Saturday, January 29, 2011

An opera written in a Prison Camp? Sounds bleak!

What is the appeal of The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Quits? Why perform it, why go to see it?

The first thing that most of us hear about “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” (that’s the name in the original German, though we are singing it in English so it is more accessible for our audience)…is that it was written in Terezin, a German concentration camp during World War II.

We can never forget the context….that the creators and performers never had a chance to perform this work; that they were moved to a death camp for extermination days before the premiere was to take place…..

But the thing that strikes me and my colleagues about this piece, what we are discovering in the rehearsal process, and in the way that our director David Schweizer is helping us tell this story – is the great humanity, courage and humour in this work! From the writings of many who were imprisoned in the camp, we read that art gave their lives meaning; that they no longer felt the pressure to please audiences, to write in an accepted or expected style, to conform to norms….No, their imprisonment gave them a kind of freedom – or perhaps a really clear insight – into what was important in their lives, or in the time they had left.

One way to see this piece, is that the absurdity of the situation in which the prisoners found themselves in Terezin, gave rise to this bit of absurdist opera…..But Emperor also turns the reality of the prisoners on its head….Hitler never gave up on his Final Solution; but the Emperor is finally convinced that he must cede to Death, and that “Thou must not take the name of Death in vain”.

I’ve been surprised  at the humour and hope in this wonderful gem; and by the glory of its music…..and I hope you will be too!

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