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On the threshold of the air – the songs of Viktor Ullmann

Coming soon at the Inside Out Festival.

The Emperor of Atlantis
Richard Mosley-Evans (right) as the emperor (Photo: Richard Hubert-Smith)

For obvious reasons, there is very little art that was created by the persecuted during the years of the Holocaust: Miklós Radnóti’s  poems, taken from the pocket of his coat as his body lay in a mass grave; Charlotte Salomon’s paintings; Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française, unread in notebooks for a lifetime; works from ghettos, hidden or buried in milk churns. Another of these very rare exceptions is the composer Victor Ullmann, held in Theresienstadt and murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. Some of his songs are to be performed at the Inside Out Festival at St John’s Waterloo on 23 October, and his opera, The Emperor of Atlantis composed in Theresienstadt, is currently in London, performed by the English Touring Opera company. I was lucky enough to see a full dress rehearsal.

Born in 1898, Victor Ullmann was Jewish by the "Nuremburg Laws", although his family had converted to Catholicism before he was born and his father had served in the Austro-Hungarian army. Musically very talented, Ullmann studied Schönberg with after serving in the First World War, and later worked as conductor. After 1933 he worked as a music teacher and journalist in Prague.  He was deported to Theresienstadt in the autumn of 1942, where he was able to play, compose and organise musical events. He was murdered by gas two years later.

The Emperor of Atlantis is a strange, short opera. The Emperor plans a total war, and demands Death leads his armies. Death will not, and, insulted, refuses to carry on his role as Death. This means the tortured, aged and morally ill do not die. Soldiers cannot fight: indeed, in the opera, one shoots another and he simply gets up. Instead they fall in love. Finally, Death agrees to return only if the Emperor is his first victim. The Emperor will not accept this but then, thinking on the suffering that not dying creates, changes his mind, and accompanies Death. Musically, the work seems to reference the whole of German music from Bach – the production begins with Bach's cantata "Christ Lag" – through to Schönberg, and takes in jazz and music hall, too.

But perhaps what is most striking (to a non-opera buff like me) is its difference from other, postwar Holocaust art to simplify, perhaps too much. Much Holocaust literature, film and art by survivors stresses the lack of redemption: the terrible dream, which Primo Levi discusses at the end of his account, is of waking up back in the camp, as if liberation had never happened. Much (arguably less good) art about the Holocaust seems to strive for a sort of redemption: Schindler’s list, for all its many praiseworthy qualities, is a story of survival and redemption (Schindler’s, the people he saves) in the midst of genocide. The Emperor of Atlantis seems suspended between – or, more accurately, before - these two alternatives. It neither offers redemption nor collapses into despair.

The Emperor himself, the subject of the opera, is a sign of this. At first, he is a monster, ruling his empire with no human contact, communicating solely by telephone. (Anyone outside the polis is, Aristotle points out, either “a beast or a God”: the Emperor fancies himself the latter but is clearly the former). It is the figure of the Emperor, taken as a satire of Hitler, which caused the Nazis to ban the opera in Theresienstadt. But as the opera goes on, he seems to me more complex and sympathetic: not at all a Hitler. He is more of a Wotan figure, caught in a machine both of his own making and beyond his control. And yet, that he sacrifices himself for his people is both hopeful for the future (a sign of redemption) and at the same time echoes one of the Nazis most powerful myths (Hitler as Christ saving the German people).

Similarly, the magic realism of the piece (brilliantly brought out in the current production) on the one hand makes it a sophisticated fairy tale; on the other, magical realism  is often a powerful way of engaging with oppression and persecution (as Bulgakov’s The Master and Margareta shows). Again, it is only really in recent years that this way of writing or art-making has been applied to the Holocaust (and sometimes less successfully).  

And the very "German-ness" of the music is interesting. Postwar artists and writers often found the whole of German culture – and the whole of western culture – infected with the Holocaust and tried to forge new ways of meaning, to create new languages. In contrast, The Emperor of Atlantis revels in these forms, using and reusing them. It is because of this, perhaps, that the astonishingly beautiful and moving "Christ Lag" which prefaces the opera does not seem so out of place. Thematically, this very Christian account of Christ’s resurrection might seem inappropriate for an Opera that we can now see as addressing a catastrophe imposed on the Jews: but musically it works. More, perhaps, the production asks us to reflect on the Bach and on questions of the corruptibility of even the most beautiful moments of culture.

Paula Sides and Jonathan Gale perform songs of Victor Ullmann as part of the Inside Out Festival.  For more information and to book, click here.

Robert Eaglestone is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London. He works on contemporary literature and philosophy, and in Holocaust and Genocide studies. He is Deputy Director of the Holocaust Research Centre there.