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2020/09/21

Werk der Woche – Viktor Ullmann: Der Kaiser von Atlantis

Two new productions of Viktor Ullmann´s one-act chamber opera The Emperor of Atlantis or Death’s Refusal are opening in Germany this week. On 26 September the opera opens at Landestheater Neustrelitz, and on 27 September Deutsche Oper am Rhein will present a new production at Opernhaus Düsseldorf. With its compact cast of characters and instrumentation, as well as its timeless staggering subject matter, it is the piece of the hour. 

The opera is a parable of a cruel emperor, whose senseless war is claiming many lives. Death puts an end to the chaos by refusing his duty – now, everyone lives for eternity. The king becomes disempowered, but the people long for a release from the pain of life. Only the voluntary death of the emperor can restore death’s original purpose.

Ullmann wrote The Emperor of Atlantis while imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943, based on a libretto by Peter Kien, a fellow prisoner. The opera was rehearsed by a chamber ensemble founded with the permission of the SS, but its performance was prohibited after the final rehearsal. Just before his deportation to Auschwitz in 1944, Ullmann handed the score and libretto to a friend who was able to save both manuscripts.

Viktor Ullmann – The Emperor of Atlantis: a theatrical memorial

I composed quite a lot of new music in Theresienstadt, mostly for satisfying the demands of conductors, directors, pianists, singers and thus for the leisure activities in the Ghetto […]. I need to emphasize that my musical work was encouraged and not inhibited by Theresienstadt. We were not merely succumbing to grief at Babylon’s streams, and our cultural will was equal to our will to live; and I am convinced that all those who have attempted to shape reluctant material in either life or art would agree with me. – Viktor Ullmann

There will be two further performances at Landestheater Neustrelitz with the last night being presented on 24 October. In Düsseldorf, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein will run for a further eight performances until 19 November. Several versions and manuscripts of the opera are available that show the work in various stages before and after its censorship. A new Eulenburg study score from Schott (ETP 8067) shows each version together in one edition.

photo: Deutsche Oper am Rhein / Hans Jörg Michel