Death, warmed over
The eponymous kaiser in Viktor Ullman’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis, Kaiser Overall (the name is intended to be sung in English, though the opera is in German), is probably mad, though perhaps no madder than anyone else. Megalomania is not uncommon, and his problem may be that people tend to take his orders more seriously than others. The emperor (tenor Vince Vincent) has not been seen in public for fifteen years, but he flatters himself that he still inspires terror. He wears a top hat and a rather battered uniform and he brings the manners of a madhouse to his singsong sprechstimme.
Otherwise, pretty much all we know about the land of Atlantis and its monarch is announced by the Drummer (Elspeth Davis, all wide-eyed, newscaster inanity, with a well-supported soprano of dramatic potential), in a long, absurd list of titles sung to a post-romantic takeoff on Haydn’s Imperial Hymn (not coincidentally, also the tune of “Deutschland über Alles”).
The emperor’s constant wars and wild decrees have taken a turn for the extreme lately. He has ordered his subjects into a war to the death—against each other. They will all die nobly, heroically! This depresses merry Harlekin (the vividly unhappy Brian Downen), but it most deeply upsets Death himself (Jeffrey Tucker, spooky makeup, sonorous and eerie bass), who feels his prerogatives are being infringed. There is only one thing to do—Death goes on strike!
Cut to the battlefield, where two soldiers (James Baumgardner and Gan-ya Ben-gur Akselrod), finding themselves unable to kill each other, fall in love in a pastiche-Tristan duet. Why not? Theirs is, after all, roughly the same situation as the shipboard scene sans Potion.
Meanwhile, from the Kaiser’s Loudspeaker (Kelvin Chan, a ringing tenor for both speech and song), we learn that hanged criminals and others in extremis are also unable to die. Kaiser Overall finds this very frustrating, and it doesn’t help that the “Death” motif keeps morphing into “The Lady Is a Tramp.”
Overall is driven to the ultimate act: facing up to himself in the mirror. He looks like Death warmed over. (Both men manage to sing while making their eyeballs float in creepy pools of white, a neat trick.) “Have I become the mere Adding Machine of Death?” the Emperor wonders, and Death suggests that he undertake his own.
All of this (four scenes, about seventy minutes of music) fits tidily within the satirical tradition of maniac monarchs of mythical midlands, with Chabrier’s L’Etoile and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Zolotoy Petushok and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, but there is a concealed accent, a twist of the razor wire, to Viktor Ullmann’s satire: Der Kaiser von Atlantis was composed in 1943 in the “artistic” concentration camp at Terezín (Theresienstadt).
To spoof Hitler’s total war in such a place at such a time was pretty ballsy, but Ullmann and his librettist, Peter Kien, may have felt they had little to lose. The next year they were sent to Auschwitz. As Death he sings in the opera, he is not pain but release from pain.
The manuscripts fell into the hands of the Terezín librarian, who gave them to Ullmann’s friends after the war. The opera was discovered, edited and premiered in 1975. Opera Moderne is giving its third (apparently) New York production, in association with the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Czech Center in the Bohemian Hall of the latter, on East 73rd Street near First Avenue.
It is time, the Austrian cultural attaché suggested on the first night, to take the opera on its own terms, not just out of pity and awe for the circumstances of its composition. Ullmann, a pupil of Schönberg and Zemlinsky, writes in an idiom that turns its back on the grandiose “symphonic” operas of late romanticism, using a small orchestra in which saxophone and banjo are prominent—because he liked those sounds? Or because he found players at Terezín? It sounds like he really loved that sax. His original manuscript requested a harpsichord as well.
The music is tonal except where it isn’t—I thought of early Kurt Weill or Ernst Krenek. Tonality is a tool; Ullmann does not renounce it but he teases it. You cannot relax with this score; it shakes you awake to notice what will happen next, none of it predictable. Instead of a thick and meaty musical soup á la Strauss or Siegfried Wagner, we have bits and bites, accompaniment and a cappella, a scene of ecstatic singing (that soldiers’ duet) followed by spoken declamation and the occasional oath.
There are parodies galore in jagged fragments like the stray bits of noise, sung or screamed or recorded or overheard, that have become the texture of modern life. We have not left life behind to visit the otherworld of opera; we are attending a theater piece set amidst the noisy world.
We should be grateful we have this lively piece, but it does not fill an entire evening. I was sorry Opera Moderne, one of New York’s most intriguing young, did not pair Atlantis with some other show. I’d like to encounter it sharing a bill with other works from the post-romantic tradition, perhaps Les Mamelles de Tiresias or Mavra or Der Zwerg. Can you come up with another short opera suitable to the concentration camp theme?
Ransom Wilson led the fifteen musicians of Le Train Bleu in an expert and witty performance, melding easily into whatever mood Ullmann happened to be in from moment to moment. Director Markus Kupferblum’s use of dance and stylized action, taking its cues from steampunk, was sensitive to the weirdness of the story being told, and sets, costumes and makeup (those eyes!) endearingly followed suit. Special kudos to the level of musicianship and vocal quality Rebecca Greenstein always maintains with Opera Moderne.
The hall at the Bohemian Center is not quite soundproof and the sound of music from nearby was distracting enough to make one wonder if it were not intentional, written into the score.