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Ullmann, Der Kaiser von Atlantis:  at Jüdisches Kulturzentrum in collaboration with the Bavarian State Opera:   Soloists, Orchester Jakobsplatz München, Daniel Grossmann (conductor) Hubert-Burda Saal, Munich  16.11.2007 (JFL)

Production Team

Markus Koch (direction)
Iris Jedamski (sets)
Claudia Gall (costumes)
Michael Bauer (lighting)


Christian Miedl (Kaiser Überall)
Andreas Kohn (Speaker)
Adrian Sâmpetrean (Death)
Kevin Conners (Harlekin)
Michael McBride (Soldier)
Elif Aytekin (Girl)
Stephanie Hampl (Drummer)

Andreas Kohn : The Speaker

Hitler as an opera’s protagonist would strike most culture and opera-loving people as a somewhat tasteless choice. But what if the opera had been composed in a concentration camp? Inexorably wedded to the circumstance of its creation, “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” – considered Viktor Ullmann’s masterpiece – is just that. A work of art, theater, and music created under circumstances that must seem unlikely or impossible to all of us. But Viktor Ullmann, “Director for Musical Leisure Activities” at Theresienstadt (Terezín) seemed to have taken his cynically titled position at the transit camp (one of the camps, like Bergen-Belsen, intended to deceive international observers about the true atrocities going on elsewhere) with some vigor and zeal. The two years there – from September 1942 to October 1944 - were, tragically and  ironically, the most productive time of his life. Then, on October 18th, 1944 Ullman's life was brought to an end in Auschwitz, only two days after being deported from Terezín.

Adrian Sâmpetrean (Death) : Kevin Conners (Harlekin)

The short one act opera “The Emperor of Atlantis” (also known as “Death Resigns” or “Death’s Refusal”) was created with librettist Peter Kien in the Winter of 1943/44 for seven characters or “Archetypes” and a small orchestra. Rehearsals faltered when too many of the participants were either shipped off elsewhere or became sick in early 1944. Later that year, the camp inmates managed to put together a dress rehearsal, after all. Not surprisingly to anyone who has seen or heard the opera, the efforts to avoid censorship through abstraction and symbolism in the opera could not have fooled even the densest SS Guard. With blatant references to Hitler via “The Emperor” a.k.a. “Supreme General” – more than just a hint at “GröFaZ” [1] – the opera was deemed unacceptable, was banned, and never premiered. Only shortly thereafter – related to the production or not – the collaborators on this opera were shipped off to Auschwitz. The opera only survived because Viktor Ullmann handed the score to a fellow inmate at Terezín, Emil Utitz, whose fate was more fortunate.

Christian Miedl: Kaiser Überall

The Orchestra Jakobsplatz München, formed by young musicians of the Jewish community of Munich and beyond, performed this infrequently heard (though hardly neglected) work at the opening of the city's 21st Festival of Jewish Culture. This was the third collaboration between the Orchestra and  Bavarian State Opera (after Philip Glass’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” in 2005 and Vivaldis’ “Juditha Triumphans” in 2006). And the involvement of one of the largest and most professional opera houses certainly showed! I would not be surprised if, in turning the Jewish Community Center’s auditorium into a little opera house, twice as many technicians, artists, and stage hands than musicians were involved. (Markus Koch, direction; Iris Jedamski, stage; Michael Bauer, lighting.)

Christian Miedl (Kaiser Überall):Adrian Sâmpetrean (Death)

Since the State Opera also lent its singers to the effort, the vocal contributions were extraordinary  and perhaps most noteworthy with Christian Miedl’s Emperor and Kevin Conners’ Harlequin. But no matter the amount of effort involves, there is  no way of course, to perform this opera with even the slightest degree of ‘authenticity’ – an authenticity that would not only demand the recreation of the ghastly and dire circumstances but also the execution of a random 80 percent of audience and musicians after the performance. If ever there was a good argument against “Period Performances”.....

