Viktor Ullmann was one of the most remarkable composers of the first half of the 20th century. Born in Czecsin (Teschen), now Poland, in Silesia, then part of Austria-Hungary, into the family of an imperial army officer of Jewish descent who had converted to Christianity, he was baptised a Catholic, grew up and studied in Vienna, and spent half of his creative life in Czechoslovakia. Having attended Arnold Schönberg’s composition seminar, he gained his initial experience as a professional musician as a conductor at the Neues deutsches Theater (New German Theatre) in Prague, then directed by Alexander Zemlinsky. Ullmann went on to develop his own, singular compositional style, original and refined, permeated with a penchant for spirituality and esotericism. The co-production project, a fruit of collaboration between the National Theatre in Prague and the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava, affords music lovers the unique opportunity to get to know Ullmann’s final two operas, Der zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug) and Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis), written between 1941 and 1944, the former in Prague, the latter during his incarceration at the Nazi Theresienstadt ghetto.
Der zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug)
Music: Viktor Ullmann (1898–1944)
Libretto: Viktor Ullmann, based on a play by Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811)
Viktor Ullmann wrote the score and the libretto of the opera Der zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug) between 1941 and 1942, completing it just a few weeks before being deported and contained at the Theresienstadt ghetto, established by the SS during World War II in the Nazi- occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He created the piece, based on Heinrich von Kleist’s critically acclaimed 1806 comedy, amid truly dramatic circumstances, embarking on it in the year when about a thousand Prague Jews were transported to and imprisoned in the Łódź ghetto, a fate he escaped by a hair‘s breadth. Yet the humorous, wonderfully structured and gradated opera only seems to reflect the fraught times subliminally, with the exception, that is, of the finale, in which Ullmann deviated from Kleist’s text and in an added sextet responded to the omnipresent perversity of law in the Reich as follows: “No one can be a judge without a pure heart”. The opera tells the story of Adam, a judge in a small provincial town, who presides over a trial within which he has to settle who broke a jug in the room of a young woman, Marthe, in the end revealing himself as the culprit. The 40-minute one-act opera, opening with an almost eight-minute “atmospheric” Overture, featuring a characteristic introductory fanfare, had to wait until May 1996 for its premiere, when it was presented at the Musikfestspiele in Dresden, conducted by Israel Yinon.
Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis)
Music: Viktor Ullmann (1898–1944)
Libretto: Petr Kien (1919–1944)
Viktor Ullmann created the one-act opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder Die Tod-Verweigerung (The Emperor of Atlantis, or The Disobedience of Death) in 1943 and 1944, while interned at Theresienstadt, in collaboration with another inmate, the 24-year-old poet and visual artist Peter Kien, who penned the libretto. Kien was imprisoned at the Nazi-established camp-ghetto in 1941, Ullmann a year later, and both of them were actively involved in its cultural life. Amid the appalling milieu of deprivation, hunger, disease, death, isolation and fear of the future, they conceived a musical drama telling the story of an emperor appropriating the right to “take people’s souls” and to decide about life and death. Offended by his arrogance and disgusted by the “mechanisation of modern life and dying”, Death resolves to teach the Emperor and humanity as a whole a harsh lesson, by precluding death itself. In the clear allegory of a dictator unleashing a war, and in denying the right to kill, Ullmann and Kien find the path to love and understanding between people. Ullmann wrote the music with regard to the limited capacity at the Theresienstadt ghetto – accordingly, it is scored for chamber ensemble and includes such unusual instruments as banjo, harmonium, alto saxophone and harpsichord. The central melodic theme is the Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God), and Ullmann also applied a motif from Josef Suk’s symphony Asrael.
Although conceived with the approval of the Freizeitgestaltung (Leisure Time Department), Der Kaiser von Atlantis was never performed at the Theresienstadt ghetto. Ullmann continued to work on the opera during the rehearsals, yet the planned production was postponed several times before, in the autumn of 1944, the preparations were scrapped altogether. On 16 October of that year, Ullmann was deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp, along with Peter Kien, the composers Hans Krása, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein, the conductor Karel Ančerl and other artists, including the composer and singer Karel Berman (later a soloist of Prague’s National Theatre), who had been assigned the role of Death in Der Kaiser von Atlantis. The manuscript of the score was saved by Emil Utitz, Ullmann’s fellow prisoner and former professor at the German University in Prague, who served as the camp’s librarian. He survived the Holocaust and passed the autograph on to a friend of Ullmann’s, the poet and novelist Hans Günther Adler. Der Kaiser von Atlantis was premiered in 1975 in Amsterdam by the Dutch National Opera, with the British musician and arranger Kerry Woodward conducting his own edition of the score. Ullmann’s one-acter remains a work that straightforwardly highlights that which, albeit coming across as a cliché, is of ultimate importance for humanity: freedom, mutual love and peaceful life.