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Der Kaiser von Atlantis

Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder Die Tod-Verweigerung (The Emperor of Atlantis or The Disobedience of Death) is a one-act opera by Viktor Ullmann with a libretto by Peter Kien. They collaborated on the work while interned in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt (Terezín) around 1943. The Nazis did not allow it to be performed there.

Der Kaiser von Atlantis
Opera by Viktor Ullmann
Viktor Ullmann "Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder Die Tod-Verweigerung.jpg
A scene from the first performance at Terezin, where the opera was composed in the concentration camp in 1943, performed on 23 May 1995
Description"legend in four scenes"
TranslationThe Emperor of Atlantis
LibrettistPeter Kien
Based on"Die Kluge Bauerntochter" ("The Peasant's Wise Daughter") from the Grimm's Fairy Tales
16 December 1975 (1975-12-16)

The world premiere, presented by the Netherlands Opera at the Bellevue Centre, Amsterdam, took place on 16 December 1975. It was conducted by Kerry Woodward using the first performing edition, which he had been actively involved in preparing.[1]

The title is sometimes given as Der Kaiser von Atlantis, oder Der Tod dankt ab, that is, The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Abdicates,[2] and described as a "legend in four scenes" rather than an opera.

Composition historyEdit

About 1943, Ullmann and Kien were inmates at the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt (Terezín) when they collaborated on the opera.[3] It was rehearsed at Theresienstadt in March 1944, but the Nazi authorities interpreted the work's depiction of the character of the Kaiser as a satire on Adolf Hitler and did not allow it to be performed.[4] Both the composer and the librettist died in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Ullmann entrusted his manuscripts to a fellow-prisoner, Dr. Emil Utitz, a former Professor of Philosophy at the German University in Prague, who served as the camp's librarian. Utitz survived the camp and passed the manuscripts on to another survivor, Dr. Hans Gunther Adler, a friend of Ullmann's, some of whose poems Ullmann had set to music. The score was a working version with edits, substitutions, and alternatives made in the course of rehearsals. Dr. Adler deposited the original manuscripts and two copies of the libretto in his possession at the Goetheanum in Dornach,[5] the center for the anthroposophical movement with which Ullmann was associated. The manuscripts subsequently passed to the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basle.

Performance historyEdit

First performing edition

Through informal personal connections, the score came to the attention of conductor Kerry Woodward. In the process of preparing a performing edition of the score, Woodward consulted Rosemary Brown, who was a prominent spiritualist, known for mediumship with dead composers and for transcribing musical works they dictated. She said she contacted Ullmann and communicated his instructions to Woodward, who incorporated them into his edition. At Brown's direction, Woodward altered the instrumentation of the second part of Death's aria near the end of the opera, substituting strings for harpsichord and adding trumpet and flute.[5]

The world premiere was presented by the Dutch National Opera (DNO) on 16 December 1975 at the Theater Bellevue [nl] in Amsterdam. In 1976 DNO presented two performances in Brussels and a further four in Spoleto.[6] It was recreated in April 1977 by the San Francisco Spring Opera Theater for its American premiere,[7] and the same group also presented the New York premiere at the Lepercq Space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on 19 May 1977. DNO revived their production in Amsterdam in June 1978 and later that year presented five performances in Israel. In 1979 DNO presented two performances at the Nottingham Playhouse, England. All of these performances were conducted by Woodward.[8][9]

Other performing editions and performances

In 1981, Michael Graubart and Nicholas Till prepared an edition based on the manuscripts in Dr. Adler's possession as well as on Woodward's edition, following many of Woodward's choices but preferring the 1943 text to the changes made on the basis of Brown's contribution. That provided the basis for the British premiere at the Studio Theatre of London's Morley College on 15 May 1981 and for additional performances in May 1985 at the Imperial War Museum.[5]

Ingo Schultz worked on the reconstruction of the opera's score between 1992 and 1993 in cooperation with Karel Berman, who rehearsed the role of Death at Terezín, Paul Kling, who was the concertmaster of the chamber-orchestra of the rehearsals at Terezin 1944, and Herbert Thomas Mandl. ARBOS – Gesellschaft für Musik und Theater (Austria) staged this edition of the opera in Austria, the Czech Republic (including the first performance at the concentration camp of Theresienstadt in 1995), Germany, Sweden, Canada, and the U.S. (including a performance at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum).

