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In November 1941, the first Jews arrived in Theresienstadt (Terezín in Czech), a ghetto established by the Nazis as "a model Jewish settlement." The city dated back to 1780, when the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II founded it as a fortress to protect his eastern lands from Turkish invaders. Joseph, known as a reformer, was a ruler steeped in the values of the Enlightenment whose decrees had an impact on many of his subjects, including Jews, who gained new freedoms with regard to movement, employment, and education. He named the outpost after his mother, Maria Theresa, whose own reforms laid the groundwork for her son's.
Internees at the "model" ghetto included those over the age of 60, World War I veterans, and prominent cultural figures; the majority came from occupied Czechoslovakia. The ghetto's purpose was essentially to provide a smokescreen - as the horrors of the Holocaust unfolded in other camps throughout central and eastern Europe, the Nazis could display Theresienstadt to address international concern. Initially, the internees had hoped that the camp's special status would exempt it from the kind of conditions that plagued other Nazi concentration camps, including overcrowding, disease, and deportation, but these hopes were soon dispelled. The first deportation took place in January 1942; epidemics gripped the camp, and the population of a town that previously had held around 3,500 people soon climbed to a high of more than 50,000 in September 1942. On July 23, 1944, with word spreading of what was happening to Jews across Nazi-occupied Europe, the International Red Cross visited Theresienstadt. The ghetto was beautified, and internees were coached on how to respond to Red Cross representatives. After the visit, the Nazis made a propaganda film to show how the internees were "leading a new life under the protection of the Führer." By October, mass deportations to Auschwitz had begun.
Viktor Ullmann arrived in Theresien-stadt with his wife Elisabeth on September 8, 1942. He already had a long and distinguished career as a composer and music journalist behind him. He had studied with Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna, and his Variations and Double Fugue on a theme from his teacher's piano piece Op. 19, No. 4, introduced Ullmann to an international audience when Franz Langer performed the work at the International Society of Contem-porary Music congress in Geneva in 1929. An orchestral version of the Variations received the prestigious Emil Hretzka prize in 1934, beating out works by composers such as Luigi Dallapiccola and Paul Dessau, and Ullmann's opera Der Sturz des Antichrist (The Fall of the Antichrist), which has many themes and concerns in common with Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis), won the prize again two years later. In spite of these successes, Ullmann's situation in Prague became increasingly precarious in the late 1930s - he was unable to secure performances for his music, including Der Sturz des Antichrist, and he had to eke out a living as a critic for the German-language music journal Der Auftakt (The Upbeat) and from whatever work he could find lecturing and teaching. He contacted friends about emigrating to Switzerland or South Africa after the Nazis annexed Czechoslovakia (1938-39), but they advised him to stay in Prague, advice that brought Ullmann to Theresienstadt.
During his two years in the camp, Ullmann composed an impressive amount of music - several songs and a capella choruses as well as a string quartet, three piano sonatas, a setting of Rilke's Die weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (The Way of Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke) for narrator and orchestra, and the present work, the opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis. Paradoxically, internment liberated Ullmann creatively in a way that had been impossible outside of the camp. According to a critical essay written by the composer during his time in the camp: "Theresienstadt was and is for me the school of form. Earlier, when one did not feel the impact and burden of material life because they were obscured by comfort, this magical feat of civilization, it was easy to create beautiful forms. Here, where one has to triumph over the matter of daily life through form, where all things connected with the Muses stand in utter contrast to the surroundings, here is the true school for masters, if one, with Schiller, sees the secret of the work of art in the annihilation of matter through form, which, presumably, is the overall mission of man, not only of the aesthetic man, but of the ethical man…. It must be emphasized that Theresienstadt has increased, not reduced, my musical work, that by no means did we sit weeping at the rivers of Babylon, and that our desire for culture equaled our desire for life; and I am convinced that all those who, in life and in art, struggled to force form upon resisting matter, will agree with me."
