The incredible story of the opera written at Terezin concentration camp

14-03-2003

This Saturday, March 15, London's Opera Up Close company is holding the premiere of their production of "the Kaiser of Atlantis" ("Der Kaiser von Atlantis"), which was written by Viktor Ullmann with a libretto by Petr Kein. A Vienna-born Jew, Viktor Ullmann later took Czech nationality, and was already well-known as a composer before being sent to Terezin concentration camp in September 1942. It was there - in the most incredible circumstances - that he wrote "the Kaiser of Atlantis", before meeting his death in Auschwitz in October 1944. When I spoke to Opera Up Close director Russell Plows in London last week, he told me Viktor Ullmann was just one of many leading Czech Jewish artists and musicians imprisoned at Terezin.

"When Ullmann was taken to the Terezin concentration camp he was taken to this weird situation where a lot of other famous composers, writers and conductors...the conductor Karel Ancerl was there, composers like Hans Krasa and Gideon Klein, Petr Kein the painter, who was also a writer...these people were all in this extraordinary situation, where initially art and expression of art was forbidden. But after a while the Nazis became more and more tolerant and more art began to be produced. A piano found its way into the camp, which we're told was in a terrible state and had to be balanced on a cupboard in order to make it work and performances were given on that. And, given the extraordinary quality of the artists that were there, the artistic life blossomed and in the end the Nazis - who had some very cunning minds - decided that they could do the opposite thing, they could encourage the arts that were there and then, for instance when the Red Cross came over, they could show the success of Terezin's cultural life. When they made their propaganda film they filmed for instance the children performing Brundibar and various other artistic endeavours, to show to the world that Hitler was being extraordinarily generous at Terezin. Kaiser of Atlantis was the only opera that was written in Terezin itself. It sounds the way it does partly because it was written for a very sophisticated audience, but also there were at some points more than 60,000 people there, so there were a lot of ordinary people that would be interested in the piece too. It's also founded in a kind of cabaret style, some of it fairly anti-Nazi...surprisingly some film exists of a cabaret which is a sort of recreation of scenes from Charlie Chaplin's Great Dictator, so Kaiser of Atlantis follows a similar vein."

Is it the case that part of it is a parody of Deutschland Uber Alles?

"Yes, there are a number of codes. Ullmann was enormously intellectual and the music is hugely rigorous and there are all kinds of in-jokes. The piece is full of quotations, all very pertinent ones. The opening theme is from the Asrael, the Angel of Death symphony by Suk. It relates as well to this thing about their not being any music available. All the music that was created, all the sheet music in Terezin was written down by people who knew those pieces by heart, and Ullmann seems to be recalling his heritage in the quotations in Kaiser of Atlantis. There are jokes that Harlequin makes about not being able to wash, having dirty clothes, there being no wine, no women at Terezin. Couples were allowed to see each other between half past six and eight o'clock, and eight o'clock was the curfew, so in a sense there was no love in Terezin. Both wine and love were non-existent. And certainly Deutschland Uber Alles is quoted in the name of Kaiser Over All, Kaiser Uber All, and in Ullmann's - I think - sounds to me like a vaguely klezmer version of that tune, it's in the minor and there are vaguely klezmer sounding clarinet ideas going on in the background, which is a deliberate, sort of Jewish appropriation of that tune, which is hugely effective at that point."

Was it actually performed in Terezin?

"It was less lucky than other things. Brundibar was performed by the children fifty times, the Verdi Requiem was performed several times. Kaiser of Atlantis seems to have got close to being performed a number of times but on each occasion either singers or instrumentalists, or both, were sent to Auschwitz, and the rehearsal process had to start again. It seems that in the end they were defeated by the transports and it never actually got a performance."

Do you know how it was preserved?

"Fortunately for us, Ullmann was persuaded to leave a lot of his manuscripts behind when he himself was sent to Auschwitz. In the case of Kaiser of Atlantis, the story - and it's a true one - is that a musicologist in the 70s was saying to another musicologist, talking about Terezin and saying there's supposed to be this amazing opera, the Kaiser of Atlantis, and the other person said yes, I've got it in my attic. And the parts were found. We talked to a lady who survived Terezin and she was telling us that there was no music paper and it seems the parts of Kaiser of Atlantis were written on whatever was available, scraps of envelope, just any scraps of paper. It was very, very difficult to decipher and reassemble but there is now a performing edition which has two or three different alternatives that you can use."

What language was it written in?

"It was written in German. We're performing it in English, in a sense because it's so good and we want the audience to be in touch with all the nuances of the text and we've tried to adapt a translation which is absolutely faithful not just to the meaning of the words but to the tone of them as well. We've been very careful about that."

Is it often performed?

"It's staged more and more and I think performances around the world will continue to increase. It was first done in the mid-Seventies by Kerry Woodward in the Netherlands. Over I would say about the last ten years it's been done more and more. It seems to be a favourite with American university opera groups. It was just done recently in Dublin in a jail, a jail that's no longer used, and that seemed to work very powerfully. The fact that we're doing it in a church adds a different element when you're thinking about life and death, and a piece in which death is a character."

You can find out more about Viktor Ullmann and his remarkable opera at the Internet site of the Viktor Ullmann Foundation at www.viktorullmannfoundation.org.uk/ For details of the London production go to the London Czech Centre website, which is at www.czechcentre.org.uk

14-03-2003