Tomasz Konina directed Polish prapremiere at Warsaw Chamber Opera in Warsaw in 2005.

Der Kaiser von Atlantis, oder die Tod-Verweigerung, Triest 2012

Other performances have been given by Ravinia Festival at Temple Shalom in Chicago (2005), City Opera of Vancouver (2009), Long Beach Opera (2009), Boston Lyric Opera (2011), Dioneo Opera (Grimeborn, London, 2011), and English Touring Opera in London and locations throughout England (2012).[4][10] It was presented in Denver, Colorado, by Central City Opera, in collaboration with other Denver organizations, in January 2013.[11] The New Millennium Orchestra, in collaboration with the City of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs, presented the opera in March 2013 on the Pritzker stage of Millennium Park.[12] It was performed at Perth Hebrew Congregation, Perth, Western Australia, in June 2014, by Lostandfound Opera[13] Juilliard Opera Center performed the work (in a double bill with Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésias) in November 2015.[14][15]


Role Voice type Theresienstadt
Premiere cast
16 December 1975
Premiere at Theresienstadt
(51 years after the general rehearsal)
23 May 1995
Kaiser Overall (Emperor Overall) baritone Walter Windholz[16] Meinard Kraak[17] Steven Swanson[18]
Der Lautsprecher (Loudspeaker) bass-baritone Bedrich Borges[16] Lodewijk Meeuwsen[17] Rupert Bergmann[18]
Ein Soldat (A soldier) tenor David Grünfeld[16] Rudolf Ruivenkamp[17] Johannes Strasser[19]
Harlekin (Pierrot) tenor David Grünfeld[16] Adriaan van Limpt[17] Johannes Strasser[19]
Bubikopf (A maiden) soprano Marion Podolier[16] Roberta Alexander[17] Stefanie Kahl[19]
Der Tod (Death) bass-baritone Karel Berman[16] Tom Haenen[17] Krassimir Tassev[19]
Der Trommler (Drummer girl) mezzo-soprano Hilde Aronson‐Lindt[16][20] Inge Frölich[17] Ingrid Niedermair[19]

Critical appreciationEdit

Descriptions and summaries of Kien's libretto vary widely. John Rockwell described the opera as a story of "the abdication of death in the face of life's universal horrors."[9] Harold Schonberg thought that "the play is stronger and more interesting than the music....In several spots the Ullmann work almost makes it as an opera."[6] Most summaries report that Death insists that the Emperor be the first to die, but others emphasize the ending in which "miraculously, the Emperor comes to understand his crimes" and "to allow Death to save millions from the agony of life-without-death, he offers himself as Death's first victim."[21]

In an interview, conductor James Conlon, a prominent reviver of works lost in the Holocaust, described the opera as both a political satire and a parable of hope in which the isolated Emperor represents Hitler and the Drummer his confidante Eva Braun. The young lovers and Pierrot embody "the lost world of normal human emotion."[21]

Andrew Porter has described the text of the opera:

The plot is no cut-and-dried allegory but an elusive death-welcoming parable about a mad, murderous ruler, possibly redeemed at last, who says farewell to the world in a mock-Faustian vision of a natural paradise no longer spoiled by men; had his dream come true all men would be dead. The Emperor of Atlantis, ruler over much of the world, proclaims universal war and declares that his old ally Death will lead the campaign. Death, offended by the Emperor's presumption, breaks his sabre; henceforth men will not die. Confusion results: a Soldier and a Girl-Soldier from opposite sides sing a love duet instead of fighting; the sick and suffering find no release. Death offers to return to men on one condition–that the Emperor be the first to die. He accepts and sings his farewell.[8]



A voice heard over a loudspeaker sets the scene and presents the characters.

