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Lyric Opera Theatre presents an opera double bill: Der Kaiser von Atlantis and The Medium

November 07, 2002

What: Opera Double bill: Der Kaiser von Atlantis and The Medium 
Who: Lyric Opera Theatre in the ASU Herberger College School of Music
When: Nov. 22-24 and Dec. 4-7
Where: Evelyn Smith Music Theatre, Music Building, 40 E. Gammage Parkway, Tempe
Admission: $14 general; $12 faculty/staff/seniors; $5 students; 480-965-6447
Information: 480-965-6447

Two 20th-century operas set around the time of World War II, one written by a Austrian Holocaust victim and the other by an American émigré from Italy, will be performed in tandem by the award winning Lyric Opera Theatre in the ASU Herberger College School of Music. 

The double bill will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, 23, Dec. 4, 6 and 7, and at 2 p.m. on Nov. 24 in the Evelyn Smith Music Theatre in the Music Building on the main ASU campus in Tempe. Tickets are $14 general, $12 faculty/staff/seniors and $5 students. Call the Herberger College Box Office, 480-965-6447. The Nov. 24 matinee will be preceded by a 1 p.m. lecture on the operas.

Der Kaiser von Atlantis is an opera written by concentration camp inmate Viktor Ullmann, who was sent to his death in Auschwitz soon after composing the work. The chamber work in four scenes is an allegory about the horrors of war and Nazism – a parable of the Jews during the Second World War. The music is considered to be Ullmann's masterpiece. It is also an example of "entartete musik" – music suppressed by the Third Reich. The libretto for Der Kaiser was written by Ullmann’s fellow inmate, Peter Kien (1919-1944), who was also murdered at Auschwitz

At the beginning of the opera, the characters Harlequin and Death are reflecting on the sorry state of the world when the Drummer-girl arrives with a proclamation from Kaiser Überall declaring total and universal war, pitting everyone against everyone else. Death is outraged and refuses to cooperate. The Kaiser, who conducts the war through a microphone from his empty palace, learns that despite all the fighting, no one is dying. Hospitals are full of wounded patients who are unable to die. Prisoners are hanged, but remain alive. A soldier and a girl named Bubikopf from the enemy side meet on the battlefield and, unable to kill each other, fall in love. The Kaiser is appalled. Finally, Death agrees to relieve the human race of its endless pain by going back to work – on condition that the Kaiser be his first victim. 

Ullmann (1898-1944) was born on the Polish-Czechoslovak border, the son of an Austrian army officer. He served in the Austrian army during World War I, and after studying with Arnold Schoenberg, he joined the New German Theater in Prague as a conducting assistant. He subsequently taught, lectured, conducted and wrote music criticism in Aussig, Stuttgart, Zurich and Prague. His compositions were performed to high acclaim. He was a two-time winner of the coveted Hertzka Prize.

When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Ullmann was detained, and in September of 1942, he and his family were deported to Theresienstadt (Terezín). Although it served as a transit camp for prisoners en route to the death camps in Poland, Theresienstadt was also the "model" ghetto shown to inspectors from the International Red Cross. Jewish artists and intellectuals were imprisoned there and allowed a measure of creative expression. When Ullmann arrived, he found a flourishing concert scene, and he was appointed the camp's official music critic. 

In Theresienstadt, Ullmann composed, organized concerts and taught music. Der Kaiser was being prepared for performance in September 1944, when an S.S. delegation turned up at one of the final rehearsals and discovered the satiric allusions to Hitler and the anti-war and anti-Nazi sentiments. The project was terminated, and most of the participants, including Ullmann, were sent to Auschwitz where they perished in the gas chambers.

The opera's manuscript was smuggled out of Theresienstadt. However, it was 32 years before the opera was finally produced. It premiered in December 1975 in Amsterdam. This is the American Southwest premiere of the opera.

Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium is set in the world of séances, spirits and mediums against a backdrop of postwar, refugee-filled Europe. The tragedy focuses on Madame Flora, a fortuneteller who produces fake séances for grieving customers. She is assisted by her daughter, Monica, and Toby, a mute Gypsy orphan she has taken in from the streets. Monica “plays” the roles of clients’ dead children and Toby operates the table so that it shakes and rises during séances. Madame Flora’s clients include an elderly couple who want to communicate with their son, who died at the age of two; and a woman who seeks the spirit of her dead daughter. During a séance with the three customers, the Madame Flora feels a pair of ghostly hands on her throat and the rest of the opera follows her interrogation into who (or what) handled her throat, and her gradual descent into a drunken stupor, with tragic results for Monica and Toby. 

Menotti was born on July 7, 1911, in Cadegliano, Italy. At the age of 7, under the guidance of his mother, he began to compose songs, and four years later he wrote the words and music of his first opera, The Death of Pierrot. In 1923 he began his formal musical training at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan. Following the death of his father, his mother took him to the United States, where he was enrolled at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. There he completed his musical studies, working in composition under Rosario Scalero. His first mature work, the one-act opera buffa, Amelia Goes to the Ball, was premiered in 1937, a success that led to a commission from NBC to write an opera especially for radio, The Old Maid and the Thief, the first such commission ever given. His first ballet, Sebastian, followed in 1944, and for this he wrote the scenario as well as the score. After the premiere of his Piano Concerto in 1945, Menotti returned to opera with The Medium.

It is with The Medium that Menotti was established as one of the foremost composer-librettists of modern opera. The tragedy, about a fraudulent spiritualist caught between the worlds of reality, which she cannot understand, and of the supernatural, in which she doesn't believe, had a run of 211 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway (1947-1948). Menotti went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle award in 1954 for the musical play, The Consul; acclaim for, perhaps, his best-known work, Amahl and the Night Visitors, composed for NBC-TV in 1951; and the 1958 founding of the Festival of Two Worlds, in Spoleto, Italy, which is devoted to the cultural collaboration of Europe and America in a program embracing all the arts, as well as the 1977 founding of its American counterpart in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1984, Menotti was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the arts. In 1991, he was chosen the 1991 "Musician of the Year" byMusical America

Media Contact:
Mary Brennan