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  • Angela Allyn

An Opera that Speaks Truth To Power

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

One of the great gifts of living near a university with a stellar music program is that you often get to have experiences that are otherwise rare: such will be the case this weekend when the Bienen School of Music presents the highly anticipated update of Viktor Ullmann’s the Emperor of Atlantis. Director Joachim Schamberger, NU Artist in Residence, is known for his projection and video design as well as his work as a stage director especially with operas, and he has integrated ideas about AI into this fable of a dictator insulting Death.

The opera is short: one act, and about an hour. Out of context it would be an interesting work of distinctly 1940’s art song with a strong political message. But it is impossible to take an opera written by an inmate in Theresienstadt out of its context. This was the concentration camp set up with artists and children designed to fool and impress the International Red Cross, when rumors of what was happening got out to the world. There were two operas created at Theresienstadt: Brundibar ,an opera for and with children which was allowed to be performed and was famously filmed– I had the distinct honor of meeting survivor Ella the original Cat when the opera was performed by Park Ridge’s Petit Opera, and Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder Die Tod-Verweigerung (The Emperor of Atlantis or The Disobedience of Death) which was so threatening to the SS that they basically stopped the production and sent the composer and librettist to their deaths at Auschwitz (as they did with most of the cast and creatives associated with the Brundibar), because Theresienstadt was a transit camp that gathered people then sent them to killing centers or work camps. And so the opera becomes a stark witness to artists at their very last using their craft to call attention to what is happening and a stark reminder of the talent and lives and stories lost in a genocide. Which is, right now, something to think deeply and uncomfortably about.

It was an opera the world may never have gotten to hear. Ullmann handed off his manuscript to the camp librarian, who survived the war and handed it on until it was rediscovered and reconstructed by a dedicated musician and composer which led to the work at last receiving its world premiere in Amsterdam on December 16, 1975 by the Dutch National Opera. It was finally performed at Theresienstadt in May of 1995.

The plot considers a dictator going to war and insulting Death, who, exhausted, decides to retire. No one dies no matter how injured, and this removes the power of violence and destruction. There is a poignant moment where two soldiers decide because they cannot die, they must love instead. Eventually the dictator wants Death back and agrees to be the first to try new death, sacrificing himself.

Schamberger’s projections make the Ryan Opera’s intimate space a bleak war zone, and converting the Loudspeaker to an AI character makes this a fable for our time and our ever evolving ethical dilemmas. Opera has the ability to reach deep into your soul and make you feel things you have no words for: sometimes these are not happy things. Consider this a possible trigger warning.

Along with music director Alan Pierson, the creative team has augmented Ullman’s score with pieces from Ullmann’s string Quartet #3, a Franz Schubert piece and a Mahler bit, which makes for a compelling completeness. The cast and orchestra are talented pre professionals in the Bienen program and if I did not tell you this you would not know: they do this opera proud.

The Emperor of Atlantis is today through Sunday ONLY and I urge you to get up to Evanston to see it. For tickets and information go to

Photo of Zachary Voigt as Death by Eliott Mandel

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