Scene 1

Harlequin describes his sorry life without laughter or love. Death joins him and together they lament how slowly time passes in their grim environment. Death belittles Harlequin's wish to die and explains how much more dire his own situation is than that of Harlequin. He lacks respect now that the "old-fashioned craft of dying" has been replaced by "motorized chariots of war" that work him to exhaustion with little satisfaction.

The Drummer announces the latest decree of the Emperor: Everyone will be armed and everyone will fight until there are no survivors. Death denounces the Emperor for usurping his role: "To take men's souls is my job, not his!" He declares that he is on strike and breaks his saber.

Scene 2

In his palace, the Emperor gives battle orders and monitors the progress of the universal war. He learns of a man who continues to live eighty minutes after being hanged and shot. The Loudspeaker reports that thousands of soldiers are "wrestling with life...doing their best to die" without success. Fearful that his power will not endure without death, the Emperor announces that he has decided to reward his subjects with the gift of eternal life. More honestly, he asks: "Death, where is thy sting? Where is thy victory, Hell?"

Scene 3

A Soldier and a Maiden (the Bobbed-Hair Girl) confront one another as enemies. Unable to kill each other, their thoughts turn to love. They dream of distant places where kind words exist alongside "meadows filled with color and fragrance." The Drummer attempts to lure them back to battle with the sensual attraction of the call. The Maiden responds: "Now death is dead and so we need to fight no more!" She and the Soldier sing: "Only love can unite us, unite us all together."

Scene 4

The Emperor continues to oversee his failing realm, where his subjects angrily protest their suspension in limbo between life and death. Harlequin appeals to him, reminding him of his innocent childhood. The Drummer urges the Emperor to maintain his resolve, but the Emperor's memories turn his thoughts from his plans for the annihilation of all. Instead he gazes into a covered mirror and asks: "What do men look like? Am I still a man or just the adding machine of God?"

He pulls away the mirror's cloth and faces the reflection of Death. "Who are you?" he demands. Death describes his role modestly, like that of a gardener "who roots up wilting weeds, life's worn-out fellows." He regrets the pain his strike is causing. When the Emperor asks him to resume his duties, Death proposes a resolution to the crisis: "I'm prepared to make peace, if you are prepared to make a sacrifice: will you be the first one to try out the new death?" After some resistance, the Emperor agrees and the suffering people find release in death once more. The Emperor sings his farewell. In a closing chorus, Death is praised and asked to "teach us to keep your holiest law: Thou shalt not use the name of Death in vain now and forever!"


The score comprises 20 short sections and lasts about fifty minutes.[8] Parts of it are danced and there are long spoken sections.[23] The 1943 orchestration is for chamber ensemble and includes such unusual instruments as banjo and harmonium. Alto saxophone and harpsichord also appear. Ullmann used the famous Lutheran chorale "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" as a melodic motif as well as a theme from the Asrael symphony of Josef Suk. Critics list among Ullmann's antecedents and influences "the radical young Hindemith"[23] as well as Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg. One critic has said Ullmann employed "an omnivorous musical language that draws on both classical and popular styles."[3] The work ends with the chorale to the text "Come, Death, who art our worthy guest."[8]

The character of Harlequin is sometimes called Pierrot, a different character from the commedia dell'arte. The classic Pierrot is moonstruck and a sleepwalker. In the opera, this character is an old man who twice recites poems Kien had written earlier. The first describes a cold and pitiless moon, establishing his identity as Pierrot. Later he sings a lullaby that uses a text Kien wrote as a paraphrase of another lullaby text, one familiar to all his contemporaries in the camp, that had been sung during the Thirty Years' War. Ullmann set it to a catchy melody composed by Johann Friedrich Reichardt in 1781.[16]




  • 1997: The Emperor of Atlantis. German TV film, directed by John Goldschmidt, starring Teresa Stratas and Siegmund Nimsgern, performed by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Kerry Woodward, 57 minutes. Plus short introductory documentary on origin of the opera based on an interview with H.G. Adler, illustrated with drawings by concentration camp inmates. WDR/BBC/Clasart.[27]
  • 2007: Viktor Ullmann – Way to the Front 1917, documentary film. Directed and written by Herbert Gantschacher; editor: Erich Heyduck. ARBOS-DVD Vienna-Salzburg-Klagenfurt-Arnoldstein.
  • 2009: The Emperor of Atlantis or The Disobedience of Death, documentary music theatre about the opera by Viktor Ullmann. Directed and written by Herbert Gantschacher; sound-engineering: Roumen Dimitrov; editor: Erich Heyduck ARBOS-DVD Vienna-Salzburg-Klagenfurt.

