Chicago Opera Theater Opens THE CLEVER ONE & EMPEROR OF ATLANTIS Tonight
Chicago Opera Theater (COT) presents a unique double-bill of one-act German language operas including Carl Orff's "The Clever One" and Viktor Ullmann's "The Emperor of Atlantis," in four performances today, May 31- June 8, 2014 at the Merle Reskin Theatre of DePaul University (60 E. Balbo). "The Emperor of Atlantis" ("Der Kaiser von Atlantis") by Viktor Ullmann and "The Clever One" ("Die Kluge") by Carl Orff are two satires about oppression and dictatorship both written in 1943, but reflecting differing world views: "Emperor" was composed during Ullman's imprisonment at the Theresienstadt concentration camp and "Clever One" by an artist working under the Nazi regime's guidelines in Frankfurt, Germany. Both biting satires emphasize a sense of absurdity and ridiculousness while embodying the spirit of traditional German fairytales.
"COT's pairing emphasizes the political struggle inherent in these two pieces which, despite the circumstances in which they were written, both remain markedly comical and effortlessly satirical," said Andreas Mitisek, Chicago Opera Theater Music Director. "It is extraordinary that such impressive works were created in times of such great repression and terror, and it is a testaments to the power of art that such innovative operas can be created in such and environment."
Written from within the walls of the Nazi concentration camp, Theresienstadt, Ullmann's work, "The Emperor of Atlantis," is a satire on fascism, set in Atlantis where Emperor Overall advocates total war against everyone and Death retires from his duties. The score contains musical quotations ranging from blues to the German National Anthem, "Deutschland ueber Alles," performed in the style of a Bach chorale. In contrast, the fairytale opera "The Clever One," by Carl Orff, best known for his perennial favorite "Carmina Burana," tells of a foolish, tyrannical king being bested by a clever woman, a folktale found in many cultures. The composer also wrote his own libretto, based on "Die Kluge Bauerntochter" "The Peasant's Wise Daughter" from the also well-known "Grimm's Fairy Tales."
Both operas are under the direction of Andreas Mitisek and are conducted by Francesco Milioto. The ensemble cast of the two productions includes Emily Birsan; Matthan Ring Black; Paul Corona; William Dwyer; Neil Edwards; David Govertsen; Bernard Holcomb; Christopher Remmel; Cassidy Smith and Andrew Wilkowske.
The four-scene, 70-minute opera, begins with Life and Death commenting on a world where existence is no longer satisfying, and death no true release. In Terezin, during the summer of 1943, Viktor Ullmann and Petr Kien began collaborating on what was to later emerge as a signature masterpiece of Terezin's musical scene. At the time it was also one of the most controversial. "The Emperor of Atlantis," subtitled "Death Abdicates," dared to satirize the political situation of World War II while delivering timeless messages of the power of life and death. Kien, a talented young artist and poet, penned the libretto while veteran composer Ullmann scored the music. During a final rehearsal in September of 1944, SS officers overheard a rehearsal and were outraged by what they heard. The opera's production was immediately ended and "The Emperor of Atlantis" was banned. The entire cast, orchestra, Ullmann, Kien and their families were promptly shipped to Auschwitz. Only the composition survived.
Subtitled "The Story of the King and the Clever Woman," Orff's "The Clever One" originates from the tale of a shrewd peasant daughter. Orff based his libretto on a Grimm's Fairy Tale, premiering in Frankfurt on February 18, 1943. Structured along the lines of Brecht's didactic plays, "The Clever One" is not a fairytale opera in the usual sense as the plot is entirely lacking in supernatural or illogical elements. It shares its farcical ingredients with the old Shrovetide plays and features pointed poetic wit, with songs resembling a street ballad
Born on January 1, 1898 in Tesin, Czech Republic, Viktor Ullman, a composer, pianist, choirmaster, conductor and music critic, was one of the victims from the Prague German Jewish musicians' group in World War II. From 1920 until 1927, Ullmann was one of Alexander Zemlinsky's assistants in the New German Theatre in Prague, now the State Opera Prague, before being appointed head of the opera company in Usti nad Labem.
Ullmann was the leading figure in a circle of his Czech and German friends for whom he gave private music performances and chamber concert parties until he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp on September 8, 1942. Even in the extremely grim conditions of a Nazi concentration camp, he continued to maintain his artistic activity and together with Karel Ancerl, Rafael Schachter, Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa and other artists, he wrote a celebrated chapter in the camp's cultural Iife. In 1944, Ullmann was deported to the Auschwitz death camp, where he died in a gas chamber.
While only a small portion of Ullman's work has been found, before the outbreak of the Second World War he wrote some forty works, mostly orchestral, chamber and piano compositions and two operas. His literary works and approximately twenty fragments of his almost-finished or complete compositions written in Theresienstadt have also been preserved. Since the late 1970s, Ullmann's music has been enjoying revived interest. "The Emperor of Atlantis," has been staged several times since then, as so have Ullmann's piano sonatas and Theresienstadt String Quartet compositions.