The Nazi concentration camp Terezin, near Prague, housed a rich group of artists, scholars and academics who worked under horrifying circumstances. These painters, poets, composers, musicians, singers and actors performed grueling labor by day and created with meager tools — often smuggled instruments — at night.
Among the most prominent was Viennese-born composer and conductor Viktor Ullmann, who before his internment was trained by Arnold Schoenberg. In Terezin, he composed piano sonatas, a string quartet, lieder and a one-hour opera with librettist and fellow internee Peter Kien. The subject of that opera? Unsurprisingly, death, which surrounded them and became the inspired focus of “The Emperor of Atlantis,” which runs through this weekend at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, closing out the In Series’ season programming.
Yet the one-hour chamber-sized piece, created in 1943, was never performed in Terezin. The camp commander felt that the unbridled satire, with its outlandish dictator, too closely resembled Hitler. Both Ullmann and Kien were ultimately deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered in October 1944.
And the hidden script and score of their opera changed hands numerous times before it found its way to Amsterdam’s Dutch National Opera for a belated premiere in 1975.
Director Nick Olcott’s new English translation (performed with supertitles) of the seven-character piece re-imagines and revives the work, making it relevant for 21st-century audiences by incorporating headline-grabbing language of present-day politicians. The Emperor, sung by Andrew Thomas Pardini, is a brusque, officious leader who revels in his absolute power, until the figure of Death finds a way to outsmart him. In hooded black robes and carrying his standard prop, a scythe, Death (Andrew Adelsberger) essentially takes a holiday. As in any good operatic drama, chaos ensues, but in this case it’s bitterly satiric. Without fear of death, no one will obey the emperor, he opines. Wars? They become pointless. The surgeon general? Alas has nothing to do.
Singing and speaking from the 14-piece chamber orchestra, the Loudspeaker (Jarrod Lee) — as Kien named the reporter-like character — provides the officious daily edicts from the ruler — called “Dear Leader,” “Supreme Commander,” “the Fuhrer” and “Best of the Best” — via loudspeakers hanging from the stage. An homage, perhaps, to announcements that were part of the camp’s relentless daily routine.
The Drum Major (Louisa Waycott) costumed as a majorette, serves as the emperor’s spokesperson, declaring victory and warning presciently for our own troubled times: “Look your neighbors up and down. If they don’t look like us or worship like us, they’re a threat to our culture,” she sings.
A harlequin (Adam Caughey) tries to rally young men and women to defeat the emperor, who initially considers turning his own army loose on his people. More complications — many not dissimilar from the current news cycle — ensue, but ultimately, Death – and death — prevail. Without death, of course, life becomes dreadfully relentless, so the bargain struck returns Death to power only if the emperor agrees to be the first to succumb.
It’s not surprising how boldly and baldly fascistic rule gets taken down in this work — nor is it surprising after a viewing that the piece was banned by the Nazis. Equally evident is the chilling fixation on death.
No one in Terezin could escape it — of the 140,937 Jews deported to Terezin between November 1941 and April 1945, just 17,247 inmates survived. Thus, it was no surprise that Ullmann and Kien found unsettling but philosophical fodder in examining death in their work.
“The Emperor of Atlantis” is powerful, provocative and paradoxical, although not unimaginable; what ruler would ever set his own army on his citizens, or order civilians to work day and night to keep “foreign scum” at bay? Olcott’s staging is simple and direct, the set feels rough-hewn, featuring three sets of risers, some wooden crates, sheer curtains and an evocative black and red logo that could serve as a stand in for the chilling swastika.
Ullmann’s score, ably conducted by Stanley Thurston, is both lyrical and expressionistic, sometimes veering into edgier Stravinsky-like territory, which is interesting as the evening opens with Stravinsky’s World War I danced recitative “A Soldier’s Tale” serving as a companion piece.
While re-mounting “The Emperor of Atlantis” could easily have resulted in a museum-like memorial to the Holocaust, this staging and cast, and especially Olcott’s up-to-date translation, breathe new life into what could be a musty work. It makes the point that, indeed, nothing is new under the sun when it comes to despotic leaders and the art of war. And, more philosophically, and heroically as voiced from these artists under arduous circumstances, death is a necessary part of life, and dying well is as important as living well.
“The Emperor of Atlantis,” June 23-24, Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE, Washington; tickets $23-$47; call 202-399-7993 or visit atlasarts.org.