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Hugh R.N. Macdonald, "Der Kaiser von Atlantis", Tempo (New Ser.), 116 (1976), 42–3
  2. ^ Karas 1990, p. 33.
  3. ^ a b Allan Kozinn, "Born in the Camps And Still Kicking", The New York Times, 24 November 1994
  4. ^ a b Michael Haas (October 2012). "When Death Went on Strike". Jewish Renaissance. 12 (1): 38–39.
  5. ^ a b c Michael Graubart, "The Emperor of Atlantis: The First British Production", Musical Times, Autumn 2009.
  6. ^ a b Harold C. Schonberg, "Two One-Acters Are Sung in Spoleto," The New York Times, 28 June 1976, accessed 29 March 2010
  7. ^ The Guardian (London), 26 April 1977
  8. ^ a b c d Andrew Porter, "A Lecture and a Parable", The New Yorker 6 June 1977
  9. ^ a b John Rockwell,"New Opera Theater Offering Work of Argento and Ullmann," The New York Times, 21 May 1977, accessed 29 March 2010
  10. ^ Tim Ashley, "The Emperor of Atlantis – review", The Guardian (London), 9 October 2012 Retrieved 10 October 2012
  11. ^ Central City Opera's website, with background information Archived 2012-11-23 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 3 December 2012
  12. ^ New Millennium Orchestra performances on[permanent dead link] Retrieved 22 January 2013
  13. ^ Emperor of Atlantis, on website of Lost and Found Opera, Perth Australia, June 2014
  14. ^ "Juilliard Opera Presents a Double Bill: Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tiresias and Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis, performance details, Juilliard School
  15. ^ "Review: Juilliard Opera's Timely Double Bill" by James R. Oestreich, The New York Times, 19 November 2015
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h Jacobo Kaufmann, "The Emperor of Atlantis in Terezin Archived 2013-04-13 at the Wayback Machine, All About Jewish Theater on Accessed 28 March 2010
  17. ^ a b c d e f g Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "Der Kaiser von Atlantis, 16 December 1975". L'Almanacco di Gherardo Casaglia (in Italian).
  18. ^ a b The Emperor of Atlantis or The Disobedience of Death on YouTube
  19. ^ a b c d e Terezinský vzpomínkový festival / Terezín Memorial Days / Theresienstädter Gedenkfestival 21 – 23 May 1995 under the patronage of Karel Berman
  20. ^ Karas 1990, p. 35.
  21. ^ a b David Schiff, "A Musical Postcard From the Eye of the Nazi Storm," The New York Times, 23 March 2003, accessed 29 March 2010
  22. ^ "Synopsis: The Emperor of Atlantis" Archived 2013-12-14 at the Wayback Machine, Long Beach Opera production, 2009, accessed 29 March 2010
  23. ^ a b Anthony Tommasini, "From the Doomed, an Ode to Life And a Warning Not to Insult Death," The New York Times, 19 September 1998, accessed 29 March 2010.
  24. ^ William Lloyd, Review of recording of Der Kaiser von Atlantis, The Musical Times, 136 (1824), 106 (1995).
  25. ^ Web(UK), Music on the. "Ullmann Der Kaiser von Atlantis [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2003 MusicWeb(UK)".
  26. ^ "Viktor Ullmann – Der Kaiser Von Atlantis". Discogs.
  27. ^ The Emperor of Atlantis on IMDb


Other sources

  • Conway, James (2012), "The Emperor of Atlantis: Director's Notes", in English Touring Opera's Autumn 2012 programme book, pp. 22 – 23.
  • Fligg, David (Ph.D.) (2012), "Creativity in Adversity" in English Touring Opera's Autumn 2012 programme book, pp. 24 – 29.

External linksEdit