Der Kaiser von Atlantis is the one opera composed in Theresien-stadt to have come down to us. (The other famous "Theresienstadt opera," Hans Krása's children's opera Brundibár, was actually written in 1938.) Operatic performances, however, took place fairly often inside the camp, and the repertory included two Czech works by Smetana, The Bartered Bride and The Kiss, along with Bizet's Carmen, Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, Mozart's Bastien und Bastienne, The Magic Flute, and The Marriage of Figaro, Pergolesi's La serva padrona, Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, Puccini's Tosca, Strauss' Die Fledermaus, and Verdi's Aida and Rigoletto. Brundibár alone received 55 performances in the camp. Conditions for the performances ranged from the attic of one of the barracks, with a piano accompaniment, to staged presentations with an orchestra. The camp's assemblage of cultural figures included singers from some of Europe's leading opera houses; even so, casting was problematic, and amateurs and children frequently took part in the productions. Ullmann's opera reflects these realities of musical life in the camp - the opera is scored for 13 players on instruments including an alto saxophone, a banjo, a harmonium, and a harpsichord, and seven singers - and offers a string of masterly solutions to the problems posed by those realities.
Ullmann started with a libretto by the poet and painter Petr Kien, an allegory on the Nazis' disregard for human life. Death and Harlequin (who represents life) both no longer fulfill any function in the Empire of Atlantis, where Emperor Overall (an allegory for Hitler) values neither. As a result, the living have ceased to live and the dying have ceased to die. The Emperor tries to put a positive spin on things, declaring that his soldiers are now invincible, but in reality his armies lie wounded and bleeding, in an agony that Death cannot end. Death offers the Emperor a bargain: He will resume his work if the Emperor will be his first victim. The Emperor agrees, and the work ends with a reminder: "Thou shalt not take Death's great name in vain."
Ullmann immediately demonstrates his mastery, using his unorthodox orchestra to delineate the opera's different characters as the Loudspeaker introduces them in the prologue. He also creates several original combinations out of the ensemble, such as the use of flute, saxophone, and banjo in the brief prelude that follows the prologue. The prologue begins with a four-note motive - a rising and a falling tritone to the words "Hallo, hallo" - taken from Czech composer Josef Suk's Asrael Symphony (itself a work about the angel of death) that recurs throughout the opera. This is the first of many musical references that crop up during the work. Ullmann often turns to jazz: Death laments the modernization and dehumanization of warfare in a "blues," and the trio for the Emperor, Harlequin, and the Drummer Girl (the Emperor's mouthpiece) is a shimmy, a kind of up-tempo dance, dominated by the "Hallo, hallo" motive. Ullmann's use of jazz-derived material Kurt Weill's musical theater pieces of the late 1920s and early 1930s. One of the longer numbers in the opera comes at the close of Scene One. It begins with the Drummer Girl co-opting the Loudspeaker's "Hallo, hallo" motive to read a decree from the Emperor in an aria that closes with a minor-key reference to the German national anthem, followed by passages of accompanied recitative framing a passacaglia. The passacaglia, a baroque form based on a repeated bass pattern, underlines the solemn nature of the text at that moment, as the Drummer Girl announces the beginning of the "holy struggle." The scene ends with Death breaking his saber in response to the Emperor's declaration of war, rendering the living unable to die.
Ullmann uses a distorted minuet for the transition into the rarefied world of the Emperor, who, holed up in his castle, has surrounded himself with "one million cannons" and "walls without windows." The ensuing aria for the Emperor, with its heroic posture and luxuriant melody, reminds the listener of another Emperor, the one in Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) by Richard Strauss, a composer whose ties to the Nazi regime were certainly known to Ullmann. There is some redemption for the Emperor when the posturing, Straussian tone of this first aria gives way to something much more personal, and much more poignant, in the Emperor's farewell, after he accepts death. This final aria is much closer to the valedictory world of the final song of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).
The opera's finale, an eerie, but still somehow comforting, harmonization of the old Lutheran chorale "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A Mighty Fortress is Our God), underscores the work's power and relevance, both as an indictment of the low value placed on life by the Nazis and as an affirmation of the rich cultural soil that tyranny tried to salt.
