An opera written in a Nazi concentration camp about a murderous ruler who tries to outdo Death himself might sound far-fetched. But that is exactly the story behind “The Emperor of Atlantis,” to be performed by Music of Remembrance November 16 and 18 at Benaroya Hall.
MOR launches its 15th season with the opera composed by Viktor Ullman while imprisoned at Terezín, along with works by Ernest Bloch and pioneering Israeli composer Marc Lavry. Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot will conduct.
“Atlantis” will be sung in English by a cast of mostly local singers.
“It’s very accessible,” says MOR’s artistic director Mina Miller. “It’s as much musical theater as it is opera.”
Miller notes that the piece has many aspects of “Kurt Weill cabaret,” with plenty of sharp-edged satire. “If you’re new to opera,” she adds, you will see and hear “a great example of how music can bring human stories to life.”
Viktor Ullman (1898–1944) was a prominent composer and conductor who worked in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Though he was only half-Jewish and raised Catholic, he was still considered a Jew under Nazi racial laws. Ullman was deported to the Terezín concentration camp in 1942.
Terezín (Theresienstadt) was actually a holding camp for the death camps, but was presented to the outside world as a “paradise ghetto.” Many prominent Jewish cultural figures were imprisoned there, who gave the camp a rich artistic life despite its harsh conditions. Ullman composed prolifically at Terezín, writing “The Emperor of Atlantis” with librettist Peter Kien during the latter half of 1943.
The plot: The mighty Emperor Overall proclaims total war. All humankind will fight and all will be killed. Death, angered that his role has been usurped, goes on strike.
Since no one can die, all manner of bizarre situations ensue. Two opposing soldiers — a man and a woman — cannot kill each other, so they make love instead. The sick and wounded protest their limbo between life and death. The emperor’s power begins to crumble. Eventually, Death proposes a solution to the impasse, which we won’t give away here.
“Atlantis” actually went into rehearsal at Terezín, but the Nazi authorities saw parallels between the emperor and Hitler, and banned it. Ullman gave his score to the camp librarian, who survived the Holocaust. In October 1944, Ullman was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in the gas chambers, along with most of his fellow luminaries.
Ullman’s music is a rich synthesis of many musical sounds from the first part of the 20th century. One can hear German Romanticism, the influence of Ullman’s teacher Arnold Schoenberg, and the jazz-tinged, cynical ambience that permeated Berlin in the 1920s. A lullaby from the Thirty Years’ War (which decimated
Germany’s population in the 1600s) appears. The hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is used ironically, as is “Deutschland über alles.”
Stage director Erich Parce uses the musicians (13 members of the Seattle Symphony) as actors. He places them, dead or dying, in a bombed-out theater, where Death and his assistants (two dancers) bring them back to life to perform the show. Parce has also added some modern visual elements to support the action.
What should listeners take from the production? It “demonstrates how the Holocaust contains important and relevant lessons for our time, and for people of all faiths,” says Miller.
“History gives us such lessons, but we keep repeating them over and over,” Parce adds. “How do we then change our lives and go forward?”
Marc Lavry (1903–1967) was, like Ullman, a well-known composer and conductor in the 1920s. He worked with several German orchestras and opera companies, collaborated with theater director Max Reinhardt, and composed for the German cinema. When Hitler came to power, Lavry returned to his native Latvia, and when Fascism arrived there, he moved to Palestine.
Lavry was reborn musically in his new home. Within two years, he had drawn the sounds he heard around him into his music, and helped create what became the Israeli musical style. One could say that Lavry was to Israeli music what Smetana, Bartok, Kodaly and the “Russian Five” were to their countries.
The composer’s son, Dan Lavry, lives on Bainbridge Island.
“[He] told me that music does not exist in a vacuum, that it reflects a culture and is connected to the land,” Lavry says of his father. “When he came to Israel in 1935 there was no such thing as Israeli music, but there was a desire to create a modern Israel…The settlers went through a great cultural transformation. The old Hebrew language was revived to replace the Yiddish, the Jewish food was replaced by Middle Eastern flavor, working the land and manufacturing was to replace commerce.
“So my father came into such an environment equipped with a classical music background and much familiarity [with] European Jewish music. His music after 1935 reflects his experience. He wrote early Israeli songs, the first Israeli opera, the first symphony. In fact he was a pioneer, a trend setter.”
Marc Lavry is represented on the program with his “Three Jewish Dances for Violin and Piano, Op. 192” from 1945.
The concert opens with a performance by young cellist Benjamin Schmidt, winner of this year’s David Tonkonogui Award. Schmidt will play Ernest Bloch’s “Prayer,” accompanied by a string quartet including his father, Seattle Symphony Orchestra violinist Mikhail Schmidt.