‘Emperor of Atlantis’ Speaks for Its Creators


When Auschwitz-bound composer Viktor Ullmann handed over his scores to fellow Terezin prisoner Emil Utitz in October 1944, he had to be hoping against hope that the manuscripts might somehow be salvaged amid the Nazi carnage all around him.

But Ullmann could scarcely have imagined that, more than 50 years later, one of his most wrenching works would be staged by an Austrian ensemble on the bleak grounds of the Terezin camp itself--before an audience of Holocaust survivors.

Now Ullmann and librettist Petr Kien’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” comes to Los Angeles for a single performance by that same ensemble--ARBOS, the Austrian Society for Music and Theatre. Tuesday’s show will be followed Thursday with a symposium entitled “Music and the Holocaust: Perspectives From Europe and America,” featuring a panel of musicians and historians as well as excerpts from other works composed at Terezin. Both events are sponsored by the Jewish Federation’s Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the L.A. consulate general of Austria, in partnership with various Jewish and Austrian organizations.

Discovered in the 1970s in London, where the manuscript landed after the war, “The Emperor of Atlantis” is an hourlong opera that darkly satirizes the brutality and banality of totalitarianism. The story pits the character of Emperor Over-All against Death, who refuses to carry out his duties when the Emperor embarks on a war with no purpose other than self-glorification. It is set to a cabaret-style score that ranges broadly over multiple idioms, quoting everything from the Nazi anthem “Deutschland uber alles” to the Lutheran chorale “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”


The Nazis uncharacteristically allowed the arts to flourish at Terezin (Theresienstadt in German), a notorious “show camp” that served as an effective propaganda tool for Hitler. But a production of “Atlantis” was never mounted there during the war.

“They had all the rehearsals, and they were ready, it was a question of a few days,” says Joza Karas, author of “Music in Terezin: 1941-1945.” Then the Germans suddenly began massive deportations to Auschwitz, sending Ullmann, Kien and much of the cast to their death.

Only about 20,000 of the nearly 140,000 people interned at Terezin survived. But a rich collection of art (including numerous portraits by Kien, who was also a gifted painter), poetry, literature and music was preserved, testifying to a singular phenomenon of Jewish cultural expression during the war.

“A big city in Europe could not compete with Theresienstadt, even in terms of music,” says Herbert Thomas Mandl, a musician and teacher who survived the camp and will participate in Thursday’s symposium. “There were lectures on all subjects, theatrical productions, ancient Greek poetry recitations. The cultural activities were so manifold that it was impossible to keep track.”


Ullmann, for instance, a well-known composer in Prague before the war, wrote some 20 works in the two years he was in Terezin, the most prolific writing period of his life.

“The artists there worked with heightened intensity,” Mandl says, noting that most of them were later murdered. “Ullmann said that the necessity to concentrate on the essential was good for an artist.”

Culture During the Genocide

Terezin was not the only place where culture endured in the shadow of genocide. Musical events were held in the Warsaw and Vilna ghettos, cabaret music was performed in Buchenwald and a choir formed at Sachsenhausen. “In Dachau they actually bribed an SS guard to get them wire,” says Nick Strimple, an L.A.-based conductor and music historian who specializes in Holocaust music. ‘They had picked up lumber, and they made instruments.”


It was also in Dachau that Herbert Zipper, who survived the war and eventually settled in Los Angeles, composed a song that came to be known as the “Dachau Lied.” It had an unusual status because inmates from Dachau were often transferred, and carried the song from camp to camp.

Like the pieces composed at Terezin, much of this music languished in obscurity for decades after the war. “There’s a broader body of work, but it’s only become known to us in the last five years,” says Strimple, who will be on the symposium panel. He adds that more music composed in the camps may yet be uncovered.

These revelations notwithstanding, Terezin retains its status as the chief incubator of Jewish musical expression during the Holocaust. And while the circumstances under which “Atlantis” and other works were written sometimes overshadows the music itself, many of these compositions are highly regarded.

“I think that the pieces can stand alone on any kind of a concert,” says Strimple. “There are no new revelations for the 20th century, no new Schoenberg came out of Terezin--just good composers writing good music under very difficult circumstances.” Among those generally acknowledged as major talents at Terezin were Gideon Klein (whose piano sonata is often performed in international competitions), Pavel Haas, Hans Krasa and Ullmann. All died at the hands of the Nazis.


Resistance to the Nazi Regime

“Atlantis” ranks as one of the most potent examples of artistic resistance against the Nazi regime, along with a handful of other compositions such as the children’s opera “Brundibar.” (Both works were mounted previously in Los Angeles by local musician Judith Berman, who will also be at the symposium.)

ARBOS’ production, which was also performed on Sunday at the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, conveys the stark conditions in which the opera was conceived and rehearsed. The piece (presented in German with a brief English introduction and explanatory program notes) is set on a stage enclosed by a wire fence, with the musicians and singers dressed in ragged clothes that, like prisoners at Terezin, they themselves made.

The original 1993 ARBOS production of “Atlantis” was performed in Klagenfurt, Austria, in a former Nazi bunker that now serves as a theater. Two years later, the company took the opera to Terezin.


“It was like giving the life, the spirit, of Ullmann back to the arts,” says ARBOS artistic director Herbert Gantschacher, whose company has earned a reputation for provocative site-specific theater, including a piece about deportation performed on trains. ARBOS is currently celebrating the centennial of Ullmann’s birth with a series of productions of the composer’s works.

Ullmann and Kien’s “Atlantis” can easily be read simply as a critique of the Third Reich. But the creators had in mind a larger message, according to Mandl.

“It is not a snapshot of Hitler’s Germany,” he says. “The opera may be understood to be a comment against planetary tyranny. Hitler was not the first or the last tyrant. Tyranny seems to be a permanent threat to mankind.”

* “The Emperor of Atlantis,” Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., Hollywood American Legion, 2035 N. Highland Ave. $15. “Music and the Holocaust: Perspectives From Europe and America,” Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church, 505 Rodeo Drive. Free. (323) 761-8170.