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February 6, 2009

Imperial performance


It was an entertaining and enlightening afternoon at the Norman Rothstein Theatre Sunday. The opening performance of The Emperor of Atlantis was sold out and, while the audience may not have gone home humming, they certainly went home avidly discussing what they had seen.

Presented by City Opera Vancouver (COV) and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC), the chamber opera was written by Viktor Ullmann (composer) and Petr Kien (librettist) in 1943-1944 at Theresienstadt concentration camp. It is a not-so-subtle satire of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany and, because of that, it was never actually performed by the prisoners who created and rehearsed it. Once the guards realized its meaning, Ullmann, Kien and most of the performers were taken to Auschwitz, where they died. The Emperor of Atlantis received its first full performance in 1975.

The plot of the one-hour opera is relatively simple, but its message is powerful. Death, appalled by the Emperor's arrogance and bloody wars, decides that he will no longer perform his duties: people will be killed, but they won't die. The Emperor demands that Death return to work and Death agrees, but with a condition that the Emperor must meet.

The content of the opera concerns the Holocaust, but also applies to genocide in general. Sadly, Kien's text – ably translated for the Vancouver production by Dr. Harvey De Roo, a retired professor and a board member of COV – retains its relevance. For example, in the final scene of the one-act opera, as rebel forces begin to win the fight against the Emperor's armies, they note how blind they once were to the brutality going on around them: "Enormous as the madness of our atrocities is the retribution, as horrendous the pain, which we have brought upon ourselves. We will endure it all with humility and not rest until we have rooted out the last trace of hatred and intolerance from our hearts."

The time for rest has not yet been reached by humanity and, while it is easy to be cynical about the possibility of such a utopia, it is harder to imagine how Kien – surrounded by so much death and facing his own – wrote lyrics that held hope for a positive future. The libretto is full of humor, not all of it ironic.

Ullmann's musical score is similarly uplifting. Brought up in Vienna, Ullmann was a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg and was greatly influenced by Schoenberg's atonal style. Ullmann composed more than 20 works in Theresienstadt and The Emperor of Atlantis encompasses a number of musical allusions, to such composers as Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler and Josef Suk, as well the blues and popular dance music. While the dominant style of The Emperor of Atlantis is atonal, it contains some extremely melodic passages.

What is also striking about The Emperor of Atlantis is the range of musical talent that was imprisoned in Theresienstadt, as Ullmann wrote the opera for seven singers and more than 10 instruments, including banjo and saxophone. The local performers had a heavy responsibility to fulfil and they did it extremely well, garnering a standing ovation for their efforts at the Feb. 1 opening.

The afternoon began with a welcome and introduction from both Frieda Miller, executive director of the VHEC, and Dr. Nora Kelly, president of the COV. British Columbia Lt.-Gov. Steven L. Point was in attendance. He addressed the audience, speaking very thoughtfully about history and the need to remember not only humanity's great accomplishments, but its atrocities as well. As an aboriginal, he said, his story has much in common with that of the Jewish people. He thanked the organizers, performers, crew and audience that afternoon, but especially the storytellers – Ullmann and Kien – for preserving a story that must never be forgotten.

Following the lieutenant-governor's remarks, Dr. Jaap Hamburger, head of interventional cardiology research at St. Paul's and Vancouver General hospitals, gave an excellent presentation on musical history, putting The Emperor of Atlantis into context. With wit and several audio examples, Hamburger successfully conveyed the notion that "art is not about being nice, but being true" and that there is an artistic cycle – what's novel and criticized when introduced, like the atonal style, for example, becomes fashionable, then it is replaced by tonality, which is also criticized at first and which is once more eventually replaced by the novelty of atonality, and so the round continues.

When the lights went down, the audience was better able to knowledgeably enjoy the performance. The singers were all top-notch: Andrew Greenwood as the Emperor of Atlantis, John Minágro as Death, William George as Harlekin, Stephen Aberle as Loudspeaker, Robyn Dreidger-Klassen as Bubikopf, Sam Chung as Soldier and Megan Morrison as Drummer Girl. Dancers Kayla Dunbar and Alisha Suitor added to the depth of the production.

While some of the choreography seemed awkward – Harlekin uncomfortably sitting on top of a tall, black box for much of the opera, for instance – the overall performance was fluid and, at times, haunting, with the lighting by Adrian Muir and the costumes designed by Marti Wright. Director Peter Jorgensen deserves credit for bringing to life the opera on such a small stage, on which the orchestra was also placed. And music director Dr. Charles Barber conducted the musicians with a sure and passionate hand – Barber knew violinist Pavel Kling, one of only two original Emperor of Atlantis performers to survive the Holocaust. (Kling passed away in 2005.)

Much of the humor in the opera takes place between the characters of Loudspeaker and the Emperor, and Aberle and Greenwood masterfully communicate it. Minágro as Death, dressed as a much-decorated soldier, is certainly imposing, with his bass voice, but even he gets in a few comedic punches. Dreidger-Klassen and Chung sing one of the most beautiful songs in the opera, and the chorale finale – sung by Dreidger-Klassen, Morrison, George and Aberle – is ethereal.

Three performances of The Emperor of Atlantis remain: Feb. 7, 9 and 11, 8 p.m. Tickets are $40. For information about where you can buy them, visit