Every now and then, an event takes place that grabs you like an encounter in a dream, and you wake feeling like you have been wrestling with an angel. Such an event was the presentation of Victor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis in Carswell Auditorium on the campus of Meredith College.

Ullman was one of the multitudes of gifted musicians, writers, and artists caught up in the most unspeakable inhumanity of the Hitler era in Europe. He was born in Austria on New Year’s Day in 1898, studied with luminaries such as Schoenberg in Vienna, was a lifelong friend of Zemlinsky, and was active as an accompanist and conductor at the New German Theater in Prague. In 1942, he was arrested by the Nazis and interred at the concentration camp in Terezin (Theresienstadt) Czechoslovakia. This was the “model” detainment center for Jews, always shown to the Red Cross, with its arts, education, and self-governance programs on open display. In reality, it was a cruelly deceitful propaganda ploy. Thousands of children died there due to malnourishment and disease. For many, this was merely a stopping point on the way to the efficiently-functioning gas chambers at Auschwitz. Through the diabolical documentation of Nazi record keeping and the memory of survivors, it is known that Ullman was transported to Auschwitz, where he died in October 1944.

Even at Terezin, Ullman was composing and leading musical performances. Miraculously, a number of his works have been preserved, many unfinished. Der Kaiser von Atlantis, with libretto by fellow inmate, poet Peter Kien, was composed in 1943, and rehearsals took place in March 1944. The story however was seen as offensive by the Nazi authorities, and the opera was banned. It finally received its public premiere 31 years later in Amsterdam and has attracted increasing interest around the world ever since.

The Emperor of Atlantis, subtitled “Death’s Refusal,” is in one act, consisting of a prologue and four scenes. The story involves seven abstract characters: Emperor Overall of Atlantis was sung by baritone Carl Halperin; Robert Chapman, bass, sang the role of The Loudspeaker; Death was sung by bass-baritone Brian Watson; John Cashwell, tenor, was Harlequin (representing Life); Timothy Sparks, tenor, was A Soldier; Bubikopf (Girl with Bobbed Hair) was sung by Andrea Price, soprano; and The Drummer was portrayed by Lisa Fredenburgh, mezzo-soprano. The orchestra consisted of Don Eagle, trumpet (muted), James Fogle, piano, Sally Unrein, percussion, and Jake Wenger, cello. James M. Waddelow was the conductor. 

The Emperor (read dictator!) has issued orders for perpetual war. In scene two the Emperor learns that Death has refused to do his work, so people can only suffer — they cannot die. In scene three, a soldier and a maiden from opposite sides of the conflict find that they cannot kill each other, so they fall in love. In scene four, Death informs Emperor Overall that he is not the cause of people’s miseries but is rather the refuge from them. The Emperor pleads for Death to resume his proper duties, which he finally agrees to do only if the Emperor agrees to be the first to die. Emperor Overall in the end is persuaded and sings a haunting last farewell. The opera ends with a quartet singing a chilling parody on “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” to the words “Thou shalt not take the great name of Death in vain.”

To imagine the circumstances out of which this striking work was created requires courage that is more than empathy and depth of spirit that is beyond comprehension, but we must not avoid it.

The music is solid. The influences of Schoenberg, Mahler, and Bach are from time to time apparent. I think I heard a tone-row from Berg in one of the interludes. The unique combination of instruments lends an ironic, bittersweet flavor to the opera with a hint of cabaret. The performance was strong from both instrumentalists and singers. The singing by all of these outstanding Triangle treasures was well balanced and superb. Surrounding the whole performance, there was an aura of meaningful commitment to the powerful message that is the gift of Ullmann and Kien and many others. This was an event that few in attendance will forget any time soon.

To top off the evening, there was a conversation between Michael Haas, Curator of Music at the Jewish Museum in Vienna, and Ela Weissberger, one of the few survivors of Terezin. She shared memories of life there as a child and recollections of Ullmann and his gracious character. The evening concluded with “Victory Song,” the closing chorus from Hans Krasa’s Brundibar, a children’s opera composed in Theresienstadt and performed there several times.

This program was part of a symposium for the Recovery of Suppressed Music during the Third Reich, 1933-1945, which included other events and concerts. Special mention should be made and praise acclaimed for Ellen Williams and Carl Halperin, who produced this extraordinary event.

Editor’s Note: The three-day symposium “…for the Recovery of Suppressed Music in the Third Reich” involved Michael Haas, whose mother (the long-time proprietor of the late-lamented Raleigh Creative Costumes…) and brother (sculptor Joel Haas) still live in the capital, plus artists at Meredith and from the community. The other public concert, presented in Carswell Recital Hall on Tuesday, February 5, concentrated on music “beyond opera.” Because the seminar was so important, we include here mention of the program and artists involved in the second evening:

*G.F. Handel: Teseo: Quell’amor (arr. Hans Gál) – Laura Williams, soprano, Izabela Spiewak, violin, & James Fogle, piano
*Franz Schreker: Tanz-Suite – Karen Allred & Anatoly Larkin, piano duet
*Schreker: [2] songs: Und wie mag die Liebe; & O Glocken, böse Glocken – Rebecca Sealey, soprano, & James Fogle, piano
*Schreker: [2] songs (to texts by Whitman): Wurzeln und Halme sind dies nur; & Das Gras – Sally Thomas, soprano, & Frank Pittman, piano
*Gideon Klein: Sonata – Frank Pittman, piano
*Erich Zeisl: Die Nacht; Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt: Tanz-Lied des Pierrot; & Zeisl: Arm Kräutchen – Carl Halperin, baritone, & Karen Allred, piano
*Klein: String Trio – Izabela Spiewak, violin, Xi Yang, viola, & Virginia Ewing Hudson, cello.

Texts and translations, absent the previous night, were supplied. The performances were somewhat mixed, perhaps due in part to some last-minute shifts in pianists. As the program progressed, one wondered again and again at the richly-varied music, beautiful — often hauntingly so — and expressive, and all of it banned by the Third Reich…. That some of it survived is remarkable, in and of itself. For its dissemination in our time, in large measure, we have record and CD producer Michael Haas to thank. And for some of it, our gratitude must loom large. In particular, Schreker’s Suite and Whitman songs, Klein’s Sonata and String Trio, and the Zeisl and Korngold numbers benefited from strong and noteworthy interpretations.

Fellow critic (and the event’s co-producer) Carl Halperin told us that Karen Sampson, of the Meredith Art Department, made the selected pictures of Terezin into the exhibit offered in the Carswell Hall lobby; and Bev’s Art loaned the rabbi canvases mounted on the wall behind the food table.

It would be a wonderful thing if Meredith’s artists would continue to explore this little-known music and help bring it back into the repertoire.

– John W. Lambert