The opera written in a concentration camp, Der Kaiser von Atlantis

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In a world that is consumed by war, violence, and persecution, what happens when death takes a vacation? This questioned gets asked in Viktor Ullmann’s 1943 opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis, now streaming on OperaVision. This performance is by the Deutsche Oper am Rhein.

Viktor Ullmann and his librettist, Peter Kien were interned in Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942. To pass the time, Ullmann composed operas, first Der zerbrochene Krug in 1942 and Der Kaiser von Atlantis in 1943. Der Kaiser von Atlantis asks a simple question, what happens if you can’t die? While this question is popular among philosophers, Ullmann and Kien’s take is quite radical in the opera. Rather than fearing death, death is a release from the pain, horror, and violence in Nazi Germany. There is no vision of peace, or a life after war, no hope for a better world, just eternal peace.

Musically, the opera spans from the bawdy melodies of Kurt Weill to the more serialistic orchestration of Alban Berg. The violence and PTSD the soldiers experience is similar to Berg’s Wozzeck. It’s no wonder these soldiers would prefer death to the living. The score for this opera contains the alto saxophone. At this time, the saxophone was an established instrument in German operas, used by Weill, Hindemith, Berg, and Krenek. To learn more about these operas, check out the database on the main page.

The Nazis running Theresienstadt refused to let Ullmann perform the opera. Not understanding satire, they believed the opera was mocking Adolph Hitler. The opera is mocking the lust for war, where the only outcome for a good soldier is death. What good is an Emperor when he can’t destroy life? Without death, how does one live on?

Ullmann and Kien were sent to Auschwitz in 1944, they were executed that same year. The score for Der Kaiser von Atlantis was smuggled out of Theresienstadt. In 1975, the opera received it’s world premiere.

This performance of Der Kaiser von Atlantis is streaming until April 30th. Check it out before it goes away.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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