Der Kaiser von Atlantis, Viktor Ullmann

Greenwich Music Festival

14th June, 2009

There is something fitting in the fact that I am writing this review of the Greenwich Music Festival’s splendid Kaiser von Atlantis during a layover at the Houston Airport.  What might this fascinating little opera written in a Czech concentration camp have to do with the striding bronze statue of George Bush I am viewing from my table outside the FOX NEWS Store (story of the hour: “PROTESTORS DEMAND LETTERMAN’S RESIGNATION”)? The answer is: everything.

This is the happy genius of this burgeoning little music festival’s accomplishment: under the direction of Ted Huffman, this crack team of performers and designers has managed to present this many-faceted jewel of an opera in a manner that is utterly respectful of its unique origins while remaining so fresh that it feels almost incidentally composed for this moment.

One way this was achieved was in the very clear and charming design concept, which, without strictly limiting itself to the resources of the piece’s conception, was true to its spirit in that the bulk of the set and props were made from “appropriated” objects.  The backdrop was composed of strips of muslin, the lighting accented with bare bulbs.  In some hands this could have looked cheap or clichéd (or worse, as parodying the real deprivations of those in Terezin), but the design was executed with such subtlety, taste, and structural integrity (the props were all painted red, for example) that we quickly moved beyond any search for its “meaning’ and allowed it to do what all good design does: to help tell the story.

The homespun quality of the set also functioned because it stood in humble contrast to the superbly high quality of the performers (brilliantly costumed by Paul Carey), who grabbed our full attention from the first note and never let go.

That the singers should be able to create so vivid and colorful a world out of so little physical material is precisely the point.  Der Kaiser von Atlantis is, after all, a piece about the Imagination: about its power to elevate or undo us, to imprison us or to set us free.

The Kaiser, to begin with, is the leader of an imaginary and limitless realm.  Keith Phares was brilliantly cast as the Hitler-inspired megalomaniac, his tensed posture betraying the soul of a frightened, beleaguered bureaucrat while his glorious voice and good looks expressed the seductive side of the dictator as a dreamy, Romantic hero.

Jeffrey Tucker, in the figure of Death/The Loudspeaker, was another captivating presence.  This congenial, lumbering bass was the comic highlight of the show – and if his German diction was not quite that of a native speaker, he made up for this with his uncanny grasp of German-ness itself in his ability to morph into its many manifestations as a variety of trembling underlings and officious upper-middle managers.  His performance also possessed a refined balance of lurking menace mixed with a patient certainty (the dichotomy of Death was also eloquently expressed in his costume, a pink satin nightgown worn beneath a soldier’s redcoat).  He knew he would always get the last laugh, and bided his time.

I confess I wanted more comedy from the character of the Harlekin, sung by Peter Tantsits.  Though he was quite agile and willing onstage, I felt the director (or perhaps the choreographer?) did not give us enough true physical hilarity in his scenes.  Nor did we specifically see how he was supposed to represent “pleasure”, as described in the program notes.

Katherine Pracht, singing the difficult role of the Drummer with force and clarity, was perhaps the most fascinating character in the show.  This figure, described by the composer as “not quite real, but like a radio”, was embodied here as a grotesque amalgamation of soldier, whore, and puppet. [Is the FOX NEWS parallel starting to make sense?]  Tottering around on platform boots with spindly wooden hands attached to her elongated arms, her face smeared with makeup like a prostitute in a George Grosz painting, her persistent presence was at once terrifying and yet illusory.  Her ability to glide from one state to another, Butoh-dancer-like, gave us the sense that she might just shrivel up and we would awake from the nightmare.

The scene in which she battles for the attention of the soldier in the field who has just fallen in love with his enemy was like a more existential take on Don José’s tortured struggle to resist the trumpets summoning him from Carmen’s bed.  Only in Ullmann’s version, the soldier’s lover had been his enemy combatant not minutes before, and it is not actual trumpets calling him, but merely the clarion call of the nihilistic zeitgeist.

[Just now an announcement is playing at the Houston Airport: “WE ARE CURRENTLY AT SECURITY THREAT LEVEL ORANGE.”]

This scene between the spontaneous lovers, with its Straussian lushness (vibrantly sung by Rachelle Durkin as Bubikopf) seemed to me to be the heart of the show, in more ways than one.  In this moment, Ullmann confronts us with the fundamental and innocent question: Why?  Why do we trap ourselves in these inescapable and destructive roles of our own making?  Why do we not learn from the past?  Why can we not take a step back and truly see each other, in our humanity?

I have rarely seen such a convincing moment of true love on the operatic stage.  What Strauss takes hours to do, Ullmann achieves in a matter of minutes.

It is this economy, this urgency of Ullmann’s message (both dramatically and musically) that hits us with such a wallop, and that also makes this work feel so contemporary, so suited to our 21st century way of thinking.  Musically, it snaps in and out of so many styles and references so many genres, unapologetically, without the luxury of lengthy transitions or expositions.  The ICE orchestra, under Robert Ainsley, was perfectly suited to the task, revealing the full kaleidoscope of Ullmann’s music with their swift precision and alternating warmth and crystal-clarity.

Hearing this piece, we feel we are hearing an oracle from the past – a message in a bottle.

And, as Viktor Ullmann was murdered by the Nazis just months after Der Kaiser von Atlantis was completed (and before the piece was ever allowed to be performed), we in fact know the desperation of its prophetic message to have been well-warranted.

As Mr. Ainsley said in his address before the show, this is a work of tremendous bravery.  And the Greenwich Music Festival has done a brave job indeed in its challenging and generous offering of this opera  - because, as Viktor Ullmann shows us, the bravest act we can perform is to surrender the assumptions that blind us, and to open our hearts to one another.


Georges Briscot

Production Credits

Conductor: Robert Ainsley (conducting the International Contemporary Ensemble)
Director and Producer: Ted Huffman
Choreographer/ Co-Director: Zack Winokur
Stage and Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi
Costume Design: Paul Carey


Kaiser Overall: Keith Phares
Der Tod/ Lautsprecher: Jeffrey Tucker
Harlekin: Peter Tantsits
Ein Soldat: Matt Morgan
Bubikopf, ein Soldat: Rachelle Durkin
Der Trommler: Katherine Pracht