By Tom Keogh
Special to The Seattle Times
“By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon,” wrote composer Viktor Ullmann during the last years of his life, spent with fellow artists at the Nazi-controlled Theresienstadt concentration camp in Terezín. “Our endeavor with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.”
Ullmann’s will to create was considerable in Terezín, an old Czech fortress town converted by the Gestapo into a ghetto for prisoners typically destined to die at Auschwitz. An echo of his passion will be heard this weekend at two Benaroya Hall performances of Ullmann’s 1943-44 satirical opera “The Emperor of Atlantis,” produced in a staged version by Music of Remembrance (MOR), a Seattle nonprofit dedicated to music of and about the Holocaust.
Directed by Erich Parce, this “Emperor” involves a noteworthy creative partnership between MOR and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. A 15-piece chamber ensemble will include symphony musicians and will be conducted by SSO music director Ludovic Morlot. The all-Northwest vocal cast includes baritone Victor Benedetti, sopranos Megan Chenovick and Kimberly Giordano, tenors Ross Hauck and Marc Shelton, and bass-baritone Jonathon Silvia.
A prolific writer of music for voice, chamber orchestra, piano, woodwind and more before his arrest in Prague in 1942, Ullmann — raised by parents who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism — continued to produce an extraordinary amount of compositions at Theresienstadt.
“The irony,” says MOR artistic director Mina Miller, “is that Ullmann, raised Catholic, discovered his Jewish heritage in a concentration camp. Among other things at Terezín, he arranged Yiddish and Hebrew folk songs, and wrote a song cycle on Yiddish melodies.”
One of Ullmann’s last works, “Emperor,” an idiosyncratic one-act skewering Hitler, helped assure his death in the gas chambers at Auschwitz in October 1944. Also killed was “Emperor’s” librettist, Peter Kien, and, says Miller, the cast of the opera’s canceled premiere at Theresienstadt.
“It’s a searing portrait of a world gone mad,” says Miller, “with a murderous ruler, certainly a metaphor for Hitler. It mocked him in every possible way, including a drummer character obviously based on (Hitler companion) Eva Braun. ” ‘Emperor’ is such a statement of moral protest that when authorities saw rehearsals, they banned it.”
“Emperor” is the story of a global despot who enlists an old ally, Death, in a campaign to rid paradise of humans. But Death has other ideas, resulting in the emperor’s change of heart and a sacrifice to free his subjects from pain.
Born in 1898 in an area now divided between Poland and the Czech Republic, Ullmann’s music was strongly influenced by composer Arnold Schoenberg. Most of his 41 works before arrest are now gone. But the majority of his Theresienstadt compositions exist today.
In an odd twist, the 1975 world premiere of “Emperor” in Amsterdam involved an infamous psychic, Rosemary Brown, who claimed Ullmann’s spirit guided her in preparing a performance edition. MOR has embraced a subsequent publisher’s version based on careful research.
“I always had ‘Emperor’ on the back burner,” says Miller. “Considering this is the 15th season of Music of Remembrance, I thought, let’s just go ahead.”
Miller says Morlot was “very excited to be involved, and strict about using the specific instruments” called for in Ullmann’s eclectic orchestration, including banjo, harpsichord, guitar and saxophone.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to get a 19th-century harmonium,” Miller says. “The orchestration has a Kurt Weill feeling. It’s even somewhat out of tune.”
London’s The Independent calls “Emperor” “a brittle, sophisticated cabaret, a nostalgic romance, a Chaplinesque satire, a declaration of defiance.”
” ‘Emperor’ is a stinging attack on war,” says Miller, “and a passionate affirmation of life.”