Also, do see ETO's video about the opera:
In 1944 the Nazis released a propaganda film entitled The Führer Gives the Jews a City. Terezin, in north-west Bohemia, was the place in question: it had been turned into, supposedly, a show-camp, a smokescreen to blind the world to what was really going on in the other concentration camps. The film – an elaborate hoax – showed artistic individuals within Terezin engaging in creative activities, giving concerts and even putting on their own operas. It did not disclose the grimmer reality that more than 50,000 people were crammed into living quarters designed for 7000, where thousands were dying from starvation and disease.
Much of Prague’s Jewish population was deported to Terezin, including a number of brilliant musicians and intellectuals; and, perhaps in a terrible irony, they were indeed able to pursue their creativity with what facilities were available. But after their deaths – many of them in the gas chambers of Auschwitz – the musical achievements of Terezin’s inmates, including the composers Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa, lay forgotten for decades, until in the 1970s efforts began to be made to rediscover them.
This autumn English Touring Opera is taking up the cause of one of the most substantial works forged in these extraordinary circumstances: Ullmann’s hour-long opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis). In a new production by ETO’s artistic director and chief executive James Conway, and paired unusually with a staged Bach cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, it will be seen at the Royal Opera House for the first time (in the Linbury Studio), and will then enjoy its first-ever UK nationwide tour.
Over the past 15-20 years the composers of Terezin have started to be widely recognised, though usually their works appear in programmes themed around Terezin itself. Now Ullmann’s opera will be required to stand as a mainstream work in its own right.
The libretto is by a gifted young poet Peter Kien, who was also imprisoned in Terezin. It is a black comedy poking fun at a dictator who faces a predicament when Death goes on strike (the original title was Death Abdicates). No prizes for guessing which dictator it satirised. That makes it all the more remarkable that the work reached its dress rehearsal in 1943 before the authorities spotted the nature of its content. Once they did, the performance was cancelled, the opera was banned and those involved were put on the next transport to Auschwitz. Ullmann and Kien met their deaths there in 1944.
Before Ullmann was forced into his last train journey, he gave the opera’s manuscript to a friend, a former philosophy professor, for safekeeping. Its survival seems miraculous. Yet it was only in 1975 that it was performed for the first time, in Amsterdam. The first British production was at Morley College in 1981.
Ullmann more than deserves wider recognition. Born in 1898 in Teschen, Silesia, he was from a family of Jewish background that had converted to Catholicism; both he and his father served in World War I, and the young composer’s experiences in the conflict between Austria and Italy fed into The Emperor of Atlantis.
He became a composition student of Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna and later of Alexander von Zemlinsky in Prague; his repute as a conductor soon grew as well, though he was dismissed from his post at a theatre in Aussig an der Elbe for selecting repertoire that was too adventurous. Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, he established himself in Prague as writer, critic, teacher and lecturer until he was deported to Terezin in 1942. His output includes many excellent art songs and chamber music, as well as an earlier opera, Fall of the Antichrist.
James Conway of ETO first directed The Emperor of Atlantis some years ago in Ireland; he felt it produced a powerful impact. “Ullmann was a fantastic composer,” he declares, “and I think Peter Kien was a beautiful and poetic writer. The opportunities to perform operas that have a truly poetic script are few – usually in opera, the words have to serve music and narrative. Here narrative is less important, while a visionary quality is more significant, involving political, social and spiritual discussion about life and death. It’s a brilliant depiction – perhaps of aspects of Terezin, but, even more, of a state of being.”
The music is a fragmented and eclectic mix of cutting-edge contemporary style, jazz influence and pastiche: “It literally goes from Schoenberg to vaudeville in the space of two bars,” says the conductor Peter Selwyn, who is at the helm for the tour. “It has moments of extraordinary lyrical beauty. And suddenly the drums come in and you’re whisked away into a showpiece number.”
The Bach Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, has been specially orchestrated for almost the same forces that the Ullmann employs – including the saxophone, but minus the banjo – to unify the two soundworlds. “The Ullmann finishes with a chorale, so the evening will end with a mirror of the way it began,” Selwyn points out. “The Bach cantata concerns the triumph of the spirit and of humanity in the face of death and despair. And the triumph of life over death is the message of the chorale at the end of the Ullmann. That’s the message that we would like the Ullmann to have, bearing in mind the circumstances of its creation.”
“I want the evening to have a consonance about it,” says Conway. “There’s something about dying that declares the richness and integrity of life, and that declares we do not go nameless to death. That effort to take away names and histories we will resist. This opera is a beautiful testimony to the artistic lives of people at Terezin. Even though I insist that the piece has a life independent of the Terezin context, one can’t ignore it. And at the end of the piece I wish there could be applause for Ullmann, Kien and the performers who were taken and murdered before there could be a premiere.”
The Emperor of Atlantis, English Touring Opera, Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, from 5 October 2012, then on national tour until 17 November. Full tour details at http://englishtouringopera.org.uk/tour-dates/autumn-2012