Austrian director Markus Kupferblum helms a new New York City-production of the opera The Emperor of Atlantis (Der Kaiser von Atlantis), written by Viktor Ullmann in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. A conversation about the creation and impact of this special opera.
Ender: Rarely has a piece of musical theater been as influenced by its time and place of creation as Viktor Ullmann's The Emperor of Atlantis. What do you know about the conditions in which Ullmann had to work in Theresienstadt?
Kupferblum: Although, as an inmate, he was forced to do physical labor, he still had time to compose. He wrote 23 pieces in Theresienstadt, three of them his major works. The artists there certainly gained strength from their work with him. I'm certain he was further encouraged by the fact that he was able to do something for the other inmates, to give them hope and courage with these performances.
Ender: Ullmann writes in his diary that he was able in Theresien-stadt to work on his compositions without inhibition. "Our will for culture was equal to our will to live."
Kupferblum: Even when you ignore the story its creation, The Emperor of Atlantis is an outstanding work of art. The music echoes famous composers throughout history, and yet, it remains an independent piece. For me, it was important to emphasize its stylistic contrasts. The opera is fragmental; certain situations were left incomplete; they end abruptly. We amplified these passages with caesurae and silences, and brought them to their scenic conclusions.
Ender: Death is inscribed into the work, as Ullmann wrote parts of it on the back of deportation records.
Kupferblum: Harlekin has a line in the opera: "People cannot laugh any longer, we are the living dead." And then Death comes along and sings in his aria: "I am not pain, I am the redemption from pain. I am not terror, I am the redemption from terror." This is exactly what Viktor Ullmann and the other prisoners felt.
Ender: In his 1987 production at the Viennese Chamber Opera, George Tabori reconstructed the original preparations for the performance in Theresienstadt. You chose a different path – why?
Kupferblum: I think what Tabori did was great and important. But to repeat what has been done before, that wasn't my thing. I wanted to render a version of the piece for modern-day New York. To show the Dictator as Hitler or Gadaffi seemed too blatant. I wanted to show him as a human being who clings to power. My version's look is influenced by Steam Punk, an early form of Futurism which emerged at the end of the 19th century, with industrialization coming to the fore.
Ender: How would you describe the situation of opera in the United States?
Kupferblum: If I may be cynical in my summary: Opera in the U.S. is run by 20 millionaires who, with their money and, ultimately, with the taxpayer's money, buy and pay for the operatic theater of their childhoods. In total, the U.S. does more to promote art than the European states, but they do so in an indirect fashion, with the tax-deductibility of sponsorship contributions. They delegate decisions over which kind of art is being made, to the country's superrich.
Ender: Does the conservative nature of the great operatic theater rub off on the free groups in the USA?
Kupferblum: I have the feeling that they just don't know any better. But Rebecca Greenstein of Opera Moderne, who produced The Emperor of Atlantis, is a brave and inquisitive woman. She delves into the genre and looks beyond US-borders for inspiration. You immediately notice this in her productions. And the singers are fantastic! Very able Julliard and Yale graduates, precise and quick. They all have their day jobs, come in at 7 PM, and rehearse with great commitment and concentration until 10 PM.
Ender: Have you worked with the Austrian Cultural Forum New York prior to this project?
Kupferblum: A year ago, I participated in a "fireside chat" about the future of opera. Seven people from the Metropolitan Opera were there, two from the New York City Opera, and concert managers and singers... And I found myself in the unexpected role of the rambunctious rebel.
Kupferblum: I told them that I used to graft poems by Hertha Kräftner into La Traviata, and that I had Violetta die in the middle of the word "Gioia." With this, the opera was done, no more final orchestra chords, nothing. The Met people were appalled! They asked me if I thought I was better than Verdi. (Stefan Ender)