Viktor Ullmann’s life and work has been rescued from near total obscurity to relative prominence by this opera. Performances of it have increased appreciably since 1994 when Schott Publishing decided to make it available in print. There are two recordings of it  now: Decca’s 1993 ‘luxurious’ version with a fine cast and full-size orchestra, part of the discontinued but sporadically reissued “Entartete Musik” edition, and a 1995 Czech release with a small orchestra (as indicated in the score) on STUDIO MATOUŠ MK. James Conlon has long championed it  too, and further contributed to the Ullmann audience with the DVD “Estranged Passengers - In Search Of Viktor Ullmann” (The title is taken from Ullmann’s diary, written largely in verse.  The DVD contains a documentary, an interview with Conlon, and a performance of Ullmann’s orchestrated Fifth Piano Sonata.)

But just as the opera cannot be performed in an even remotely ‘authentic’ way, it cannot be separated from its history, either. Viewed and heard in isolation, it would merely be a strange opera, pleasantly short at under 50 minutes, influenced by Revue and Jazz (reminiscent of “Johnny Spielt Auf) and veering between the lyrical, the alienating, and the ugly. Emperor “Űberall” (invariably translated [?] as “Emperor Overall” – although that’s too literal; “Emperor Everywhere” is more apt, as would be “Emperor Above All”, or “Emperor Omnipresent”)  -cruelly rules, fighting a war of “all against all”. Death, feeling forcibly co-opted into the Emperor’s schemes, decides to go on strike. As a result, people can still get shot, mutilated, and torn apart, but they can no longer die. The Emperor tries to use this to his advantage, promising his soldiers eternal life. But even with the aid of his propaganda tool  “The Drummer” , (the beautifully acting and singing Stephanie Hampl here), he cannot prevent more and more rebellions from springing up in response to the misery and suffering caused by the absence of death. The Emperor despairs and in a delirium he sees the figure of Death himself.

Death promises to resume his duties as long as the Emperor is willing to be the first to meet the “new” Death. Eventually the Emperor agrees – but not without prophesizing that his fall will hardly mean the end to violence. A chorale (a warped “A Mighty Fortress is our God”) praises Death as giving value to life and ends the opera. A “Speaker” (an imposing Andreas Kohn) announces the action and participants before the opera and serves as the communication manager for the Emperor. Harlequin (looking rather more like Pierrot in Claudia Gall’s costume) is a stand in for life and serves as a constant reminder of hope. A young soldier and a female colleague from the opposing army provide a romantic subplot in the third scene. They were sung here by Michael McBride and Elif Aytekin who, if equipped with a more natural German, could have done more with the spoken elements, the same of which goes for Adrian Sâmpetrean’s otherwise striking Death.

The orchestra, led by their young and engaging founder Daniel Grossmann, who displays a charmingly nervous confidence, did as well as might have been expected, playing the music - which offers few ‘thankful’ parts to show off with anyway - in a perfectly capable manner. As the Decca recording shows, a souped-up professional and polished orchestra can make the music sound much better,  but whether that is desirable during a live performance which wishes to touch upon the spirit of the opera and perhaps also the occasion of its composition and first rehearsals, is questionable.

“Der Kaiser von Atlantis” – beyond being embraced as exciting due to its history – remains a troublesome work which is  difficult in every way, to come to terms with. And perhaps that’s precisely the message that an opera like this, born under the circumstances  it was, should send to us and remind  us of. In that sense,  the efforts of the Staatsoper, the Society for the Advancement of Jewish Culture and Tradition, and the Jakobsplatz Orchestra were well expended.

Jens F Laurson


All pictures © Wilfried Hösl, published with kind permission of the Staatsoper München.

Depicting, from top to bottom, Andreas Kohn (A Speaker), Adrian Sampetrean (Death) and Kevin Conners (Harlequin), Christian Miedl (Emperor), Sampetrean and Miedl.



[1] The German mocking acronym for “Greatest General of all Times” denoting Hitler and ridiculing the Nazi’s penchant for acronyms – while the title itself, coined by General Fieldmarshall Wilhelm Keitel, was ‘bestowed’ upon Hitler in all seriousness.



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