HOLOCAUST OPERA A POWERFUL, DEEPLY MOVING EXPERIENCE
By Lawrence Budmen
When Viktor Ullmann was murdered on October 16, 1944 at Auschwitz, the world lost a musical genius. A pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, Ullmann was an innovative, award winning composer and music journalist. In September, 1942 Ullmann was interned at the Theresienstadt (or Terezin) concentration camp. The Nazis established Terezin as a phony model artistic ghetto. Artists, poets, and musicians populated the camp. Other Terezin composers included such prominent creative artists as Pavel Haas, Hans Krasa, and Gideon Klein (as well as the great Czech conductor Karel Ancerl). In reality Terezin was a holding station for internees bound for the death chambers of Auschwitz. During his two years at Terezin, Viktor Ullmann composed some twenty works. A recent recording (by James Conlon and the Cologne Philharmonic) of an Ullmann symphony composed at Terezin was a revelation. Here was an astringent, powerful, defiant musical statement that burned with the inner fire of inspiration. Ullmann's most ambitious Terezin project was the one act opera "The Emperor of Atlantis." Composed in 1944 during the last monthes of Ullmann's life, this allegorical work is a powerful indictment of evil - a vision of a world without art or humanity. On December 29, 2004 the Concert Association of Florida presented this historic work at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach.
The libretto of Ullmann's opera was the work of the poet Petr Kien. The opera is set in the mythical empire of Atlantis. Here the symbolic Emperor Overall wages war on a massive scale. In his world there is no place for Harlequin (representing life and art) and Death (disguised as an old soldier). Death goes on strike. As the Emperor's armies lie wounded and bleeding on the battlefield, Death offers the Emperor a bargain. Death will return to his work if the Emperor will be his first victim. The Emperor agrees. The opera ends with an ensemble (based on a Bach chorale - the art that Hitler and the Nazis defiled) warning "Thou shalt not take Death's great name in vain."
Ullmann and Kien fashioned a satirical musico-dramatic work in the vein of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht ("The Three Penny Opera," "Happy End," "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," "The Seven Deadly Sins"). In the opera's four scenes Ullmann's synthesis of classical and popular styles ("high art" and "populist art") is masterful. The high lying baritonal (almost heldentenor) role of the Emperor is a descendant of Richard Strauss's Emperor in "Die Frau ohne Schatten." The Mahler aesthetic of the 9th Symphony and "Das Lied von Der Erde" permeates the score. The rich harmonic chromaticism of the arias for Death and the Emperor recall 19th century Austro-German Romanticism in all its glory. The repeated "Hello, Hello" theme is directly quoted from the monumental "Asrael" Symphony by the great Czech composer (and son-in-law of Antonin Dvorak) Josef Suk. Suk's symphony is a rumination on death - a direct parallel with Ullmann's opera. Ullmann's teacher Schoenberg hovers over the piece with sudden atonal bursts. The jazz inflected vocal and instrumental solos could have been written by Weill. (The use of jazz is itself an act of defiance since jazz was banned by the Nazis as decadent art.) Waltz rhythms recall the cabaret songs of Frederich Hollander (perhaps best known for the songs he wrote for Marlene Dietrich). Ullmann managed to combine these diverse influences into a deeply moving, ultimately life affirming work. That Ullmann could continue to compose under such conditions during the world's darkest hour is a tribute to the triumph of the creative spirit!
Using a thirteen piece orchestra Ullmann created a unique score. Such keyboard instruments as the Baroque harpsichord, the modern piano, and the harmonium (memorably used by Schoenberg in his chamber settings of waltzes by Johann Strauss and by Erwin Stein in his reduction of Mahler's 4th Symphony) add a spiky, acerbic tone to the score's recitative. The use of banjo and guitar adds spice to the instrumental fabric. Ullmann's jazzy saxophone riffs and strangely serene flute interludes seem to evoke diverse human plateaus that can not meet or interact. The instrumental interludes are brilliantly conceived - bright, dissonant, and seemingly mock-serious. The demanding vocal roles require singers of Wagnerian stature. The sheer ingenuity of this score is astonishing! For all its harmonic astringency, Ullmann's music is frequently beautiful. As the composer's creative swan song "The Emperor of Atlantis" remains a powerful indictment of the horrors of war and of man's inhumanity to man.
The American conductor James Conlon has been a leading light in the revival of the music of Ullmann and the Terezin composers. (It was Conlon's performance of "The Emperor of Atlantis" with singers and musicians from the Julliard School at New York's Central Synagogue that inspired the Concert Association's Judy Drucker to produce this work in Miami.) Conlon conducted a brilliant, incisive, passionately felt performance that deftly underlined the satirical contradictions of Ullmann's scoring. The sheer emotional energy of Conlon's conducting was magnificent! (It has been too long since this gifted conductor has been heard in Miami.) The languid, stylish saxophone playing of Brian Scawa and the dynamic keyboard work of Miah Im (on harpsichord and piano) and Ciro Fodere (on harmonium) were standouts in an excellent, resourceful chamber ensemble of New World Symphony players.
Director Edward Berkeley's abstract staging was fluid and effective (in the Brecht manner). The opera's characters were clearly delineated - the Emperor on a raised platform seemingly oblivious to the world and people around him. Berkeley's theatrical conceit was to dress the Emperor as Adolf Hitler and The Drummer Girl (his propagandist) as Eva Braun. This was an effective piece of dramaturgy but tended to distract from the allegorical symbolism of Ullmann and Kien's work. (In an effective coup de theater, Berkeley had two actors costumed as SS Officers enter during Conlon's warmly romantic performance of the Sextet from Richard Strauss's opera "Capriccio" (which had its premiere at the Munich Opera in October, 1942 around the same time Viktor Ullmann was arrested and interned at Terezin) and, at the music's conclusion, order Conlon to remove his tuxedo and put on a concentration camp uniform to conduct the Ullmann opera - A chilling image!)
A superb cast of graduates from the Julliard School's Vocal Program and American Opera Center did full justice the opera's demanding vocal writing. Bass Alvin Crawford's rich, sonorous voice brought vibrant life to the repeated perorations of the Loudspeaker. Crawford's velvety, rich toned sound foretells a future Wotan for the Wagner "Ring" cycle. Baritone Daniel Gross was no less impressive as Death. A heldenbaritone in the Fischer-Dieskau mold, Gross revealed a warmly expressive voice that flowed with the ease of molten lava. Gross's subtly dramatic singing of Death's aria was the evening's emotional highpoint. Soprano Hanan Alattar brought wonderful sweetness and vulnerability to Bubikopf. Her lovely timbre and lyrical radiance recall the young Dawn Upshaw. Alison Tupay's rich Wagnerian mezzo and stunning delivery made the unsympathetic role of The Drummer Girl a standout. Baritone Brian Leerhuber's husky voice and commanding delivery of Emperor Overall's crazed fantasies was riveting. The lyricism and ease with which he commanded the high vocal line suggest a future heldentenor. Character tenor Steven Paul Spears gave a masterful performance of the rhythmically tricky role of Harlequin. His incisive vocal delivery was outstanding. Mathew Garrett brought a light, graceful Mozartean tenor voice to the role of a young soldier. A splendid vocal ensemble!
Although he perished in the Holocaust, the flame of Viktor Ullmann's music will never die. With the dedicated enthusiasm of James Conlon and a growing number of conductors, his music continues to bear witness to the triumphs and horrific tragedies 20th century. "The Emperor of Atlantis" was an unforgettable experience! A great evening of music and theater!