One of the most compelling entries in Decca/London’s “Entartete Musik” series – recordings of so-called “degenerate” works by composers suppressed or displaced by the Nazis – is a short opera by Viktor Ullmann called Der Kaiser von Atlantis. Ullmann composed the one-acter to a text by Peter Kien in 1943, when both men were in the “model” concentration camp at Terezín (Theresienstadt). It is a wry, unsentimental parable in which the dictatorial policies of Emperor Overall infuriate even Death, who goes on strike and denies his comforting touch to the terminally ill until the Emperor agrees to die himself. The opera never reached the stage in Terezín – rehearsals had scarcely begun before composer, cast, and audience were sent to a death camp – but the score was miraculously preserved and has since been widely performed. It’s ironic that Ullmann seemed to find his distinctive compositional voice only while in prison, writing for his fellow inmates. Der Kaiser von Atlantis is an eclectic mix, drawing on sources ranging from Mahler and Bach to cabaret and musical parody, but the haunting eloquence of the vocal writing is Ullmann’s own – the Emperor’s last aria, in which he accepts his humanity and bids farewell to life, is positively shattering.
The opera was staged recently at Columbia University’s venerable Miller Theatre. Musically, the performance was a strong one. The orchestra of the S.E.M. ensemble under Petr Kotik’s direction lovingly savored the score’s every bittersweet nuance, and the cast – Richard Lewis as the Emperor and Daniel May as Death in particular – sang most expressively. The modest production, directed by Gregorij H. von Lëitis and designed by Melanie Swarovski, generated only a minimal amount of theatrical energy, and the work really should have been sung in English. Too bad about that, but like all resilient operas, Der Kaiser von Atlantis reaches out and moves audiences under almost any circumstances.