Rehearsals for the opera took place during the summer of 1944, with a premiere scheduled for October. The cast included the baritone Karel Berman as Death and the tenor David Grünfeld as Pierrot; the conductor was Rafael Schächter, and the director was Karl Meinhard. (Berman and Grünfeld both survived. Berman joined the ensemble of the National Theater in Prague in 1953, and Grünfeld emigrated to the U.S., changed his name to Garen, and enjoyed a career as an operatic tenor before becoming a cantor in Huntington, Long Island.) The authorities refused to allow the work to be performed, and the premiere would never have taken place anyway: Most of the people involved in the opera's creation, including Ullmann, were among those transported to Auschwitz in October 1944. Ullmann died in the gas chambers there on October 16. He had been planning another opera, based on the story of Joan of Arc, and had already written the libretto.
The manuscript of Der Kaiser von Atlantis found its way into the hands of Dr. Hans Adler, who himself had been interned in Theresienstadt. Adler emigrated to London in 1947 and published his massive study of the "model ghetto" in 1955. In 1975, the British conductor Kerry Woodward, who was researching the musical legacy of Theresienstadt, discovered that Adler had the manuscript; on December 16 of that year, Woodward led the opera's world premiere at the Bellevue Theater in Amsterdam.
James Conlon has chosen to preface this performance of Der Kaiser von Atlantis with the Sextet from Richard Strauss' opera Capriccio. Capriccio premiered at the State Opera in Munich on October 28, 1942, roughly seven weeks after Ullmann arrived in Theresienstadt. The chronological coincidence is just one of the reasons the juxtaposition proves illuminating. Where Ullmann, in Der Kaiser von Atlantis, created a work very much of its time, Strauss' Capriccio seems to exist outside of the context of 1942. Strauss actually came across the subject in 1934, when he discovered a libretto, Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the Music and Then the Words), which had been set by the composer Antonio Salieri (Mozart's rival) and first performed in Vienna in 1786. In Strauss' work, which he called a "conversation piece," Flamand, a composer, and Olivier, a poet, debate the relative importance of words and music in opera in the luxuriant 18th-century salon of the Countess Madeleine. The Sextet opens the opera - it is Flamand's latest work. It begins and ends in a poised F major, with a more turbulent central section.
Ullmann's opera and Strauss' sextet, side by side, reveal something about the differences between the two composers. Both men were steeped in German culture - Ullmann's invocation of Schiller to explain his ability to create in Theresienstadt is an example of this - and both, interestingly, turned to Goethe to explain what they did as artists. Strauss quoted Goethe revealingly in his sketches for Metamorphosen, the piece for 23 solo strings that Strauss composed in March and April 1945 as a requiem for all that was lost during World War II: "What goes on in the world, no one really quite understands it, and up until now, no one has really wanted to understand it…. Just as a new day is ever at hand, always think: 'It's gone all right until now, and it may continue doing so until the end.'" It was this sort of attitude that has placed Strauss in such an equivocal position with respect to the Nazis. He served as president of the Reich Music Chamber (1933-35) and made some fairly suspect statements during his tenure, but, on the other hand, he resigned when the ban on Felix Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream and an attack on his collaboration with writer Stefan Zweig (Zweig was the librettist for Strauss' comic opera Die schweigsame Frau [The Silent Woman]) revealed the cultural benightedness of his superiors. He spent the next decade in a back-and-forth with the Nazis, trying to keep working as an artist and to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandsons. He never seemed to grasp that art and politics could not be separated, and, that by staying in Nazi Germany and continuing to work as an artist, he was making a political statement, however unconsciously. His retreat into the drawing-rooms of 18th-century Europe in Capriccio - on the surface, an innocuous enough subject - represents just the kind of political statement Strauss was unwittingly making: "It's gone all right until now, and it may continue doing so until the end."
Ullmann, like Strauss, found words to live by in Goethe. "Goethe's aphorism: 'Live within the moment, live in eternity' revealed the enigmatic meaning of art," he wrote in one of his Theresien-stadt reviews. Der Kaiser von Atlantis is very much a work of the moment, one that cannot be separated from its circumstances. Since its premiere in 1975, it has gradually been finding its way to life in eternity as well.
- John Mangum holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. He is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.