Nazi concentration camp is perhaps the last place in the world where one would expect to find conditions favorable to the creation of art. And yet, in 1944, art did come from one such camp—a musical work of sufficient interest for it to be performed today, if only sporadically. The work is Viktor Ullmann’s satirical opera Der Tod dankt ab, oder Der Kaiser von Atlantis (“Death Abdicates, or the Emperor of Atlantis”). The manuscript of the opera was discovered in 1972 by the British composer Kerry Woodward, who conducted its premiere three years later. A much-touted revival of the work took place in May at the Wiener Kammeroper (the Vienna Chamber Opera).

The Emperor of Atlantis was composed (although never performed) at Theresienstadt, the “showcase” concentration camp forty miles northeast of Prague where large numbers of prominent Jewish artists and intellectuals were interned on their way to the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen gas chambers. Conditions at Theresienstadt, while appalling enough, were far better than in the death camps. The inmates were permitted books, musical instruments, and amusements. Indeed, the camp’s so-called Freizeitgestaltung (“recreational activity”), which began spontaneously with the smuggling of musical instruments into the ghetto, soon blossomed into a full-fledged cultural life. Theater, cabaret, concerts, opera—all were undertaken with the blessing of the SS, presumably in the hope of maintaining a compliant prisoner population and for the purposes of presenting to the world a “humane” camp that would conceal the real horror of Hitler’s Reich.

Viktor Ullmann could be said to epitomize Theresienstadt’s inmates, most of whom were prominent Jews with distinguished military records. Ullmann himself was the son of a Jewish nobleman and army officer; he had been the youngest officer in the Austro-Hungarian forces during the First World War. Joza Karas tells us in Music in Terezín,[1] his authoritative history of musical life in the camp, that Ullmann’s early musical career had been assisted by his former teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, who recommended the young man for a position as Alexander Zemlinsky’s assistant at the German Opera in Prague. Throughout the interwar period Ullmann worked in music— as a conductor, teacher, and music critic— but produced little in the way of composition, even after resuming his studies, this time with the experimental Czech composer Alois Habas. Apparently Ullmann’s compositional efforts were restricted by constant financial pressures. During his internment at Theresienstadt, however, Ullmann became prolific. In two years he produced at least sixteen compositions, among them several song cycles, a string quartet, three piano sonatas, and The Emperor of Atlantis. Many of these works were first performed in the camp.

That the prisoners at Theresienstadt were receptive to such high-minded cultural efforts can be inferred from their portrayal in the Nazi film Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (“The Führer Donates a City to the Jews”), even after allowing for the films’s propaganda purposes. Half starved and crowded into barracks, Jewish prisoners are observed pursuing their pastimes: reading, knitting, listening to orchestral concerts ... noble occupations in ignoble circumstances.

The recent Vienna production of The Emperor of Atlantis began with excerpts from this very film. When they ended and the music began, the stage brightened and one could make out a large construction resembling a cage. It was within this cage, apparently, that the opera was to be performed. The parallel to real life seemed clear enough—until the singers entered, drifting in confusion like somnambulists. Because these catatonic wanderers were dressed in concentration-camp garb, and positioned literally behind bars, we were presumably meant to identify them with the men and women we had just seen on screen. But in the faces of the screen figures one could see the light of reason still shining through a veil of human suffering; the stage figures, by contrast, seemed demoralized, alienated. Indeed, they suggested so fully the familiar posturing of postmodern melodrama that one could not help feeling a certain lack of sympathy for them.

Fortunately, one was soon informed via a narrator that the dramatis personae wandering across the stage were not literally the hopeless victims of oppression we had in mind. Rather, they were archetypal figures, poised, as it turned out, to take part in a surreal satire of some dramatic force. The cast included, besides the narrator, an Emperor, a Pierrot, a drummer, an ordinary soldier, and a maiden. Among these hapless ideal types stalks the figure of Death.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Death is feeling insulted by the mechanization of war and the bloodbaths of the warmongering Emperor. In retaliation, he decides to “abdicate"—that is, he refuses to perform his customary task of grim reaping. This strange development turns the war machine on its head. Men and women of enemy camps stop fighting and start falling in love. Hospitals overflow with the sick and wounded, for whom there is now no deliverance from pain. Overworked doctors rise up in rebellion. The Emperor is especially annoyed when people he has sentenced to death refuse to die. Faced with a revolution, he finds that only by offering his own life can he force Death to return to work.

