Extra! Extra! The time is out of joint! The opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis) kicks off like a wartime newsreel, breathless with shocking headlines. Death has gone on strike. Romance has sputtered out, leaving Harlequin to moon for the moon. From behind his curtain, a latter-day Wizard of Oz declares universal combat, all against all. In not quite an hour, centuries of Continental cultural aspiration dissolve in an acid bath of scathing ironies, to music that evokes, flash by mercurial flash, Lutheran chorales as recycled by Bach, court ceremonials, the Weltschmerz of Gustav Mahler, the Berlin-in-Lights electricity of Kurt Weill.
An allegory as untidy as it is hypnotic, Der Kaiser von Atlantis took shape within the concentration camp of Terezín, where for cynical purposes of their own the Nazis allowed prisoners to cultivate the arts. Some leapt at the chance. “By no means did we sit weeping by the waters of Babylon,” wrote Viktor Ullmann, the opera’s composer. “Our dedication to art was the same thing as our will to live.” Plans to mount the work in the camp came to naught, on the presumption that the eponymous emperor satirized the Führer. The librettist Peter Kien was to perish in Auschwitz at the age of 25, Ullmann at 46. Yet the manuscript was preserved, receiving its overdue premiere three decades after the Thousand Year Reich went down in flames.
A collage more pertinent to our apocalyptic moment would be hard to imagine. At present, two very different stage productions are available for streaming. From the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, in the German heartland, comes Ilaria Lanzino’s stark modernist staging, memorable above all for Luke Stoker’s sly Beckettian dyspepsia in the role of Death. From the Atlanta Opera, there’s Tomer Zvulun’s brightly colored Big Top version, custom-made for the pandemic, awash in masks and Plexiglas. Alek Shrader’s Harlekin and Daniela Mack’s imperious, ruby-toned Drummer give standout performances; as enemy soldiers who opt to make love, not war, Brian Vu’s G.I. Joe and Jasmine Habersham’s tomboy are not far behind.
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii