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2016/02/15

Work of the Week – Viktor Ullmann: Der Kaiser von Atlantis

The Semperoper Dresden premieres a new production of Viktor Ullmann’s one-act chamber opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder Die Tod-Verweigerung [The Emperor of Atlantis] on 19 February, directed by Christiane Lutz and conductor Johannes Wulff-Woesten.

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 Der Kaiser von 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.

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

A run of performances of Der Kaiser von Atlantis will follow the premiere in Dresden from 19 February to 6 March 2016. Several versions and manuscripts of the opera are available, showing the work in different stages before and after its censorship. A new Eulenburg study score from Schott (ETP 8067) shows each version together in one edition.

Photo: Landestheater Linz / © Christian Brachwitz