There is obviously an absurd aspect to all of this, with the black humor we expect from absurdist theater. When one considers where The Emperor of Atlantis was composed, one can hardly wonder at its theme of death as redeemer. But there is more to the libretto than satire edged with despair. The Emperor is an appropriately monstrous figure— infantile and arrogant; at the same time, he is strangely poignant. Indeed, one curiosity of the opera is the extent to which he solicits our sympathy:

Death: I will be reconciled if you will make the sacrifice of being the first to die.Emperor: I would have the strength to make this sacrifice, but humanity does not deserve it.Death: Then I cannot return to you.Emperor: Shall I refuse myself that experience for which all sufferers beg? . . . Oh, if only my work had succeeded. Were the land freed from the yoke of men, it would stretch out its unmowed fields. Ah, were we but extinct! The forests that we cut would grow freely, no one to tap the stream of water from running its way….

Here, as elsewhere in the libretto, one has a sense of metaphysical grappling with the human urge to destroy. There is even a sense of tragedy. We see a pathetic fall from power as the monstrous Emperor—a man whose nihilistic visions cannot be realized—is forced to become his own victim. A comparison with the Emperor’s real-life analogue, Adolf Hitler, who committed suicide on learning of the failure of his destructive plans, is hardly inappropriate.

The librettist for Ullmann’s opera was Peter Kien, a gifted fellow inmate. Kien was only twenty-two years old when he was incarcerated at Theresienstadt. He had studied visual arts at the Academy in Prague, and was an accomplished caricaturist. Oddly enough, his portraits of well-known Theresienstadt prisoners have a kind of warmth that is missing in the libretto, which is often stiff and emotionally reserved.

At times, Kien expresses his cold irony with a distressing lack of subtlety, as in these words from Pierrot.

What do we want to drink? We want to drink blood now. What do we want to kiss now? The devil’s behind.

Even so, there is much in the libretto that is worthwhile. It is difficult to ignore, for example, such nightmarish images as the following—a take-off on the famous German lullaby that begins “Schiaf, Kindlein, schlaf,/Der Vater hüt’ die Schaf” (“Sleep, child, sleep,/God protects his sheep”):

Schiaf, Kindlein, schiaf, ich bin ein Epitaph. Dein Vater ging im Krieg zu Grund, dein' Mutter frass ihr roter Mund. (Sleep, child, sleep, I am an epitaph. Your father fell in the war, Your mother bit her lips.)

Kien worked in the camp administration, and must have seen a trainload of children on their way to Auschwitz. In fact, he typed his libretto on the back of documentation forms that had been laid aside following the deportation of some prisoners to death camps. It is worth mentioning that Kien voluntarily joined his parents in a transport to Auschwitz, an act of such consummate heroism that it would dwarf even the greatest literary accomplishment.

Ullmann’s setting of Kien’s poetry is an interesting combination of stylistic adaptations. Military and political anthems, jazz, and baroque music provide the basic idioms, which he thickens with polytonal dissonance. An unconventional orchestration, including saxophone, banjo, and harpsichord, helps to create an atmosphere of unsentimental, audience-pleasing parody. But the quality is very uneven. For example, the soaring lyricism of an aria in the third scene—on the words “Ist’s wahr dass es Landschaften gibt die nicht von Granat-trichtern øod sind?” (“Is it true that there are landscapes the cannons have not decimated?”)—is offset by the banal march tunes that pervade the scenes around it. In short, there is some lovely music in the opera; but it is overwhelmed by much that seems contrived and uninspired.

Of course the struggle against time may well have been a factor in the music’s inconsistency. Certainly ad hoc changes were made, and the opera had barely gone into rehearsals when Ullmann, Kien, and most of the cast were deported to their deaths.[2]

There is always the risk that the political-historical concerns of a work like The Emperor of Atlantis, as important as they are, will obscure our view of it as a work of art. Politics can take over, determining not only whether such a work is performed but how it is performed, and even, unless we are careful, what our critical response will be.

