Opera

Emperor: A Hopeful Opera From Harrowing Times

By Jared Bowen   |   Friday, February 4, 2011
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Death (Kevin Burdette, bass) makes an offer to Emperor Überall (Andrew Wilkowske, baritone) to end the
world’s suffering and restore life to its rightful balance. Photo by Jeffrey Dunn for BLO.


The Boston Lyric Opera presents Viktor Ullmann's The Emperor of Atlantis or Death Quits Feb 1-6. Greater Boston's Jared Bowen talks to the BLO's Esther Nelson and Steven Lipsitt about the production. 

When Esther Nelson took over leadership of the Boston Lyric Opera, she had an interest in exploring the unconventional. As The New York Timespoints out, she accomplished that with terrific success by presenting The Emperor of Atlantis or Death Quits, which opened Tuesday night at the Boston Center for the Art’s Calderwood Pavilion.
 
Written in the Terezin Concentration Camp in 1943 by Viktor Ullmann, The Emperor of Atlantis or Death Quits is a remarkably humorous and hopeful story about Emperor Überall, a thinly disguised portrait of Adolph Hitler.
 
The Emperor declares war on all mankind, but Death, sensing his worth is plummeting in an age of modern warfare, essentially takes a holiday. Love takes over on the battlefields, there is despair among the wounded who cannot die, and consequently, the emperor is undermined.
 
This is a new English translation of the work, which is rarely performed in the United States. For the occasion, the Boston Lyric Opera has also commissioned a prologue titled The After-Image, about a woman's remembrance of her father as a young soldier. Combined, the two pieces page for an exceptional evening and truly brilliant programming.
 
The follow are excerpts from a Greater Boston interview with BLO artistic director Esther Nelson and conductor Steven Lipsitt.
 
On first discovering The Emperor of Atlantis or Death Quits
 
Esther Nelson: I was familiar with the piece since the 80s when I heard about it as part of a movement called Recovered Voices, that was trying to bring back to life works of composers who either were victimized or perished in the Holocaust. There are a great number of them. This is the largest work to came out of the Terezin camp.
 
On producing Emperorat the Calderwood Pavilion.
 
EN:  I felt that we needed to do something that was in a venue that allowed for a more experimental approach. So we turned the Pavilion into a sort of non-functioning theater because Terezin in 1944, where this was supposed to be performed, was no longer functioning.
 

1/20/11 Boston, Mass. – Stage Director David Schweizer
works with his cast during a staging rehearsal for The
Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Quits at the Calderwood
Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts in Boston,
Mass. January 20, 2011. Photo by Erik Jacobs

David Schweizer, the director, had the absolutely right approach to turn the Calderwood Pavilion into a place that gave you the sense that some things aren’t quite right. But then there is this brilliant work right in the middle of it.
 
On how Empeorsurvived the Holocaust
 
Steven Lipsitt: it is an extraordinary accomplishment. Terezin had an extraordinary cultural life, including artwork, literature, and poetry, because intentionally artists were dispatched there.
 
At first the artists developed it underground, but the Nazis eventually permitted it because they realized it was keeping the inmate population under a kind of control. Then they actually exploited it and used it as a model camp… a show camp. They had the Danish Red Cross visit and said, look, we are keeping these intellectual, artistic, scholarly Jews out of harm’s way during the war.
 
For the Jews in the camp, it was a crucial expression. All of the music he wrote, about 20 scores in the two years or so that he was in the camp, survived… as did his writing, including his essays, his journals, and reviews of performances in the camp. It is an extraordinary legacy.
 
In the last minute in October of 1944, when he was about to go on a transport to Auschwitz, he thought maybe he won't survive. He gave the whole bundle of scores and writings to a friend. They ended up in London, and for 30 years were thought lost. Most of his colleague musicians thought he had taken the scores with him. So when he was murdered, they assumed the material was lost.
 
The score was rediscovered In London in an attic in the early 70s. A musician named Kerry Woodward made a performing edition immediately as soon as he realized what he had. The work has been on the periphery of the repertoire since.
 
On why Emperor is ultimately hopeful
 
EN: That is the miraculous part, that under those circumstances Ullmann and the young poet who was in his mid-20s, Peter King, were able to create a work of such hope. It’s poignant, and it's by all means tragic in many ways.
 
You might wonder in the end, were they implying that Death, in fact, is the solution that you might hope for at that stage. Because death in this opera is the one that provides. He is no longer part of the Emperor's crazy idea of total war.
 
In the end, it's about love: redemption through love and death being a part of life. Without that, we cannot function, and we have lost our souls. It’s cathartic at the end, and it leaves you hopeful and in peace.

>> 99.5 All Classical host Cathy Fuller talks with conductor Steven Lipsitt

An expert from The Emperor of Atlantis from the BBC film Holocaust: A Music Memorial.

 

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About the Author
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 

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