The Holocaust and the Creation of “The Emperor of Atlantis”
Whenever societies are ruled by tyrants, people are subjected to turmoil, violence and hatred. Creative voices are silenced. Yet a brave and defiant few artists always speak out. Those who do so put their careers and lives in danger.
During the Holocaust many artists spoke out, trying to stop the destruction of their society. Two of them were musician/composer Viktor Ullmann and his colleague librettist Peter Kien. Their satiric opera “Der Kaiser von Atlantis, oder Die Tod-Verweigerung” (“The Emperor of Atlantis, or The Refusal of Death”) was composed around 1943 while Ullmann and Kien were imprisoned in the former Czech fortress Terezín turned by the Nazis into the transitional concentration camp/ghetto Theresienstadt.
Over its several years in operation, Theresienstadt held over 144,000 Jews from occupied Bohemia. At least 88,000 of them were deported to the death camps. Despite Nazi terror and the desperate conditions, the internees, who included many artists, produced for themselves a rich and creative cultural community, full of great music, art and educational activity. Eventually, the Nazis exploited this haven of the human spirit to deceive Red Cross visitors in 1944, and subsequently exploited it for a self-serving propaganda film.
The one-act opera “The Emperor of Atlantis” was rehearsed at the “model camp” in March 1944. The Nazi authorities, however, understood the depiction of the Emperor as a satire on Adolf Hitler and refused to allow the opera’s performance. Ullmann and Kien were deported in October 1944 to the death camp Auschwitz where they perished. Ullmann entrusted the manuscript to another prisoner, the camp librarian, who survived the war, as did the original manuscript. The opera was first performed by the Netherlands Opera in 1975 and has since been performed throughout Europe and the United States.
The opera has 20 short sections and runs about fifty minutes. Andrew Porter encapsulates the story this way: “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.”
Parts of the work are danced and there are some purely spoken sections. Singers are accompanied by a chamber ensemble including such unusual instruments as banjo, harmonium, alto saxophone and harpsichord, because those are the instruments that were available to Ullmann in Theresienstadt. Ullmann incorporated into his score harmonically shifted version of the German national anthem the Deutschlandlied, also known by its first words Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles, the famous Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, as well as a theme from the Asrael symphony of Josef Suk. Among Ullmann’s other influences were Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg.
Planning the Colorado Premiere of “The Emperor of Atlantis”
The Colorado premiere of “The Emperor of Atlantis” takes place January 16 and 17, 2013, thanks to a unique collaboration among several of Colorado’s leading arts and cultural organizations, including Central City Opera, Colorado Symphony, The Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver, Ballet Nouveau Colorado, Colorado College, and The Mizel Arts and Culture Center at the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center. Colorado Public Radio will broadcast the performance live.
This joint effort started with a simple conversation in the spring of 2007 between Colorado Public Radio on air personality, Monika Vischer, and JCC Chief Executive Officer, Stuart Raynor. A few years before, Vischer created an award-winning 5-part radio documentary series with James Conlon, Music Director of LA Opera, focused on silenced music of the Holocaust. Vischer had heard about Raynor’s involvement in producing “The Emperor of Atlantis” with Conlon in association with the Houston Grand Opera. Dedicated to the mission of having these works performed, they began to talk about how “The Emperor” could be performed in Denver. One conversation led to another and the team of those signing onto the mission grew.
”This opera is now being discovered in all of the world’s major arts centers. Its time for Denver is now,” said Vischer, who spearheaded plans for “The Emperor’s” debut outside of her role as classical host for Colorado Public Radio. “This is not just a clever work that tells a powerful story of the Holocaust’s atrocities, it is a great work of art that deserves its rightful place in history. We have to do our part to make that happen. It’s been my great honor to help bring these partnering organizations together to do just that.”
Everyone agreed that no tyrant should have the power to silence the arts. As Steve Seifert of DU’s Newman Center said, “By ensuring that the voices of those persecuted by the Nazis will be heard, even long after the deaths of both oppressed and oppressors, we take a stand for the right of all present and future artists who may be terrorized by tyrants to be heard.”