The Vienna production of The Emperor of Atlantis was a case in point. It was expressly undertaken within the scope of commemorations of the Anschluss and Kristallnacht, and it was directed by George Tabori, a wellknown enfant terrible of German theater. Tabori is a Hungarian refugee from Nazi persecution, a playwright, a director, a connoisseur of modern theater from Strindberg to Beckett, and a former collaborator of Brecht’s. No doubt he was attracted to the satirical, Brechtian aspects of The Emperor of Atlantis.

And yet in Tabori’s hands Ullmann’s opera becomes the victim of political overkill. Where economy and lightness of touch would heighten the work’s effectiveness, Tabori stages it heavy-handedly, behind bars. He discourages any dynamic contrast, both dramatically and musically: everything is loud and overplayed. He encourages the most exaggerated antics from characters who are already archetypes. Most disturbing is his decision to ignore the stage directions which accompany the opera’s best moment: the Emperor’s sacrifice. The librettist stipulates that Death lead the Emperor offstage through a mirror. In a vulgar and baffling interpolation, Tabori has Death receive the Emperor’s sacrifice by removing the latter’s dirty socks and kissing them.

It is possible that by heaping the stage floor with dirt, as Tabori does, he is taking advantage of this production to rub the noses of his German-speaking audience in the filth of their past, and that by insisting on the excessive barking of his narrator he hopes to assail their ears with the same cacophony to which the Germans subjected the people they oppressed. Such an approach, it bears repeating, does no service to Ullmann’s modest pastiche.

But there is a certain logic to it. As the director of an experimental theater in Vienna, Tabori cannot but be aware of the recent alarming rise of anti-Semitism in Austria. Like any Jewish cultural figure active in German-speaking lands today, he is up against a lot: namely, a peculiar combination of open political hostility and patronizing attempts at reconciliation. Indeed, the disturbing legacy of Austria’s Nazi past has recently been highly visible. Culturally, the commemorative years 1988 and 1989 have occasioned a thorough excavation of the Jewish cultural contribution between the wars. In Vienna, the commemorations have been marked by such special musical events as an Austrian radio concert entitled “Banished Music.” Austria is not alone in sponsoring cultural festivities that segregate Jewish work for purposes of rehabilitation. The Wiener Kammeroper took its production of Ullmann’s work to Berlin as part of that city’s commemorative music festival, called “Music Out of Exile.”

Unfortunately, the tendency of the Austrian government to compensate for the recent Waldheim embarrassment by means of an increased attention to Jewish artists has only aggravated anti-Jewish feeling. Certainly it has not altered the country’s basic political attitudes. Rather, it has tended to emphasize the Austrians’ dependence upon the role of Jews in high culture, a role that is, as one might expect, resented. It is relevant to recall, in this context, Rolf Liebermann’s recent shocking statement on German television that he was “chased out” of the Salzburg Mozarteum (where he was director) by anti-Semites.

This is the cultural atmosphere in which The Emperor of Atlantis was revived. While we can be grateful for the chance to hear the work, we can wonder whether it was best to hear it as part of a category of music that has been singled out for special attention, mostly for the purpose of assuaging guilt. Certainly the music of Schoenberg or Zemlinsky will not go down in history as “banished music” but rather as fine music temporarily subjected to political persecution.

And what of The Emperor of Atlantis? On strictly artistic terms, does it deserve a permanent place in the repertory? Alas, the answer to that question is probably “no.” As engaging as the work can be at times, and as compelling as its subject undoubtedly is, Ullmann’s opera would seem to fail the test of the strictest criteria. Such a judgment does not rule out the value of occasional revivals, of course. But when it comes to art, posterity is properly more concerned with aesthetic achievement than with the conditions that gave rise to it, however tragic they may be.

  1. Music in Terezín (Terezín is Czech for Theresienstadt) was published by Beaufort Books in 1985. Go back to the text.
  2. There seems to have been one survivor. He was Karel Berman, assigned the role of Death. He was later a member of the Prague National Theater. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 1, on page 54
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