amsterdam, conducted by Kerry Woodward and directed by Rhoda Levine in 1975.

The Emperor Overall, has locked himself away from the world; in his isolation, he orders the death of thousands of soldiers in the name of communal glory. Death is outraged by the Emperor’s decision to take life and death into his own hands and goes on strike. The kingdom becomes crowded with the living dead. Death agrees to return to his solemn duty but only if the Emperor agrees to be his first victim. The Emperor relents; and the living dead find new life in death.

Ullmann’s score undulates between humor and gravitas. The mournful sounds of Klezmer, the sharpness of atonality, and the raunchy jazz cabarets of Weimar Berlin mix with quotations from classical music that audiences at Terezin would have recognized such as Brahms’ Vier ernste gesange  and the hymn to death based on a Lutheran chorale. The “Hallo” motive which pervades the opera is a quotation of Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony. The symphony had premiered in 1907 and had become a national symbol of death and mourning. The music collective Le Train Bleu, led by Maestro Ransom Wilson, illuminated every shade and shadow with conviction, spontaneity, and a sense of duty.

The evocation of the past and future in the the steampunk aesthetic of Markus Kupferblum’s production highlights the feeling of timelessness that is essential to the piece. An arresting touch is the use of two dancers and the choreography of the Sugar Food Mafia Dance Company. With black, hollowed eyes, they are the corpses which shadow the lovers during their sparse love duet and dance the savage Dance of the Living Dead.

Elspeth Davis sang the frenetic music of the Drummer, who zealously regurgitates the Emperor’s rhetoric, with commanding diction and a round, dramatic sound. The Soldier and the maiden, Bubikopf, who fall in love after they try unsuccessfully to kill each other, have the most plush and romantic music in the score, sung with wide-eyed hopelessness and nobility by tenor James Baumgardner and the silver, perfectly aligned soprano of Gan-ya Ben-gur Akselrod. Weaving the opera together with his cool repetition of the Emperor’s orders, Kelvin Chan performed the Loudspeaker with stoicism and humanity. The Loudspeaker describes himself as never seen and only heard, and I wish the production had maintained this detail; the faceless and disembodied authority of the loudspeaker was a ubiquitous feature of the camps and ghettos.

Vince Vincent’s Emperor Overall was sung with extraordinary range and color. Vincent’s baritone is not very large and his vibrato sometimes accelerates into a bleat, but he handled the Emperor’s schizophrenic transformation at the end of the opera with terrifying adroitness and complete dramatic command. He was rivaled only by tenor Brian Downen as the Harlequin and Jeffrey Tucker as Death. Downen’s bright but doleful tone brought out the ambivalent melancholy of the Harlequin, the clown of the commedia dell’arte tradition. Similarly, Tucker’s deep bass and imposing physique was perfect for Death’s resounding proclamations, but he could also dip into the many absurdist buffo moments that lighten the heavy tone of the opera.

While the evening lasted under an hour the range of emotions, the depth of symbolism, and the universality of message that Ullmann and Kien stuffed into this, their accidental requiems, provided enough food for thought to sustain me for weeks.