“The Emperor of Atlantis” Becomes “A Journey of the Human Spirit”
During their discussions about the project, the team decided to expand the experience of the opera, creating, as it were, both a preface and an epilogue. Thus, the audience’s first experiences of the evening will involve traditional Eastern European klezmer music, celebrating life and leading the audience into the story of the opera. Seamlessly integrated at the end of the opera, a new work of dance will round out the experience, creating new communities of hope after so much death. The dance will be choreographed by BNC’s Garrett Ammon and set to music for chamber orchestra, mandolin and clarinet solos, combining eastern European Jewish folk themes with a modern dynamic, by Ofer Ben-Amots, Israeli born composer and Chair of the Music Department of Colorado College. The mandolin solo part will be played by international sensation Avi Avital.
“Ballet Nouveau Colorado is privileged to be a part of this unique and important project. Ofer Ben-Amots’ music is a beautifully complex celebration of our humanity and a perfect juxtaposition to ‘The Emperor of Atlantis.’ I am thrilled for the opportunity to create a new contemporary ballet around the world premiere arrangement of this wonderful work. This timely project provides an opportunity to honor those who have endured great struggles before us. Even in the darkest of times they were able to create community through art; this is truly something to celebrate.” – Garrett Ammon, Artistic Director BNC
“Colorado College is honored to support the production of ‘The Emperor of Atlantis.’ Though the genius of this work recounts one of mankind’s darkest times, it is a part of history we must never forget and a story that must be told. Colorado College is pleased that one of Colorado’s musical treasures, Colorado College Professor of Music Ofer Ben-Amots contributed to this project with his composition ‘From Darkness to Light.’ We admire and support Ofer’s dedication to creating and preserving the rich tapestry of Jewish music and culture.” — Colorado College President, Jill Tiefenthaler
“The Emperor” is unique in many ways as the composer and librettist needed to use the instruments and talent available to them in Theresienstadt. “The musicians of the Colorado Symphony are particularly intrigued by the eclectic instrumentation of Ullmann’s work, and we feel this is a critical story for us to share with the community. The collaboration alone is exciting and worth celebrating.” – Anthony Pierce, Vice President of Artistic Administration, Colorado Symphony Orchestra
Pat Pearce, General & Artistic Director Director of Central City opera, remarks: “This opera is not only an important work in historic terms, but also the perfect example of how the arts are a mirror of mankind. Through art, we continue to learn and make our lives better. Collaborations among arts and cultural organizations help make the creation and presentation of productions like this one possible, while also fostering a sense of community. We are proud of our long history of these types of collaborations along the Front Range and to be a part of this one.”
Maestro Yaacov Bergman will conduct the performance. Bergman is Music Director of the Walla Walla Symphony, Music Director of the Portland Chamber Orchestra, and former Music Director of the Colorado Springs Symphony, the New York Heritage Chamber Orchestra, and the 92nd St. Y Symphonic Workshop Orchestra in New York City. His versatility has led to frequent guest appearances across the globe conducting the symphonic, operatic, oratorio and pops repertoires.
American stage director Ted Huffman will direct the production. Huffman co-founded the Greenwich Music Festival and serves as the company’s Artistic Director. As a guest teacher and director, he has been engaged by such leading young artist development programs as Canadian Opera Company’s Studio, LA Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, Pittsburgh Opera Studio and the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program. His shows have been described as “the most visually striking and emotionally resonant opera productions in recent years…brilliant” (Time Out NY), “splendid,” “visually memorable” and “destination-worthy” (Opera News), and “excellent” “a compelling musical and theatrical experience” (The New York Times).
The cast of singers includes Keith Phares (The Emperor), Katharine Pracht (The Drummer), Steven Paul Spears (Harlekin), and Jeffrey Tucker (The Loudspeaker).
“A Journey of the Human Spirit” will be performed in Gates Concert Hall in the Newman Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of the University of Denver at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, January 16 and 17, 2013.
Single tickets are now available at www.newmantix.com, in person at the Newman Center Box Office, 2344 E. Iliff Ave., Denver, CO 80210, or via phone to the Box Office (303-871-7720). The Box Office is open M-F, 10am – 4pm, Sat. 12-4 (Sept-May). The lowest service fees are available online. More information about location, parking and the like is available at www.newmancenterpresents.com
Generous support for this project has been provided by
EKS&H Accounting and Consulting
Pinon Trail Foundation
Zoni and Sam Pluss
Special thanks to
Colorado Public Radio
Holocaust Awareness Institute
Center for Judaic Studies
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