We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024



The cast of Viktor Ullman's Der Kaiser Von Atlantis

Citizens of the United States are prone to taking much for granted. Among the many rights and privileges we possess, one of the most important is that of freedom of artistic expression. With a few exceptions, like desecrating the flag or saying scurrilous things about minorities, artists are free to hold a mirror up to society and to show us what we tend to avoid or deny. Fascist dictators (is that redundant?) exert total control over music, art, and theater to present an idealized and dishonest view of society. Those that expose the lies are silenced, imprisoned, or killed.

 Viktor Ullman's opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, was composed in 1943 in the Nazi showcase concentration camp Terezin, with libretto by Peter Kien.  The opera was seen in rehearsal after which both men were hustled off to Auschwitz and tragically exterminated.  The opera has been produced in Europe but has been rather neglected in New York with the exception of a production by Opera Moderne in 2012 and one in 2015 by Juilliard Opera Theater.

The tragic circumstances of two talented lives cut short lends import to a work that easily stands on its own.  For this, we thank Ullman's fellow prisoners who managed to rescue the work when Terezin was liberated as well as the spiritualist who purportedly communicated with Ullman's ghost in finishing the instrumentation!  For bringing the work to life this week  we thank Manhattan School of Music Graduate Opera Theatre.

Now, what about the work itself?   Ullman's music is at times rather jazzy, referencing composers of many periods. Although we have heard it scored for and played by 13 instrumentalists, including a saxophone, a banjo and a harmonium, we heard it performed last night by two pianists (Eric Sedgwick and Anya Gershtein) and a percussionist (Tarun Bellur).  Under the musical direction of Djordje Nesic, it never sounded 
boring or "academic".   

It's a one act piece of great cynicism which makes one think of Brecht and Weill.
The story is an ironic one in which the Kaiser (a stand-in for Hitler) tries to co-opt Death which results in Death taking a holiday.  No one dies.  The world is filled with the walking dead.  A better image for prisoners in a concentration camp could not be imagined!  In the middle of this, a soldier and a girl find love.  At the end, Death takes the life of the Kaiser.

With great appreciation for the direction of John de los Santos assisted by Daniel Isengart, we were not forced to make the obvious connection with the threat of a would-be dictator in our own midst, nor was the point driven home by having the Kaiser sport a Hitlerian mustache. Nor were the subjects wearing striped pajamas.  The audience was wisely left to make their own connections. This always draws us into the work whereas overly explicit references or attempts to make a work "relevant" tend to push us away.

The cast was uniformly excellent. Kaiser Overall was played by Gregory Gropper whilst the role of Death was performed by Donghoon Kang who recently received a well-deserved major award from Opera Index. The role of Der Lautsprecher, the Kaiser's mouthpiece, was well performed by Brian Linares and the part of Der Trommler was taken by Morena Galán, whose undergraduate work at Mannes College of Music we followed with great interest. 

There was a moving scene with more lyrical music  performed by Samantha Noonan and Scott Rubén La Marca (recently seen as the fickle Count Belfiore when the MSM Graduate Opera Theater produced Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera).  Both begin as enemy soldiers trying to kill each other; but since Death was taking a holiday, they wind up loving each other--an optimistic note in a dark story.

Also remembered from La Finta Giardiniera was Victoria Magnusson who excelled as Harlequin, much as she won us over in the role of Serpetta in the Mozart. Rounding out the production was Margaux Frohlich who did an independent study project (with Benjamin Sokol) on the artists, actors, and musicians who were interred at Terezin. We believe it was she who gave a short speech at the conclusion of the opera about her ancestors who were victims of Nazi brutality.  As if the work was not sufficiently powerful!

What word could we use to describe our experience? "Entertained" is far too light-hearted. It might be more accurate to say that we were shaken and driven to think about the many places in the world today, some in our very own hemisphere, where dictators manage to enslave a populace. It doesn't matter whether we call their regimes "Fascist" or "Communist" or "Religious Fundamentalist"; they all have the same goal of concentration of power in the person of a sociopath with the result that the people suffer. Let us not think that we are immune. Democracy must be fought for to be won and vigorously supported to be maintained.

Should you be fortunate enough to find a ticket for tonight's performance, do not fail to read the historical background provided by Heather O'Donovan's essay.

© meche kroop

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