Opera Composed at a WWII Concentration Camp is Performed in New London

Jan 31, 2014

An opera written by a Jewish composer while in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II will be performed this weekend in Connecticut. In an egregious bit of Nazi Propaganda, the concentration camp known as Theresienstadt was falsely presented to the world as a model Jewish settlement.

Jewish intellectuals, as well as composers, artists and musicians were detained at Theresienstadt, and encouraged to create and perform original works. One of these was a one-act opera called "Der Kaiser von Atlantis" (The Emperor of Atlantis), by Austrian composer Viktor Ullman. 

"It's about one hour, and at the end, it shakes everybody to its core."
Adrian Sylveen

Adrian Sylveen, the conductor of the Connecticut Lyric Opera, said the work is unique, given the horrific situation facing the composer. Nazi officials only allowed one rehearsal of the opera before it became apparent that the character of the Kaiser was a thinly-veiled satire of Hitler. Ulmman was eventually sent to Aushwitz, where he was killed.

The Connecticut Lyric Opera performs "Der Kaiser von Atlantis" this Saturday night at Evans Hall on the campus of Connecticut College in New London. 

WNPR's RayHardman spoke with Sylveen about the production.

Adrian Sylveen: I’ve seen the operas from years ago, and it made a huge impact on me. The opera, on its surface, is a farce. It’s a grotesque criticism of the Nazi regime, obviously. We all know that the plot itself is very simple, but it’s very direct. It applies in some way to all of us. The most important thing about the opera is that in some ways, [it] flips the fear of dying on its head. The death denies the services in that opera. Everybody is fighting, and suffering, and cannot die, and in the end, death is seen as a happy ending.

Ray Hardman: So death is the final reward, so to speak, in this opera?

Yes, that is correct.

This was written at the concentration camp known as Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia? A special type of concentration camp. 

That’s correct. It was a concentration camp that was sort of for show for the red cross to visit, and all the creators of the opera ended up in Auschwitz after all. and what I know, because they wrote this opera, they were sent to Auschwitz, and they died. But in some ways, we are lucky that we have it, that opera, and that they could create it.

What do we know about the composer, Victor Ullman? 

If you look at the score, it’s a mixture of different elements. Ullman is not performed that much these days, but he is somebody who is very brilliant in his writings. It is very hard to judge a composer through the extraordinary circumstances that he faced in his creative work. It’s really, to some degree, unbelievable that under the circumstances of being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, someone was even capable of writing, nevermind writing an opera, and nevermind writing a good one. So I have a great respect for him in that sense. 

I think it would be hard, as a conductor, to not view this work through the lens of looking at what the conductor was going through at the time he was writing this work. Is there anything about this work that, to you, speaks of him being confined; him being separated from his home, perhaps his family, and having to deal with really horrific conditions?

Where do we start? That's a book. As you know, I come from that part of the world. I grew up in Poland, and the depth of that sensitivity was there at home. That’s number one. Number two, when you deprive people of everything that they live with -- and I don’t mean the physical aspects of what we own; a car and a house, and so forth -- but the ability to love, the ability to feel, the ability to enjoy being... then, the opera becomes, indeed, a way out of that, and I see it as such. It’s incredible. It’s not a very long opera. It’s about one hour, and at the end, it shakes everybody to its core.